How to deal with a toddler who hits or bites

Your toddler has hit or bitten another child again, and you’re beginning to think he has a problem. But don’t worry, it’s normal. Honestly.

Research has shown eight out of 10 children are hitting others at the age of 18 months, and kicking, pushing and throwing things at people peaks at 20 months. So aggressive behaviour starts even before the terrible twos – although the 2018 New York University study also showed two-year-olds hitting nearly four to six days a week.

But while aggression in toddlers is clearly very common, it doesn’t make it any easier if you are one of the parents who has to deal with it, and master the art of looking suitably contrite as another angry parent tells you their child has been hit or bitten by yours. Again.

So why do young children become aggressive, and what should parents do about it?

Why do young children get aggressive?

There can be many reasons for young children to lash out, ranging from frustration, anger, jealousy, attention-seeking, tiredness, hunger, a simple loss of self-control, or just testing boundaries to see what they’re allowed to get away with.

“Parents should try to think why the aggression is occurring, and perhaps keep some notes to describe the situation and what happens beforehand – is it jealousy, a lack of attention, tiredness, hunger?” asks David Messer, an Open University professor of child development and learning.

And Norland nanny and maternity nurse Louenna Hood, who runs the  Nanny Louenna app (nannylouenna.com/nannylouennaapp), says: “Aggression usually occurs in children due to frustration. It’s not unusual for a toddler to have a tantrum if they don’t get their own way, or if they feel they aren’t being heard or understood.

“Over-tiredness is also a huge factor in children’s tolerance and mood, which is why it’s so important for babies to learn a good sleeping pattern from a young age.”

How can you stop children becoming aggressive?

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Hood says simple measures like making sure young children get lots of time outdoors to let off steam can help reduce or stop their aggression, and she points out that, as children learn from their friends and elders, it’s important to always be a good role model.

“From toddler age, set clear boundaries over what’s right and wrong,” she stresses. “Children love feeling the security of having boundaries and you’ll find they’re happier if they know you’re in control.”

A good bedtime routine and a focus on making communication as easy as possible will also help make aggressive behaviour less likely, she says.

“A consistent bedtime is key to all children’s behaviour.  Between 7pm and 3am is when children have their deepest sleep, so be sure they’re in bed and can enjoy an undisturbed sleep.

“Communication is a huge part of every child’s development.  If your toddler is finding it hard to communicate through their words, learn signing together so they can express themselves.  If you understand them, it stops the frustrated tantrums.”

How should you deal with aggressive behaviour?

While some parents may think hitting a child if they hit their friend will show them how it feels and stop them from repeating the behaviour, Messer says such tactics are unwise.

“This is a difficult topic,” he says, “but the general advice to parents involves not responding to the aggression with aggression, but to restrain the child if necessary and not to escalate the situation. The attention given by creating a scene may in a strange way be rewarding to the child and so can end up encouraging more aggression at later times.

“Sometimes it’s useful to overemphasise the hurt that’s occurred, to work with the child’s empathy – especially if the aggression is to an adult.

“It’s also very useful to discuss the issue with the child when there’s less stress and the situation is calmer – ask why they carried out the aggressive act, what they were thinking about, what they thought about afterwards. Avoid blame and getting into an argument, instead try to show concern and understand what the child is feeling.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Try to discuss the issue with your child (iStock/PA)</figcaption>
Try to discuss the issue with your child (iStock/PA)

He says that although toddlers won’t be able to express their feelings well, it’s worth trying this, and explaining to them how their aggression affects others.

But however you deal with your child’s aggression, it’s important to remain calm, agrees Hood. “Don’t let your child know you’re affected by their bad behaviour – don’t shout or get upset, just calmly tell them what their consequence is and follow it through,” she advises.

Hood points out that consequences will differ depending on the age of the child.  A toddler, for example, could be denied an ice cream they’d been promised, and an older child might be sent to their room until they apologise.

“Once they realise the bad behaviour only has a negative effect on their own happiness, they’ll stop,” she says.

Deal with aggression immediately

Hood stresses that it’s vital for parents to take control of the situation, rather than just hoping aggressive behaviour is simply a stage their child is going through and that it will pass on its own.

“If a child’s aggression isn’t dealt with, then it will only escalate as they get older, which is why this type of behaviour must be dealt in the early stages,” she says.

“I often see toddlers hitting out in anger and their parents not reacting because they’re ‘only little’.  But if that behaviour continues, it becomes a lot harder to manage when that little toddler grows into a strong six-year-old.”