Biting and Hitting – What’s That About?
2 July 2021
It’s the dreaded conversation with your teacher or friend, your tiny tot has hit or bitten a friend. We can’t understand such an intense reaction to a social situation, it makes no sense to our mature brain and means of handling our emotions.. because let’s be honest, as adults we learn to internalise our real feelings and reactions, and rather implode when we get home, in private!
Toddlers have the luxury, to do whatever they like, whenever they like, as they don’t feel that social pressure, whilst they learn to navigate their emotions and how to “behave” in public.
What We Assume VS. What It’s All About
Your first reaction to an incident like this – “naughty”, “bad manners”, “mean”, “bad” or “rude”, “mortified”, “embarrassed”, or “shame”. The thing is with tiny tots, there is always, and I mean always, a reason behind their behaviour and we cannot take their physical reactions at face value, we need to dive deeper and understand the reason that is driving their reaction or behaviour. Although we want to react in an intense way as we feel shocked, we need to ensure our reaction doesn’t result in them learning to rather hide their feelings in the future, because of what we said to them and how we reacted.
What we can be sure of is that they are communicating something to us, they’re challenged, or they have an unfilled need, this could be:
- As basic as overtired or hungry.
- Struggling to use their words, or lack the language skills, to express their emotions, say how they are feeling or what they need.
- Overwhelmed emotionally, or by their environment (sounds, activity or lights).
- Need physical active movement.
- Wanting attention and to be noticed.
- A lack of impulse control.
- Retaliating by having a toy taken from them, a need for personal space, or behaviour towards them that they need to lash out against.
- Seeking oral-motor stimulation, or relief from teething.
Get Curious – What is Causing This Behaviour or Reaction?
We need to look past behaviour that we feel strongly about, and search for the reasons behind it. A strong outburst, such as hitting and biting, provides a physical, and satisfying, frustration outlet and release for them. It allows them to flex their muscles, literally, and explore their strength, power, and body limitations, and feel in control. If they are seeking attention, they are looking for a reaction, and at that point, even a negative reaction is still attention. Initially, it will start as experiencing, and experimenting, with it, seeing how it feels, and how you will react. What we want is to nip it in the bud at this point before it becomes a form of communication for them when they are overwhelmed, upset or struggling with their big feelings.
How Do We Then Handle It?
Establish a boundary – try to avoid reacting with punishment as this will not result in a resolution. It could perhaps perpetuate the behaviour – as now they know they will get a reaction, they are also even more upset, discombobulated, and out of control – leading to the need for more of a release – so more hitting and biting – a vicious cycle.
Essentially, they are looking to you for help, to share your calm with them, to let them know you’ve got this – you can be a safe space for them and stay calm for the both of you. Be calm, and confident, take control, with a firm but gentle and reassuring tone of voice, keeping the space open for them to express themselves verbally, not physically.
Boundary: “I won’t let you hit your friend. I am going to move your little body away from each other, to keep everyone safe”
Acknowledge: “Your hitting shows me you are frustrated”
Reassure: “It’s ok to feel angry, all your feelings are important, can you tell me what happened? I’ve got you, you’re safe”
Re-establish: “That is frustrating, I understand. Next time, it’s ok to say, “I need personal space”. Let’s rather go and jump on the trampoline and work those little feelings out”
If your tiny tot is teething or seeking a sensory input for oral-motor stimulation, try crunchy foods with different textures, teething necklaces, or mouth activities (such as, blowing bubbles, sucking through a straw, blowing feathers or blowing a whistle).
The great thing is they will grow out of this, as their emotional maturity develops, their language skills improve, and they learn self-control.
What Can We Do As Preventative Measures?
- Listen to their signals, and observe what is happening before the biting/hitting – who were they playing with? What were they playing with? Is it close to snack time? Or the end of the day? What are their facial expressions or body language looking like just before it happens?
- Provide the dialogue for them to express themselves, actively while they play, “I will give you the truck when I am finished playing with it” or “You’re too close, personal space please.”
- Validate positive behaviour as soon as you see it “You told him to give you some space, well done for expressing yourself so nicely.”
- Work in small opportunities for your tiny tot to feel in control, by allowing them to make their own choices.
I hope this helps to provide you with the confidence to empower your beautiful tiny tot. Remember these are just my own thoughts, learnings, understanding, and practical tips I apply and feel work best, everyone is different, and you need to do what is right for you and your tot.
Teacher Amy! x
Amy Stevens, more affectionately known as Teacher Amy is a qualified foundation phase and early childhood development teacher. Her mornings involve running a private play school in Sea Point, Cape Town and in the afternoons she offers in-home learning support sessions for children between the ages of 1.5 to 8 years old.