I heard the shriek of pain from the other room. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I raced out, knowing, just knowing, that my own little SweetPea had somehow injured little Alex.
Few things make me feel more self-conscious than pushing, biting, snatching toddlers. Double the anxiety and embarrassment if it happens in public; nothing like all those eyes on me with their unstated expectations for me “do something” to control my kid!
Last week was one of those times. I was babysitting twins and had taken Nicky into the bedroom for a diaper change, when all of a sudden, I heard Alex screaming. I raced back to the living room, to find SweetPea looking at Alex with a mix of alarm, curiosity, and amusement.
I picked up Alex, offering comfort. I was trying to figure out what had happened, when I saw it. Teethmarks on Alex’s toes. “Did you bite Alex?” I asked SweetPea. “Dah,” (yes) she said, shaking her head up and down. And my heart sank.
How do you teach kids not to hurt each other? And how do you do it without becoming a bully yourself?
Why not punish?
Parents and caregivers often resort to timeouts, yelling, or other punishments to curb toddler aggression. But these punitive measures do more harm then good, actually increasing further misbehaviors. They fail to teach kids how to control their impulses or how to act in socially acceptable ways.
“Punishments erode relationships and moral growth.” – Alfie Kohn
How can we handle biting, hitting, pushing, and poking positively?
Understand the causes
Toddler aggression can be caused by many things: tiredness, testing cause and effect, experimenting with their physical strength, experimenting with their ability to evoke a reaction, attempting to connect with someone else, teething pain (especially true for biting), frustration, or anger. If you can determine WHY your child is behaving a certain way, it’s a lot easier to find a solution.
In the case of twin-biting, SweetPea was mostly trying to interact with Alex and Nicky. She was also overtired, having been too excited to take a nap in this fun new place.
Once you find the cause, you can decide how to help your toddler meet his or her needs in a more appropriate way.
I helped SweetPea find ways to play with Nicky and Alex that they would all enjoy like high-fives, blowing bubbles, gentle pats on the back and shoulder, and peek-a-boo. I pointed out how much they smiled and laughed when she played with them this way.
I once had a tot who went through a social biting phase. He wasn’t being mean, he wasn’t angry; he just wanted to let me know he was there. He would run enthusiastically toward me, only to chomp my leg when he reached me. I taught him how to give regular, butterfly, and bunny kisses. Then when he started running toward me, I’d bend down and remind him, “Kisses, kisses” or “Can I have a bunny kiss?” With that we soon kissed the teethmarks on my leg goodbye!
If there are certain situations that tend to “bring out the monster” in your little one, then stay close. Your physical presence can calm them, and in the event that they do try to strike out, you are near enough to hopefully intervene and prevent or minimize harm. After SweetPea’s bite, I did stay close to her as much as possible, knowing that in her tired state, her impulse control was going to be low. Had this been a playdate instead, we likely would have headed home.
If you’re heading into a challenging situation spend time practicing the appropriate behavior ahead of time. Focusing on and rehearsing the positive behavior is much more useful than telling kids what not to do. “Show me how you will hug Nathan gently.” “Let’s practice taking turns with the ball.” Once you’re there, you can use simple cue words like “hugs” “gentle” or “take turns” to remind your child.
It seems counter-intuitive, but letting kids play rough actually decreases aggression. Rough play teaches kids self-control and how to limit their force. It also gives them practice finding alternative methods of resolving conflict when the stakes (and emotional intensity) is lower. Not sure how to roughhouse? Start out with a classic pillow fight or sock wrestling!
If you find yourself with a child who is persistently hitting, poking, or biting, you can also try to address it in play. You’ll know when you’ve hit the right chord when you gets lots of laughter. Some things to try are gently using the kid’s own hands to hit himself while saying, “No, don’t hit me” in a silly voice, having stuffed animals bite each other while the other one gets mad, playing Rough and Gentle (“Hit the pillow rough; now hit it gentle.” “Stomp as hard as you can. Now stomp gentle. Even more gentle.”) I’ve had great luck stopping kids in the process of hitting by loudly saying, “Where are your gentle hands? Are they under the sofa? Are they in the closet? Oh, look! They’re right here!” (patting their actual hands and looking delighted.)
Point out consequences to others
Sadly, our best efforts to prevent or redirect our toddler’s aggressive impulses will not always be successful. So when our little dears DO hurt someone, as SweetPea did with Alex, we can point out what the other person is experiencing. “See how Rala is crying? He didn’t like getting pushed. ” “Do you hear Maya saying, ‘No, no!’? She doesn’t like that game. Let’s find a game that’s fun for everyone.” If possible, help your child make amends. “Maggie is very mad that you knocked down her tower. Let’s help her build it again.” “Connor is sad. Can you find his bunny?”
After comforting Alex, I pointed out to SweetPea how her friend was crying. “Biting hurts!” I had her bring over Alex’s blankie, then showed SweetPea how much Alex enjoyed toe-tickling.
A few days later, SweetPea started to bite me. Her teeth actually connected with my shoulder, but instead of chomping, she pulled away, said “no-no,” and signed “hurt.” “Yes,” I replied, “biting hurts. Let’s have a snuggle and play Super Baby instead.”
“Dah!” she said as she leapt into my arms. “She’s learning,” I thought as my heart soared.
Tell us: What’s your secret weapon in defraying toddler aggression? Leave a comment below.