Note to Readers: Kids biting and hitting at school or the playground cause a stressful parenting issue that many of us would rather not have to address. Harsh punishments usually escalate the unwanted behaviors. It is important to understand why a child might hit, bite, or scratch and guide your child to more acceptable social behavior. Thanks to Wendy and Dr. Lynne for sharing their professional and parenting wisdom.

by Wendy Young

Physical acts of aggression such as biting, hitting and scratching are amongst the biggest concerns voiced by parents and educators of toddlers and preschoolers.  While it’s shocking and probably embarrassing when your child becomes physically aggressive, it’s not unusual behavior for young kids. When children are overcome with feelings such as anger, fear, frustration or disappointment, for example, because another child has possession of a toy they want, they don’t have the language to express it.

But the question remains, why does a child engage in physical aggression?

To answer this question, I’ll pull from an up and coming book, “Time-In, Not Time-Out”, co-written by Dr. Lynne Kenney and me. This soon-to-be-released book tackles some of the most challenging behaviors of early childhood and helps parents and caregivers respond in ways which pull children towards greater success.

To start off, let’s look at this from two separate perspectives; biological and social.

From a Biological Perspective: To a young child, physical aggression seems like the quickest way to get her point across, “I’m frustrated, mad, or overwhelmed.”  Not yet having the verbal skills, or the cognitive ability to process all that is going on around her or inside of her and put it into words, it’s no wonder that objectionable behavior becomes one of the quickest routes the child sees to get her needs met.  A child simply lacks the verbal skills to say, “Hey, that is my toy, I am playing with it, find something else to play with.”  Almost makes you laugh a bit, because when does a child get language like that?

From a Social Perspective: A young child doesn’t yet have the maturity or skills to relax, take a deep breath and express her frustration like an older child could.  Nobody is born with these abilities.  These skills will take time and require a patient, nurturing parent or caregiver to convey and model these abilities.  This is a process and must continually be demonstrated to the child in various areas of her life.

A Call for Help

Over and over again parents ask, “How do I punish my child out of this behavior?” The answer is, You Don’t. We teach children into new behaviors, we cannot punish them out of undesirable ones. Parents and caregivers need to take a deep breath and recognize that physical aggression is one way for a child to say, “I need help from you in figuring out how to do this better.”  Assume when your child bites, or engages in other acts of physical aggression, that she had no other choice available to her at the moment. She needs your support in finding better alternatives.

Wouldn’t life be easier for us big people, if we could look at every misguided behavior in this manner, every single time?  Yes, I think it would!

First Things First: Help the Injured Child

Okay, so the physical altercation has already taken place. What to do?

  1. Tend to the injured child first.  Offer comfort measures.
  2. Help both parties calm down.
  3. Allow the child who caused physical harm to make amends.  This does not mean making them apologize.  The child can apologize if he/she chooses, but that should not be insisted upon by the adult. Most importantly, you will want to help the child heal the relationship with the child she injured by allowing her to offer to fetch an ice-pack or provide the injured child with a stuffed animal or some other “lovie”.
  4. Engage both children in a soothing activity, if they are open to it.

The Final Analysis: Help the Child with Misguided Behavior

Tending to the injured child is just one part of the equation.  Your work is not yet done here.  Next, it’s time to help the child with misguided behavior learn some better ways to get her needs met in the future.

You can start by saying things such as:

  • “Biting (or hitting or scratching) hurts.  Let’s find a way to tell what you need.”
  • “It’s okay to be mad.  Everybody gets mad sometimes.  We can tell other people, ‘I’m mad!’”
  • “When you get really angry and don’t know what to do, you can ask for help.”
  • “It’s okay to say, “NO” when someone is doing something you don’t like.”
  • “You can get your mad feelings out by ripping up old paper or pounding on play-dough.”

What about Consequences?

Ah, the age old dilemma.  “When you mess up, you must pay for it!”  Unfortunately, we are still often stuck in an antiquated way of looking at childhood misbehavior.  Time-out and other aversive methods are counter-productive because they teach kids to bottle-up and repress their emotions. It punishes them for not knowing what to do. It also shows them that we have no skills or alternatives to teach them. Meeting a child’s needs and teaching her better ways to handle her feelings of upset, in the long run, supports her in learning to meet her own needs in socially proactive ways.

As adults, we are often fooled into thinking that a child’s behavior has improved because we provided them with consequences.  This is not exactly the case.  The reality is that behavior improves when one learns new skills.  Here’s to skill-building for all kids!

Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD is the mom of three kids still at home, an award-winning Child & Family Therapist and the founder of Kidlutions: Solutions for Kids. She blogs at Spin-Doctor Parenting {and teaching!} and is the behavioral health expert for momtourage.com.

Children need to learn to manage stress and anger in a healthy manner to minimize the chances of biting and hitting. A family that incorporates relaxation into their lives empowers children to have healthy coping strategies. The Indigo Dreams Series addresses stress and anger management for adults, teens, and children. Available in CD or download format.