Biters, Hitters and Kickers, Oh My!

Biting 315

“Your child bit my child” is something no parent wants to hear. Whether it’s kicking, biting, hitting or grabbing, aggressive behavior is something nearly all children experiment with, says Phaenarete Osako, a doctor at Presbyterian Medical Plaza Pediatrics.

Children of any age can display aggressive behavior, and age is important to determine what’s really going on in a child’s life. “Toddlers usually bite for completely different reasons than 3- to 6-year-olds,” she says. “Toddlers have very little impulse control. Plus their language skills are just starting to surface, so they can’t even communicate that you took their toy. They’re also at an age where they want to do everything themselves. All of that bundled together results in frustrated biting, kicking or hitting. It might not be aggressiveness, per se. It’s just their means of trying to communicate.”

Older children might display aggression because they haven’t learned any other way to handle their emotions or communicate effectively. “Aggressive behavior can persist, especially if it gets the child what he or she wants, or if no one stops them,” says Osako. “It’s really important that parents figure out what triggers their child and intervene as soon as possible.” Following are tips from Osako to help curb aggressive behavior.

Stay calm. Remember that you are the grown-up. The worst thing you can do is bite them back. That only shows that what you’re saying is not OK, is actually permissible.

Be crystal clear about what’s acceptable behavior. Tailor your talk to your child. If your child is young, keep it short and sweet: “We don’t bite. Biting is bad.” It may sound mean, but kids get it. Older children can handle a little more explanation, but in the heat of the moment, short and to the point works best.

Intervene and diffuse. Take your child out of the situation, and then acknowledge their feelings, but reiterate in easy-to-understand terms what went wrong.

Have your child apologize. Once your child has calmed down, have them say they’re sorry. “Even if they don’t mean it at first, they’ll realize an apology is important, too,” says Osako.

Give your child options. Reiterate that being angry is OK, but biting or hitting is not. Instruct little ones to instead “use their words,” such as “no” or “stop” or “I’m mad.” Older children can be taught to stop and count to 10 when angry or take deep breaths.

Be just as swift with praise. Tell your child, “Good job! I like the way you said no!” or “Way to count to 10! I saw you do it.” Children really want positive reinforcement.

Anticipate potentially difficult situations. Ensure your child is well-rested and well-fed before social gatherings and play dates.

“Any child may display some aggression, especially after a significant life change, such as a move or divorce, but anything prolonged should be shared with your physician so we can make sure there are no underlying conditions,” says Osaka. “I think sometimes parents are embarrassed and want to try to handle it on their own. If it’s not working, we’re here to help. We can be a really good sounding board, and often that’s all parents need.”

Regan White is a local writer and former biter. Without the wisdom of Dr. Osako, Regan’s mother bit her back to end the streak. Against the odds, Regan has gone nearly 30 years without incident.