Naptime Nugget #13 - Hitting, Kicking, & Biting! Addressing & Reducing Toddler Aggression

Toddlers have numerous reasons to explain why they bite. It is expected that these young humans will bite at one time or another. Toddlers have little empathy and cannot see the world through another's view. They are consumed with their own desires (as evidenced by the constant "ME DO IT!" or "Mine!" and other possessive statements and actions.) These youngsters do not have the verbal, social, or emotional skills to communicate or manage strong feelings and needs. So, when overwhelmed, hungry, tired, or stressed - they bite, hit, scream, and push to communicate. Toddler aggression is normal behavior. But, biting and other aggression does need to be stopped.

Below you will find the Naptime Nugget with effective strategies for dealing with aggression in toddlers in ways that match their developmental stage. In the video below I will detailed the main strategies and how to achieve them.

The reality is, it will take many lessons for toddlers to learn to channel their aggressive instincts to more appropriate responses. What you do will make all the difference!

There is one main word I use to discuss what toddlers need most to help them through difficult moments. First, think about what you need when you are overwhelmed to the point you are "losing it." For toddlers, the answer is HELP!

1. H – Have a plan. Deciding ahead of time the response you want to have will help you stay calm when yet another frustrating behavior happens. Be ready to:

  • INFUSE CALM with the INFLUENCE approach. In Envoy, Micheal Grinder details nonverbal strategies that help you get cooperation while promoting better behavior. Approach from the side in a non-threatening manner and avoid eye contact in order to avoid a stress response in the child. Use a quiet “Private” voice so the toddler can tune into your message. After all, we do not want the child to run, fight, or freeze. Use few words – "No, biting hurts." We want to re-engage their brain!

2. E – Eliminate distraction. Help the toddler "hear" you by getting at the child's level and setting down anything else (even a book in hand can distract from your message).

3. L – Label what you observe. Show empathy for the child who has been bitten. Help soothe the child, offering comfort.

4. P - Prompt the child who has bitten. What can the child do to help? Promote the behavior you want to see in the child through modeling and reinforcement. "You're mad! ... Sounds like, 'I'm MAD!'" Other prompts might include a gesture such as "help" or "stop." Wait. Watch. Listen. Attune. And label again. HELP the children communicate. See NN #52 Blog post for a video illustrating a helpful response to aggressive acts.

Here is the sign for help and a video illustrating it.

When aggression continues (and it will for some time, this will be a difficult lesson to learn!), be patient and keep teaching. Look for patterns and try to identify when the aggression occurs and with whom. Watch for signs the child is going to bite and prompt before the action happens. You may need to shadow the child and redirect many times a day. Below are several resources to learn more.

Remember to avoid labeling the biter. Better to label the child as needing help. After all, I have not met one adult who is perfect when it comes to appropriately dealing with strong feelings, stressful situations, and conflict. These toddlers have only had a couple of years of experience. They will get it! How do I know? Because they have YOU to help them! Keep on loving up those kiddos! And, know... what you do matters!

Excellent Resources to read and share with others who care for the child:

Useful Article from the Center on the Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL): Responding to Your Child's Bite

"Ouch! That hurts!" - Excellent article from the University of Maine.

Coping With Aggression and Teaching Self-Control by Zero to Three

NAEYC - Understanding and Responding to Children Who Bite

How to help reduce and address aggression -

Helping Young Children Channel Their Aggression: Strategies for Managing Aggression in Young Children

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