Aggressive behaviour is quite common among toddlers, but what do you do if your toddler bites a friend or is the one getting bitten? We look to both sides of the story, and have expert advice on what to do.
When another child intentionally pushed my 2-year-old son, Harry, down the stairs recently, I was furious. The situation was made worse when the child’s parent just said, “You don’t push people down the stairs!” and left it at that. But what could I have said? And what if it had been Harry doing the pushing?
How to deal with aggressive behaviour in young children is a tough one.
Aggressive toddler behaviour
Antonia, 36, has experienced the issue from both sides. “My 4-year-old, Daisy, was bitten a few times at nursery. The staff promised to keep an eye on her and the ‘biter’, and, thankfully, it soon stopped,” she says.
“But Daisy’s younger brother, Jay, 14 months, often tries to bite me, and I’ve also caught him about to sink his teeth his into sister a few times. I say, ‘No’, very firmly, but he hasn’t yet learnt to stop when he’s told. I’m really dreading the day he does it at nursery.”
Psychologist and family therapist Lawrence J Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, believes it’s important to understand the motivation behind aggressive behaviour when trying to resolve it.
“Most often it’s an expression of a child’s frustration, so we really need to help him to find other ways of dealing with it,” he says. “That might be drawing a picture of how he feels, pounding on a pillow or even doing a special dance to ‘get the grumpies out’.”
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But the most effective way to handle other children’s violence, according to Cohen, is not to let anything happen in the first place. “Nothing you do afterwards is nearly as effective as catching it before it happens. So try to make sure there’s more supervision of the toddlers involved.”
How should you react if your toddler’s the victim?
“If your child’s a victim of aggressive behaviour, you may feel angry towards the aggressive child and his parents,” says Patricia Carswell, parenting coach. “However you handle it, remember that you’re setting an example to your child. If you want to teach him to be forgiving, then shouting and criticising may not be the best approach.
How should you react if your toddler’s the aggressive one?
“If it’s your child who’s done the hurting, you’ll probably be appalled. But you may feel protective towards him, as you’re aware of the disapproval being levelled at him,” says Patricia Carswell, parenting coach.
“Try not to let your emotional reaction govern the way you handle the situation. Stay calm and don’t feel pressured into disciplining your child in a way that feels wrong just to placate others. It may help to speak to the other parents out of earshot of the children, to avoid misunderstandings.”
When your toddler’s doing the biting
“If Molly is playing with a toy and someone else wants it, she’ll bite them rather than give it up. It upsets me and I feel guilty, as I feel bad for the child who’s been bitten and worry what their parents must think,” says Caroline, 34, mum to Molly, 21 months
“I’m also really anxious about why Molly does it. We’re not a violent family in the slightest. In fact, home life is pretty settled and we don’t even argue! When I put her in her room and ask if she knows why she’s there, she says, ‘Biting.’ When I tell her it’s naughty, she says, ‘No biting, no biting.’ So she knows that it’s wrong but keeps on doing it regardless.
“She’s done it at nursery a few times and they ask her to apologise, but once or twice she’s just taken herself off to the naughty corner rather than actually say sorry!
“My health visitor told me that whenever Molly bites, I should make a fuss of the other child before taking Molly away and ‘out of play’. I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work. She also said that it’s just Molly’s age and she’ll grow out of it, but I can’t relax when she’s playing with other children.
“Molly’s great with younger kids – she’s very loving and likes to kiss them – it’s just tots of her own age and older that she feels the need to bite. It’s so frustrating.”
The expert’s biting advice
“A mistake parents often make is to talk too much to their child,” says educational psychologist Lynette Fry. “Molly’s mum has the right idea, but needs to be more clear-cut about it. Immediately after Molly bites, her mum should say, ‘No biting’, and take her out of the room with no further discussion and no eye contact.
“I wouldn’t put the child in her bedroom, as, assuming it’s upstairs, she’ll be getting a lot of attention on the way there. Try using another room close by and leave her there for about two minutes or until the crying has stopped. And close the door. Don’t talk to her about what she’s done – as Molly’s mum found out, Molly’s fully aware of what she should and shouldn’t do.”
When your toddler’s doing the fighting
“Jess likes to take out her anger on me and my son when she doesn’t get her way. She head-butts me and scratches, and attacks her brother when she can’t do something herself – like reaching a toy. She seems to think it’s his fault. It really upsets him as he loves her to bits,” says Su, 32, mum to Jess, 20 months, and Peter, 11.
“Jess hasn’t yet done it to someone else’s child, but that’s because I daren’t take her to playgroups, just in case. Her violent behaviour is fairly recent – it may be learned from my son who is sometimes violent towards me in front of her. I’ve tried saying no and removing her from the room, but she’s just the same when I bring her back. I hope she’ll grow out of it.”
The expert’s fighting advice
“Jess’s mum needs to do something about her son’s violent behaviour, as Jess will copy him,” says Lynette Fry. “Try rewards for days when he behaves well. Don’t make a big deal out of making Jess say sorry, as it just gives her more attention. Ask if she wants to say something to the other child and if she won’t, leave it at that and talk about the importance of saying ‘sorry’ later, when things are calmer.
“When Jess plays nicely, her mum should comment on it. Both Jess and Peter need high levels of praise for being kind or helpful – a little praise goes a long way. Given the right guidance, children grow out of hitting and biting.”
“I make her give a kiss to say sorry”
“My 18-month-old daughter Beatrice is going through a really nasty biting phase. I instantly remove her from the situation. If she’s bitten another child, I show her the bite marks, explain that it hurts the other child and make her give them a kiss to say sorry. I try not to make too big an issue out of it, otherwise she’ll do it again for attention.”
Pippa, 30, mum to Henry, 2, Beatrice, 18 months, and George, 4 weeks
“The naught step worked for me”
“My son Edward started to hit other children when he was about 20 months old, which coincided with the arrival of my second son. My main concern was that he was too young to discipline as he wouldn’t understand what was going on. But after lots of reading, I followed Supernanny’s advice and put the naughty step technique into practice. I couldn’t believe how effective it was! I made sure I followed her other advice, too, including positive praise and attention.”
Sarah, 33, mum to Edward, 2, and Toby, 8 months
“We give stickers to reward her behaviour”
“Since turning 3, Jaimee has become very aggressive. This often includes slapping, and always includes screaming in people’s faces and shouting a lot. But reward charts and sticker albums have proved very successful. After a certain number of stickers, she gets a reward – but stickers can also be taken away.”
Nici, 31, mum to Jaimee, 3, and Oscar, 1
“My son bit me”
“Tate went through a stage of biting when I was pregnant with my third baby. I think it was a reflection of frustration or over-excitement. He was about 16 months at the time and I was petrified he’d bite the new baby, and when he bit me, I was convinced he didn’t like me! I dealt with it by ignoring it, or asking him to stop and apologise. Luckily, 7 months down the line, he seems to have stopped.”
Nicola, 32, mum to Tom, 8, Tate, 2, and Luka, 7 months
“A ‘time out’ corner worked for us”
“Georgia is 18 months and 90% of her biting is focused on brother Jack. We’d tried shouting, taking toys away and ignoring her, but nothing worked. My health visitor advised a ‘time out’ corner. When Georgia was in the naughty corner after biting Jack, we’d make an over-the top fuss of him. Within 10 days, the biting had stopped and Jack now stands up to his little sister!”
Donna, 29, mum to Jack, 3, and Georgia, 18 months