Toddlers, by nature, are sweet and kind, but they don’t always have the words or skills to work through their big feelings and emotions. They don’t yet have the words to express their feelings or needs in order to get what they want in a socially acceptable way. They have not yet learned to regulate their feelings, so big feelings may take over their behavior. When they are upset or frustrated, a toddler might bite, scratch, or hit you or another child.
It can be startling for parents when their toddler starts biting or hitting out of nowhere, but there is usually a reason behind it:
It could be that your toddler is teething and looking for relief any way they can get it.
Sometimes your toddler just wants to see what happens if they bite, hit, or push. These behaviors usually get a big reaction from grownups, which children may find rewarding.
Toddlers can harm others when they are frustrated and they do not have the words to express themselves.
Hurting may be a way for a child to get what they want. If pushing a friend out of the way to get the toy first works, then that toddler might keep using that tactic.
You want your child to be well liked by his friends, so during play dates or at the park, watch your toddler closely to prevent problems before they start. Look for signals that your toddler is getting upset, such as raising their voice, kicking or throwing toys, crossing their arms, etc.
When you see your toddler acting in a way that tells you they are getting frustrated or angry, that is the time to intervene. Get down on your child’s level and tell him what you see. “I see you stomping your foot.” Then name the feeling. “Are you feeling angry?” Help him to say how they feel, begin to regulate those feelings, and then identify what they want. “Let’s take a deep breath together. That’s better, good work. Now, can you use your words to tell me what you want?”
Your toddler depends on you to help him learn how to behave with others. You are his secure base he can turn to again and again when he is having difficulty. Your open arms invite him to learn the skills he needs in a loving way. When you do need to remove him from the situation, it is important to remain calm yourself, and speak to him in the same gentle way you would like him to talk to you and others.
Sometimes, you will need to remove him from the situation for a few moments to help him calm down.
If you see your toddler acting in a way that isn’t gentle, such as throwing toys or sand at another child, quickly remove your child from the activity.
Tell your child why they had to stop playing and what the next step is going to be: “Lauren, you threw sand at Cameron and that made him sad. We are going to have some quiet time away from the sandbox to settle down and talk about why we don’t hurt our friends.”
When your child has calmed down, after a minute or two, you can let them return to their activity.
You may need to repeat these steps a few times.
Toddlers have a big capacity for love and affection, but sometimes they need to be taught how to be gentle with others. We can model this behavior for them in our interactions with our own children, such as:
Stroking their hair
Rubbing their back
If you have a pet at home, you could demonstrate gentle ways to pet the dog or cat. If your toddler likes to play with baby dolls or stuffed animals, you could also show your child how to gently tend to them.
You can also support your toddler’s gentle side by giving them praise when you see them playing nicely with others. When your child is playing well, give them lots of attention and talk about it: “Conrad, you are doing a great job of taking turns with your friend.”
And when your child is being sweet with you, you can also let them know: “Oh, thank you for that BIG hug. It makes me feel so special when you hug me.”
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Kalina Glover-Moresi.
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