Toddlers a Little Person Emerges : My Toddler Bites! Coping with an aggressive child

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Q: Our son keeps biting the other children at day care. Why is he doing this?
A: Day care is a fun but challenging place. Your son is learning to master new skills, and he has to share toys, games, time, and attention from staff, all of which can lead to feelings of frustration. The best solution is to figure out when tensions are rising and step in before things escalate. Ask your child’s key caregiver(s) to watch closely, and if she sees your child becoming frustrated, for example, trying to take a toy from another child, to act quickly and distract him with a different activity. If biting happens, she should say firmly, “No biting—it hurts,” then remove your child from the play area and keep him with her for a couple of minutes. The child who has been bitten should also receive some positive attention. Make sure that your child gets plenty of praise and encouragement when he behaves appropriately. Biting is a very common behavior in young children, but very few continue with it once they start school.
Q: When we visit my friend, my daughter hits her children. Should I cancel our play dates?
A: Avoiding the situation will not help your child learn how to behave appropriately, and may actually reinforce her aggressive behavior. Being in an unfamiliar environment could be making her feel insecure and hitting is an effective way to gain your attention. If your daughter finds it difficult to be with new people, try inviting your friend (and her children) to your house first so she can get used to them on familiar territory. When she seems confident with this, introduce gradually longer visits to your friend’s house. Spend some time sitting with your child at first—don’t just send her off to play while you catch up with adult friends. Settle her into an activity with the other children, and stay with them for a little while. Check in regularly and make sure to give her plenty of praise and encouragement when she is playing nicely. This will build your daughter’s confidence and social skills, encourage more of the behavior you want to see, and let you keep in touch with your friends!
Q: My child seems so rough. Will he grow up to be a bully?
A: Boys tend to engage in more rough-and-tumble play generally. As long as he is not hurting the other children, it’s probably nothing to worry about. If your son does hit, it will be in the heat of the moment; he is too young to think about doing so on purpose. Bullies act the way they do because they have learned that being aggressive is an acceptable way to get what they want. Start your son off on the right track by setting some clear, simple rules so he knows how you expect him to behave, for example: “Keep your hands and feet to yourself,” “Play nicely—no hitting,” and “Use your words, not your hands.” Praise him for following them. When there are arguments, step in and show him how to resolve things appropriately, since children learn by watching and copying their parents.
Q: When he’s upset my son bangs his head against the wall. I’m worried he will hurt himself!
A: Seeing your child behave in this way is upsetting, but try to stay calm. Head-banging is probably your son’s way of dealing with very strong feelings of anger and frustration that he does not understand yet. Your best strategy is to calm the child, help him label the emotions he’s feeling, and help him identify other acceptable outlets. Most children will quickly realize that this behavior hurts and will soon stop. If you give in and panic, your son will use this behavior all the more to get what he wants.

If your son is banging his head at other times and not just when he is having a tantrum, this may be a sign that he is sick or in pain. Look for any other signs or symptoms and ask your pediatrician for advice. As your son’s language skills improve, he will find other ways to let you know how he is feeling.

Q: My daughter has been kicked several times by another child at day care. What should I do?
A: Offer your daughter plenty of reassurance and lots of hugs, and let her know that you are going to take some action. Unless you know them, try to resist the temptation to storm in and tackle the situation yourself by speaking to the child’s parents. This could make things worse and create lots of bad feeling. Remember that if your children end up going to the same school, you will have to share the playground for several uncomfortable years! There may be lots of reasons why this other child kicked your daughter. He or she may have hit or kicked at other children, too. If she isn’t doing so already, tell your daughter to steer clear of this child for the time being. Speak to the day care staff—share your concerns and check back to see what they are doing about the situation.
Q: Should I make my toddler apologize when he hits?
A: Apologies should be heartfelt and genuine, letting the other person know that you are truly sorry for what you did and how it made them feel. As a young toddler, your son is only just beginning to understand the impact of his actions on others. It will be some time before he is fully able to put himself in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. If you force him to apologize, he will of course learn to say what you want to hear, but he is not yet able to mean it. Making a child apologize, particularly after an upsetting incident, when emotions are running high, also runs the risk of creating another problem as they may genuinely feel they have done nothing wrong. Explain to your son what he did and how the other person feels, and model apologizing yourself when you make mistakes. In time he will genuinely feel and say “I’m sorry” when he is more able to see the world from someone else’s perspective.
Q: Ever since her sister was born, our daughter has become really unpleasant. We’ve tried buying her gifts but it doesn’t help.
A: A new addition to the family is bound to upset the balance of your daughter’s world. She is used to being the focus of everyone’s attention and is not going to be happy about sharing the limelight she has been basking in alone until now. Buying gifts can help to let your daughter know you are still thinking about her. However, a word of caution: Your daughter is probably feeling a little displaced, and is acting up to get some attention. If you then shower her with gifts, you will be rewarding this behavior, and she will do it all the more. Try to spend some quality time with her alone and ask her to help take care of her sister. When you do reward her, make sure it’s because she deserves it and not because you feel guilty.
Q: I’m worried about my three-year-old son copying his older brother. Should I keep them apart?
A: Children learn a huge amount by watching and imitating other people, particularly those they are close to. Unfortunately, you are not going to be pleased with everything your child learns this way. By the age of three, most children can distinguish between fantasy and reality, so your son will be aware that his older brother is only playing if he is acting out violent scenarios or play fighting.

However, if you really don’t want your son to be around when his brother is enjoying some rough-and-tumble play with his friends, draw your younger child’s attention to another activity rather than telling your older son to change what he is doing. Before long, you will probably be encouraging them to play together and you don’t want your older son to start resenting his little brother for ruining his fun.

Little nipper An embarrassing episode

When I went to pick my son up from his first day at day care, my joy at seeing him quickly turned to embarrassment and shame when they told me he’d bitten another child. Although he’d nipped me a couple of times at home, I couldn’t believe what he had done and just wanted to disappear. The staff were really kind and understanding, though. They explained how they had taken him aside for a couple of minutes to calm down, then helped him join in again with the activities. I tried it myself at home and he got the message really quickly. My son gets on much better at day care now. He still gets upset sometimes over sharing toys, but we have no more biting, so I don’t have to worry about what his caregivers will report when I pick him up.

Hitting, biting, kicking Some reasons why

  • Boredom

    If a child lacks stimulation, hitting is an effective way to get some attention—even negative attention in the form of scolding. Try to keep your child entertained with fun activities.

  • Tiredness

    None of us is at our best when we are tired. At these times your child is much more likely to lash out to let you know he’s had enough.

  • Hunger, thirst, or illness

    Young children whose language skills are just developing may struggle to communicate these basic needs. Look for early warning signs to prevent things from escalating.

  • Copying others

    Children learn a huge amount by imitating the behavior of other children and familiar adults—particularly their parents. If children see someone else get what they want by being aggressive, don’t be surprised if they try the same strategy themselves.

  • Frustration, anger, or upset

    Young children want everything “now!” and have poor impulse control, so when you set limits they will respond by showing you how they feel. As language skills develop, your child will be able to tell you how he feels, and aggressive behavior will reduce.

  • Needing attention

    Aggressive behavior is almost guaranteed to get a reaction from parents, so can be used very effectively by children.

  • Overstimulation

    Too much excitement can result in overenthusiastic play, and children may hit in the heat of the moment. Giving everyone a few minutes to calm down can help.

  • Trying to get something

    If aggressive behavior has been successful in the past, it is far more likely to be used again. This pattern can be changed by setting firm limits and responding consistently.

  • Trying to get out of doing something

    Hitting or kicking usually results in a child being removed from a situation. If your child doesn’t like a particular activity, he may act in a violent manner to avoid taking part.

Calmly confident A different approach

We always wanted our daughter to stand up for herself, so if another child was aggressive toward her, we used to encourage her to “Hit them back!” However, when she pushed her little brother over, we realized we had created a problem and needed to change our approach. We agreed on some simple rules and praised her for following them. Things are much calmer at home now. Our daughter is really confident, gets along well with other children, and knows how to stand up for herself without being aggressive.

Myths and misconceptions Is it true that…

Q: The best way to stop biting is to bite back?
A: No! This is a very risky strategy and may seriously hurt your child. Clear rules and plenty of praise are safer and far more effective at helping children learn how to behave.
Q: My child’s aggressive behavior is just attention seeking?
A: For younger children this may well be true—although there are lots of other reasons for aggressive behavior. If your child is attention seeking, the important question to ask is “Why?” Children need attention for a reason, so look at what you can do to help them.
Q: Some children are just more aggressive than others?
A: This is certainly true, but it does not mean that children are born that way. If children learn that aggressive behavior is acceptable and the best way to get what they need, then they will continue to use this approach as they grow up. If your child seems to be very aggressive, consider who he spends time with: He may be imitating this behavior from the people who care for him.
Q: I should practice what I preach?
A: Yes—you are your child’s most important role model. If you correct aggressive behavior but behave aggressively yourself, you give mixed messages and undermine the lessons you are trying to teach.
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