Sixteen-month-old Rowan Harrison runs up and smacks his four-year-old sister, Peyton, with a big smile on his face. “When she yells ‘stop’ or screams at him, he smiles even more and whacks her again,” says mom Adriana Harrison.
Melissa Wilkinson’s two-year-old son, Nathaniel, recently went through a similar stage. “He bit me so hard that I had to put ice on it,” she says. “There was no apparent reason—he wasn’t upset or frustrated.”
Experimenting and exploration
It’s fairly easy to understand when toddlers bite or hit out of frustration or anger. But what’s up with these little ones who wallop other kids while smiling or laughing? Are they taking some kind of evil pleasure in the suffering of others?
Not at all, says Susan Martin, a member of Toronto’s Centennial College Early Childhood Education faculty: “Toddlers are doing a massive amount of experimenting as they learn about the world.” They’re also operating at a very sensory, physical level, so it’s intriguing to them when the person they hit yells or cries or has some other strong reaction, she explains.
Biting can also happen as a result of this physical exploration. “The child sees a nice, fleshy arm and it just looks like something good to chomp on,” Martin says.
How to handle it
Toddlers haven’t learned yet that others feel pain as they do, she adds.
“Of course, it’s important to teach them that hitting and biting are wrong,” she explains, and offers these approaches:
• Deal with the situation right away. Toddlers have short memories, so there’s little point in talking about it later.
• Comfort the child who was bitten or hit: “It hurt when you got hit” or “Those teeth hurt.”
• Then talk to the toddler who did the hitting or biting, beginning with a no, but then using positive language: “No, we use teeth for eating food” or “No, we use the broom to sweep the floor.” (Martin says that when you say, “Don’t bite” or “No hitting,” the toddler’s limited understanding of grammar may mean that he only understands bite and hit and doesn’t realize you’re telling him not to do it.
• Avoid saying “Use your words.” Since the hit or bite isn’t the result of frustration or anger, it’s probably not possible for them to explain what they’re feeling.
• Plan to supervise very closely. After a child has tried biting or hitting once, it’s common to see the behaviour repeated.
Older toddlers with larger vocabularies and greater experience may be more ready to learn to understand how their actions affect others. Wilkinson says that Nathaniel had been bitten a few times by another child at daycare. “When he bit me, I made a really big deal about how much it hurt and how biting is not acceptable,” she adds. “He was able to make the connection between that and him getting bitten at daycare, and that he doesn’t like it and Mommy doesn’t either. It hasn’t happened since.”
Harrison says that when Rowan goes after Peyton, she usually picks him up and cuddles him on her lap. “That’s to protect both of them, really,” she says, “because Peyton is likely to give him a whack if he keeps it up! I mention that it hurts and then try to get him distracted with some other activity.”
“Parents are sometimes horrified when their toddler does this,” adds Martin. “Especially if they are happily biting others—it seems so primitive and animalistic. But an overly emotional reaction can be counter-productive. If you can stay calm, and yet be clear with your toddler, you’ll help him learn what he needs to get past this stage.”