How to Approach Hitting and Biting – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 40

What should you do if your young child engages in hitting and biting? Our experts explain why it happens, and what are some effective ways to help them in this episode of Teach. Play. Love.

Biting, hitting, kicking, “I hate you!” Why does physically aggressive behavior happen in the early years? Where does it come from, and what can you do to deal with it proactively and manage it in the moment? Our early childhood experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss explain the many different underlying reasons why your young child might get physical, how to react when it happens, and how to help them work through their emotions.

You can also listen to this podcast episode on SpotifyAppleStitcher, and Libsyn.

Written by:

April 8, 2022


Rachel: Hi, Claire. I'm so happy to be back with you for another podcast.

Claire: Yes. Hi, Rachel. I think this is gonna be a really great topic that's gonna resonate with a lot of different families.

Rachel: I think so too. Today, we're gonna talk about what many people would call "aggressive behavior" in young children. We're going to talk about why it happens, which is really, really important, and then how to address it and how to deal with it proactively, but also how to manage it in the moment when feelings and emotions are high.

Claire: Yeah. And when we talk about aggressive behavior, we're talking about things like biting, hitting, maybe kicking. These are things that happen at home. We see them happening all over the place with young kids. It's actually a pretty common typical behavior, even though, in the moment, it feels awful, it happens frequently with young kids. So, let's talk about why, let's start with the why, why do young kids do this?

Rachel: Yeah. So, to me, this is always the most important thing to think about is why is this happening. We always say this phrase but it matters a lot here is behavior is communication. Children have very few tools available to them to communicate something. They don't have a lot of control in their lives either. So, they have a high level of frustration, they don't know how to manage frustration, so, aggressive behaviors, or behaviors that are interpreted as aggressive, are really available to them.

And let's face it, they get results. Some action happens when they use some of those behaviors. And I would even throw in some verbal aggression too. We've all, as parents, had a young child tell us how terrible we are and that they hate us. And it hits us right in the heart, and they don't know the power behind those words. But it is a way that they're figuring out how to communicate something else or take some control over the situation.

So, if we just look at it from that point of view, "This child's communicating something with me and this child is trying to control something, something's not going right here." So, maybe it's a lack of self-control, I was saying that earlier, they don't have a lot of impulse control. They just don't. Teenagers don't have a lot of impulse control, sometimes adults don't have a lot of impulse control, so, we need to really recognize that is a very sophisticated skill and young children don't have it. They do a lot of acting on their emotions.

So, some of it's just that, it's not very well thought out. Sometimes they get really overstimulated, it's too exciting. Kids love routine. All of them need routine, some of them more than others. If too many things are going on, they get really overstimulated, they go to those behaviors that get things to stop. And kicking someone gets things to stop.

Claire: It sure does.

Rachel: They're not being heard, they're not getting their way, they don't know how to get their way, so, they pull out that aggressive behavior, again, behaviors that are interpreted as aggressive. And I keep saying that because they don't mean to be aggressive, right? They're not doing it to hurt somebody, they're doing it for these other reasons we're talking about.

Claire: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. I'm just gonna jump in because what I've observed with my own children, who, of course, have done all these things, just like every other parent, and I've observed this with other people's kids in classrooms, at the library, at the playground, is that, frequently, the child who does the aggressive behavior or says the awful thing is even more shocked than the receiver, than the recipient of the behavior. Right? Because they maybe wanted, they were feeling frustrated, they were feeling overstimulated, they were feeling excited, and they did this thing, they hit, they kicked, they said something awful, and they maybe knew they were gonna make an impact but they didn''s just shocking. It is surprising, they did not mean it to be an aggressive act. Really, that was not the intention.

Rachel: And, you know, we all do what works. So, if you do something and it gets people to stop or it gets people to pay attention or gets people to change or it gets a parent to give in and do something different, and, frankly, it often does, then it reinforces that behavior too. And that can be hard to avoid that all the time but this child is trying to figure out how to control, how to communicate, right, how to make life work for them, what works, what doesn't. They're scientists, these little ones, so, they're like, "Well, what's gonna happen if I do this? Oh, look at what the result was from that." And they learn from all of these things.

It doesn't mean we're all gonna get it right. I had many not positive experiences and reactions to some of my children's behaviors that I will not, you know, go into at length on the podcast, but I will admit to them because they're hard. As a parent, when your kids do that, you get triggered too and you get that back of your brain, that amygdala just fires up, and so, you get really defensive and it can get into a really heated thing. And then children are like, "Wait, what did I do? This is not the result I was looking for." So, it is really important to be thoughtful about the why, what your child is going through developmentally, and to take a step back and think, "What's happening here? Did they not sleep? Did they not eat? Is a routine off? Have I asked them to wait all day?"

Claire: Oh, that's a big one.

Rachel: Have I asked them to share way too much? Have I asked them things they're not capable of doing? And this is how they're telling me that's not [inaudible 00:05:55] so well.

Claire: That's right. Yeah, and I really think that's a great segue because I wanna talk about what to do now. Or rather let's take a step back and talk about prevention almost. So, you just said, like, if you see it coming down the pike or you know...let's talk about some things that you can do if you've had a tough time with this this week or this month, some things that you can do with your young child to prevent that from happening again. So, one thing is what you just said, are there basic needs being met? Are they hungry? Are they tired? Have they had a really long day of waiting in line with you at the grocery store? Have they already run four errands with you this morning? You know what's gonna happen if you ask that toddler to run the fifth errand? They're gonna do something that's gonna seem aggressive to you. But again, that's not what's happening, they're overstimulated, they're overexcited, they're tired, they're hungry. All these things.

So, again, you've been taking care of your child's basic needs since the minute they were born, those needs still need to be met, as we all know, as parents, and if you don't pay attention to them constantly [inaudible 00:06:50] day, this is what's gonna happen. It's gonna result in this behavior of these words that feel aggressive to you.

Rachel: And we do often, like, that four or five errands, we're asking a lot of children. It's hard for us to have a day like that but we get to control it. We know when it's gonna end. We can make a decision about, "You know what? I can't do five errands, I'm gonna cut it at four." Our kids don't get that control when they're little. And, so, again, they are telling us, "This is not working for me."

Claire: That's right. Another great way to prevent these behaviors from happening is to, it's kind of building off of what we just talked about, but creating like a yes environment. And what that means isn't that you're spoiling your child and giving in to every single thing that they're requesting or that they want but it means that you're kind of setting your child up for success. So, the same way that I try not to double book meetings during the day or I try to remember to pack my coffee mug, if I want coffee that day, that's setting myself up for success, you're gonna set your child's day up for success. Right? So, you know, that the hitting behavior sometimes crops up on the playground when you go the busiest time of the day and there's not enough shovels in the sandbox for your child. And that always results in some kind of aggressive behavior because your child is overexcited, they feel frustrated. It's a perfect storm. And maybe they're hot and sweaty and they're, that's too much for your child.

So, setting up a yes environment, setting up a yes routine, so, you're gonna still go to the playground but you're gonna go at a less crowded time of day, maybe you're gonna bring your own shovel from home, maybe you're gonna do some things so that you're kind of preventing that overstimulation or the overexcitement or the frustration from happening. So, that's just a great way to just kind of head it off.

Rachel: And that's something we would do in a classroom too, we would evaluate, we'd observe, we'd take notes. Is this child hungry? What's going on with their diet? If they have, like, a really sugary breakfast and they're crashing, they're going to have more behaviors that are difficult. Did they nap? Did they...what happened today? Is there a time of day this is happening? Is it when we're asking them to share? And so, what you're talking about is what we would say is just meeting them where they are developmentally. So, if you're bringing their own shovel, you're not spoiling them or coddling them, you're saying, "This is where you are with learning how to share. And that's too big of a leap to ask you to do this." It's not, "You're telling me with your behavior you're not ready for that, but we'll get you there, but we're going to start with this."

Claire: That's right, exactly. So, you can do all those things, you can try your best to prevent it from happening. But, let's say, now it's happened. You've tried your best, now they've just shoved another child in the sandbox or they've hit you or they've hit their sibling or they've said something just truly awful to someone, what would you suggest a parent do in that situation?

Rachel: You're reminding me when I was a center director and I had my 3-year-old and she bit me at home and I thought, "No, no, no, no, no, I'm the center director, you can't be someone who bites anybody." And I was just mortified by that, I think I had her stay with my mom for a week because I'm like, "We're just gonna have to make sure that I don't have to call any parents and it was you that instigated it." Because it just triggers all these feelings of you're frustrated, if you're a parent of a child who's on the receiving end of it, it feels personal. So, the biggest thing, I think, is we just have to check adult emotions. We have to remember that this is triggering us, aggressive behavior or whoever it's coming from, gets us on the defense, gets our emotions going as well. And that does not help the situation. The children in those situations, when they don't have the capacity to handle it well, we don't help by also not handling it well. They need the model of calm, thoughtful.

Of course, we wanna be proactive, and that's always gonna be one of our strategies, but, in that moment, they need your calm. They need you to lend them the skills that you have honed over the years because they don't have them, so, they're borrowing them from you. And something we talk about in our centers and our programs too is how important the relationship is for children. And if they're not complying with something, if they can't do something to not get into deeper, "Oh, this is gonna happen if you don't do this," it just exacerbates the issue, or get way more into rules and compliance focus, just come back to the relationship.

We call that "bonding behavior." So, we're like, "Be a listener, be supportive." That child needs another person, and you're kind of co-regulating, "Come with me. I'm gonna regulate, I'm gonna kind of show you how this is done and lend that to you." That's what they need in that situation. And they learn and grow from that quite a bit. So, that's your number one go-to thing to do in those situations. Of course, we've already talked about quickly take some notes. What happened? What was diet? What was the situation that triggered this? What did they say? Making sure that you're thinking about your own reaction to it, this is something, again, we look at in the classroom because we often go right to the child that hit, kick, or bit. But what the other child, or person that received that behavior, they need the attention first. So, that, if the child that kicked something because they were frustrated and angry and they wanted some attention to help them out of that situation, and if we go right to them and kind of solve it for them, we have just told them that kicking is an effective way to get that to happen. So, not that we don't wanna ignore that behavior but just be thoughtful about your choice and your reaction in that situation so that you're not teaching a lesson you don't mean to be teaching.

Claire: Yeah. I think that modeling is really important. It reminds me of something that one of our colleagues, here at Bright Horizons, said to me a few weeks ago, which is, "You create the weather." Right? So, you are really in charge of lending your calm, like you said, modeling that, and you can certainly swoop in swiftly, swooping in and swiftly addressing the recipient of the behavior, and then turning your attention to the child doing all those things you said, quickly taking notes. What could've precipitated this behavior, this action? And then modeling for them how to calm down. Right? And, "Let's talk about how you're feeling," and, like, labeling some feelings, it's a great time to label some feelings, "you seem frustrated. You seem tired. Do you feel upset? Do you feel angry?"

And offer that as a question. Like, "I'm offering these labels to you," if your child is verbal, and then let them pick one out that fits their feeling. Right? And if they aren't able to do that because they're too upset, you're gonna be lending them even more calm, that it's okay, "Let's just calm down together, we're gonna take some deep belly breaths and figure out what went wrong here." Right?

Rachel: Yeah, and giving them those choices to learn about their emotions, the words. But also this is a very successful strategy, taking pictures of just collecting pictures in general. You can look at magazines together or pull things off of the internet or something and make your own little picture book of different emotions. Or just take pictures of their faces or the family faces of emotions so they can match the expressions and the feelings to the emotions, and that they have something to do in that moment to say, "This is how I'm feeling," so they can feel heard.

Then if you've proactively, again, you don't wanna do this in the moment, you wanna have this available in the moment, but if you've proactively come up with some strategies, like, maybe it's punching a pillow or maybe it's using Play-Doh or something kind of calming and soothing, or water play, or sand play can be really...anything sensory can be really calming. Music. Give them some options, those can also be in pictures or some sort of way that they can select what they're gonna do. "You know what I need right now? I need some music and some Play-Doh," or, "I need a calm spot with a couple books." And then there's also lots of great books about how to manage your feelings. Or we would call them "social stories," books that teach children some sort of social skill.

All that can be happening proactively so then, when you're in that moment, you both have a go-to tool because then you, as the parent, don't have to say, "Oh, like, what am I gonna do? Okay, am I getting triggered?" like, you have to work it out the whole time, you go, "okay, this is what we're gonna do. We're gonna talk through the emotions." I didn't do this successfully all the time but I know I did it enough because I remember my daughter coming to me, I have two daughters, one of them coming to me, maybe at about age 10, and they said, "I'm so mad and I don't wanna punch a pillow," and she's like rattling, "I know what you're gonna give me for my options and I don't wanna..."

Claire: Do you have like a script or something you could suggest for a parent to have in their back pocket, if it's a repeated behavior? Like, or something that works, I have three children at home, and one of them, who shall remain nameless, sometimes did do hitting when he was feeling upset or frustrated, a few times when he was overstimulated. And it wasn't something that was a one-time occurrence, and it wasn't ever outside of the house, it was primarily targeted towards siblings and my husband and I. And it was really difficult for me, I found it very upsetting and the back of my brain definitely lit up. And so, something that I found helpful that worked really well, and I know sometimes teachers do this in classrooms as well, is to use kind of a script.

And I wrote it out on a post-it note and I put it on the fridge and I had it in the bathroom and I had it all around the house where these things were happening because that's when kids fall apart, meal times, bath time, bedtime. And I just wrote a little script that was, you know, "That hurts my body. I'm gonna stop you every time," and just very common. I found that, if I had a little script ready in my back pocket, then I could rely on it, I could fall back on it. It was easier for me to stay calm. And then sometimes, depending on how upset he was, I could say something like, "Are you feeling sad? Are you feeling frustrated? Do you wanna hit a pillow?" I would come up with a solution, with a redirection. Sometimes that wasn't even that was too far gone for that, right, it would just be that script, "That hurts my body. I'm gonna stop you every time." Very even-keeled. "I'm not angry, you're not a bad kid, you're not a bad person, but that behavior, I'm gonna stop you every time but I'm gonna be very calm about it." You know, very, very even-keeled. Then the behavior just kind of started to fade away from the child.

Rachel: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. Any time you're reacting to it, it's not about them, it's not that, "Knock it off, stop it. You're being bad," or no labeling of them, it's, "this is what that behavior is doing, that's hurting me," or, "that's hurting someone," or whatever it is. Having them connect with what they're doing with a negative result, and being honest with them about it, not angry, not elevated emotions...

Claire: Right, very, very calm is the right way to go. So, just being very clear to them about the result is not...they're not typically out to have the impact that that behavior actually has, they just wanna solve one of those problems we were talking about earlier.

Rachel: That's right. Sometimes I think it's worth saying, at this point, that it sometimes is a one-off behavior. Like, they're testing it out, right? They test out what happens when I push my spoon off the high chair, like you said, they're little scientists, they test things out all the time. So, it might be a one-and-done behavior. If it's a repeated behavior, it takes time. Don't expect that you're gonna say one time, "Oh, do you know, go hit a pillow," and, like, they're never gonna do it again. Usually kids are gonna try it a few more times to see what happens, right? And that's just the way young children learn about the world.

Claire: Yep, yep. And I recognize too is that there are different situations on a big spectrum. So, there are some children that this kind of behavior gets really common and it can be very difficult. And it's easy for us to sit here and say, "Don't react," or, "don't do this," or, "talk them through that," but you can't even get through the day because it's happening so often. So, and then, also, there's the one off, one time, just an experimenter, and then they're so shocked, they're like, "Oh, I can't believe I even did that. I didn't know I had it in me to kick somebody."

So, there's that whole range. And if you have challenges that are feeling beyond what you can handle and you need some help with that, certainly, that's the thing to do is get some help with that, if you're worried about that. But try all these strategies proactively and in the moment. And then again, can't be said enough, meet them where they are, figure out what they are communicating to you, have all the empathy in the world for them being asked to do something that is probably above their capacity level. Just think of yourself in that situation, if you are someone who does never run, if someone who's like, "Yeah, okay, today's your day to run a marathon," you'd be really struggling too, that's kind of what we ask children to do all the time. Sometimes, developmentally, we're asking them to go from here all the way to here to fit our schedule. So, really thinking about all those factors and have those tools in your pocket so you can remain calm and be ready for the next time.