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Gentle Discipline for Toddlers: Biting, Hitting and Impulse Control

We’ve entered the toddler stage that many parents dread: biting and hitting. It’s definitely not a fun thing to deal with, but it’s really common. Biting and hitting in toddlers is due to two big things going on in their development: an increase in independence combined with a lack of impulse control. Toddlers now understand that they are separate people, they know what they want and they are on a mission to get it. As Beatrice used to say, “Mama, I just want what I want!”

While Bea didn’t bite or hit in the same way as Claire is doing now, she expressed her frustration by throwing some really storming tantrums. I remember getting to this particular stage when Bea was a toddler and realizing just how much I did not know about parenting. I took the tantrums personally (and seriously), and I frequently came to the end of my rope. It was also at this point that I realized that I truly could not MAKE my child do anything she didn’t want to do. It was a humbling experience.

toddler eating an apple

Impulse Control and the Prefrontal Cortex

In the years since Bea was a toddler I’ve done more reading and talking to other parents about child development and discovered a fact that should be given out to all new parents when their babies are born. It’s that important.

Babies and toddlers lack the brain structures in the prefrontal cortex that allow for good impulse control.

What this means is that babies and toddlers simply cannot stop themselves from doing something they have the impulse to do. They get frustrated, think about hitting and the emotion overwhelms them. Then they immediately hit. The part of the brain that says, “hang on, maybe hitting my mom in the face isn’t such a good idea,” hasn’t formed properly yet.

Understanding that toddlers and young children are not yet developmentally able to control their impulses well (or much at all) helps me stick with Gentle Discipline when faced with really problematic behaviours like biting and hitting.  Being gentle doesn’t mean being permissive or letting kids think that biting is ok, because it’s definitely not, but understanding how a toddler’s brain is different from an older child’s helps me have realistic expectations of their behaviour.

Big developments in the prefrontal cortex happen around the ages of 1, 3, 6 and again at puberty. Research also suggests that this area continues to develop until the ages of 25 or 30. The prefrontal cortex controls “executive function,” which governs self-control and helps us decide what behaviour is socially acceptable or not. It’s one of the main parts of your brain that gets all blurry when you get drunk, which may explain why adults act more like toddlers when they’re sloshed.

It’s a mixed blessing. Low impulse control and little awareness of socially acceptable behaviour is a big part of what makes toddlers so pure and adorable when they ask you to nurse their stuffed animals or wave hi to every car they pass while crossing the street. It’s also what makes toddlers throw tantrums and bite their sisters.

What should you do if your toddler bites someone?

Even though a toddler really can’t be expected to show good impulse control yet, it’s important to make it clear that biting or hitting is not ok.

  • Use a firm voice, face and body language to say, “No hitting! Hitting hurts.”
  • Show them how to take turns or offer another toy if they don’t want to share.
  • If your toddler is biting or hitting because she’s overtired, hungry, tired or overwhelmed by too many other kids, go home and deal with those other needs first.
  • Biting and other problem behaviours are often an indication that a child is upset by something they haven’t been able to process yet. Reassuring them of your love through one-on-one time and your caring presence during tantrums will help meet those emotional needs.

Eventually your toddler will learn some more language and social skills, and her prefrontal cortex will mature, allowing her to remember to use those words and social skills instead of biting.

For more information about brain development in toddlers and preschoolers, check out Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s parenting courses.
Patty Wipfler at Hand in Hand Parenting also has some good techniques to use with toddlers who bite.

If you’re still looking for more insight on what Gentle Discipline is and how to parent a young child from that perspective, check out my ebook, The Parenting Primer: A guide to positive parenting in the first six years.

Have you been through a biting or hitting stage with your toddler? How did you teach alternatives to hitting?

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{ 20 comments… add one }

  • Rachael January 25, 2011, 7:10 am

    The Critter hits, but he doesn’t bite. It’s interesting: he started hitting the other kids once he got comfortable at school. They were pretty relaxed about it at school — but very firm with him, of course — telling me that it looked to them like he was experimenting. That stage lasted just a few weeks.

    Sometimes he hits his stuffed animals or doll (Johnny). Since they are his “friends,” we tell him to be gentle with them, too. I often wonder what Lawrence Cohen (Dr. Playful Parenting) would say about this type of play.
    Rachael´s last blog post ..On My Mind- 012411

    • michelle January 25, 2011, 9:34 am

      Interesting question Rachel. I remember reading about Dr. Cohen playing in a fairly rough and tumble way, and sort of co-opting gun play by transforming it into a “love gun”. But I think there’s a difference between play fighting and the kind of hitting or biting that arises out of real feelings of frustration and anger.

      Maybe hitting his stuffies is a safe way for The Critter to experiment with power? I remember reading Naomi Aldort (of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves) describing how to use dolls for children to act out their violent wishes safely, especially situations where an older sibling was jealous of the attention and love a new baby was receiving. Hitting the baby wasn’t ok, but hitting the doll was, and provided an outlet for those feelings.

      I wonder what The Critter thinks about hitting his stuffed animals. Can he tell you about it? Then you can speak up on his stuffed friend’s behalf in the context of the play scenario.

  • janetlansbury January 25, 2011, 9:43 am

    Michelle, thank you, it is so helpful for us to know that toddlers lack impulse control. They’re not displaying an evil side when they hit, bite or otherwise act out!

    I have spent a lot of time as a parent educator observing toddlers interact with their parents (and have 3 children of my own). I agree that we must disallow biting or hitting, but I’ve noticed that if parents get carried away with the idea of the “firm voice, face and body language” and even the mini-lecture “Hitting hurts!” it often backfires. The child senses that we are upset or angry rather than the calm, controlled teacher he needs us to be, and impulsively seeks to create that little bit of drama again.

    Obviously, if we are hurt, we can’t and shouldn’t hide that, but ideally, we want to give the message that these tests and experiments aren’t going to be allowed, but that they are no big deal…don’t phase us at all.

    @Rachael I don’t know what Lawrence Cohen would say, but in my humble opinion, let him hit the toys! Or at least give him something (pillows, etc.) that he can safely hit. Toddlers need to experiment, play out experiences and conflicts they’re dealing with, release a lot of pent up angst.
    janetlansbury´s last blog post ..Breaking An Abusive Cycle Through AP And RIE Guest Post by Suchada from Mama Eve

    • michelle January 25, 2011, 9:17 pm

      Hi Janet – I think you’re right that it’s best to have a rather neutral approach to hitting – letting them know it’s not ok but not making a big deal out of it. This is so, so hard sometimes, though! Hitting and biting really get parental emotions going when we’re the target, plus the stress and worry that your kid isn’t going to be allowed at playgroup or will never have any friends, etc, etc. Not always rational, but those kind of thoughts are often there.

  • Danielle January 25, 2011, 4:56 pm

    I think that if you nip that in the bud as soon as it happens you really shouldn’t have any further problems. I know that for me as a single mom of a boy there is no way that I can allow my son to get out of control because one day he will be bigger than me and I don’t plan to have one of those households where the parents are scared of the child. Children yearn to please there parents and truly if you understand your child’s personality you can use that to stop him from hitting. I know that my son get very upset if I tell him that I am disappointed in him and that he has hurt me in some way. I also use to make up song about hands are not for hitting and so he always walks around saying “Hands are not for hitting they are for high five and hugs” it sounds pretty cheesy but it worked.
    Danielle´s last blog post ..Dating While Constipated

    • michelle January 25, 2011, 9:28 pm

      Hi Danielle – My friend recommended a book called “Hands Are Not For Hitting” that sounds a lot like what your son says. It looks like it would be a good prompt for redirecting behaviour when a kid is starting to look like he might be feeling like he wants to hit. It sounds like you want to have a peaceful household as your son grows up. Have you read much about gentle discipline? My post Gentle Discipline 101 is a good place to start learning about it if you’re interested.

  • Danielle January 25, 2011, 10:09 pm

    Hey Michelle that is actually the very book that I have. But the book has a ton of words so it is not one that i think that a little kid will sit through but what I did is I made up a story to go along with the pictures and I think that helped us out ton. I do see it as a book that is very useful and can be read in full once your child gets older.
    Danielle´s last blog post ..Dating While Constipated

  • Leah January 26, 2011, 1:08 pm

    Kieran went through a phase where he started hitting and biting kids at daycare (and less often us at home). This was when he was right around 17-18 months but was still in the infant room. What ended up helping immensely was moving him into the toddler room with older kids. As soon as he moved he stopped hitting which told us a few things – 1. he maybe wasn’t been challenged enough in the baby room and was bored and acting out 2. being around older kids helped him model better behaviours and learn how to express himself better 3. he knows better than to bite or hit kids that are bigger than him!

    At home he still occasionally hits us when he is supremely frustrated. We usually react by saying NO! and showing upset on our faces. I usually say “oww, that hurts mama, be gentle” and then I have him demonstrate what gentle looks like (stroking my face or holding my hand). It seems to work so far. I definitely get the sense that the hitting comes out of not being able to communicate what he is feeling frustrated about and I am sensing that it will reduce as his language expands. Until then I continue to try to be gentle but firm.

    • michelle January 28, 2011, 9:53 pm

      Hi Leah, that’s interesting that Kieran stopped hitting when he was with older toddlers. I’ve noticed that Bea tends to really look up to older kids, both when she was a toddler and now. I think there’s an element of wanting to be accepted into the new group that makes kids less likely to act out.

      I find that I have the urge to scream and hit things when I get supremely frustrated too, so keeping that in mind makes it a little easier to be understanding with the girls. If self-control is difficult for adults who’ve had a long time to learn and practice keeping those urges in check, it’s no wonder toddlers and little kids hit and have tantrums!

  • suzannah May 5, 2012, 7:20 am

    what you’re saying about impulse control makes sense, but…my 2 1/2 year old has decent impulse control. he has never hit his father or grandparents, and his sister is the only child he’s hit that i know of.

    we’ve talked and demonstrated since he was tiny what gentle touch looks like. he now speaks in sentences and is able to communicate his wants.

    he wants to hurt me–and occasionally his sister. he doesn’t seem to care at all. my heart is broken.
    suzannah´s last blog post ..a church disarmed | struggling toward love

    • michelle May 5, 2012, 10:07 am

      Being hurt by your child really is one of the hardest things to bear as a mom, but believing that he’s doing it with malicious intent will only make it seem worse than it really is. Impulse control changes depending on who we’re with and how comfortable we feel around them, for adults and kids alike. Kids can “hold it in” around grandparents or teachers, but it all comes spilling out when they come back to the safety of mom and their siblings. Verbal ability helps, but even highly verbal toddlers don’t have the self-awareness and impulse control to express themselves verbally instead of hitting when they’re upset.

      Be gentle with yourself! He doesn’t understand how he’s hurting you. He’s just trying to express how he feels. And truly, it is a age-appropriate phase that many, many kids go through. When my kids went through the hitting/biting me phase, the most effective way of dealing with it was identifying the kind of situations that triggered their physical aggression and reorganizing our day to avoid those triggers as much as possible. Look for unmet needs or difficult emotions that may be lurking beneath the surface. Hang in there! It will get better.

      • Laura Evans May 6, 2012, 9:07 pm

        i agree with Michelle especially about avoiding triggers and looking for unmet needs. I am with my kids 24/7, i am a very hands on mom–wrestling, hugging, kissing, snuggling, dancing (with them in my arms, twirling)–so it is hard for me to believe sometimes when either of my sons who are both toddlers could feel neglected, but it does happen (I am a clean freak and clean a lot with the kids playing around me) and that is typically when hitting occurs–and a lot of misbehavior. They are trying to get my attention anyway they know how and usually their last resort is aggression.

        I also am tenderhearted and have a hard time not taking it personally, but understanding what is really going on with their little brains (ie toddler neurology, etc) really helps.

        So I guess, learning what you can generally expect by reading what they are developmentally capable of, and not capable of and then also looking at possible unmet needs, gaps in affection or showing of affection, should help.

  • Gabby May 16, 2012, 2:03 pm

    Hi Michelle! I enjoyed reading all the postings. It makes me feel good to know there are other parents who are going through the same thing I am going through with my daughter. She started hitting when she was around 18 months. At around 2 this phase seemed to have passed until she turned 27 months. She started biting and scratching other kids at daycare everyday. She stopped for a week and then she started doing it again. I am getting concerned as this has been going on for nearly a month and the fact that she is doing constantly worries me. I was told by the teachers she mainly do it for attention and feed of their reactions. Other few times out of frustration. She has not done that at home except for when she is very tired and upset. We have tried time outs, but they did not seem to work. We are practicing remaining very calm, telling her “biting is not OK” and moving on. This is what has worked best for us at home, but at daycare is another story.
    Any feedback?

  • Emily July 28, 2012, 6:20 pm

    Hi everyone,
    I am not a parent but I am a Montessori toddler guide and so have seen these behaviors first hand many times. When a child bites or is bitten at school we always let both sets of parents know and it is usually the biter’s parents who are the most concerned. They want to know if their child was the aggressor in the incident and it makes them feel embarrassed and ashamed that their baby might be looked on as “violent”. Children at this age though don’t have violence in them. They have ” I want that, give me that, I’m getting that”. Our biggest job is to teach them emotional language that they can use with others (I’m frustrated, please stop, I need space ) instead of using their physical body on a friend. When that does happen we give comfort to the child that was hurt and direct the other child to observe tears, hurt, screams etc. As for the parents, we let them know that this is part of their child’s development; they aren’t bad, they are lacking the language to express their needs, testing boundaries or simply trying to figure out how to say “hi”. I don’t know if this is helpful, I hope that it is. For all of you parents of young children, your child isn’t bad, it isn’t personal and they will grow out of it. Be firm, loving and consistent.

  • Aaron June 10, 2013, 9:15 am

    My wife and I are currently having troubles with our 3 and a half year-old little girl who is VERY strong willed and when upset she pinches, bites, slaps and even tried to headbutt the wife. We have tried taking things away for a short period, timeouts, talking to her about it and all seems to not be working. The wife and I are starting to worry it is us who are not disciplining her correctly. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. We love her so much but, we are at wits end how to correct her actions.

    • michelle June 10, 2013, 10:37 pm

      Hi Aaron,

      First off, I totally feel how frustrating it is to have a strong-willed kid who reacts strongly when they don’t get what they want. It can be so hard to know how to parent your child when they’re doing things like biting and pinching – stuff that is definitely not ok, but which is normal for 3 year olds. My eldest is still very strong willed and sensitive, and I believe she’ll always be a person who feels things very strongly and fights to get what she wants. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! The trick is learning how to help her moderate her reactions and empathize with others, to understand why she may not always get what she wants when she wants it.

      What works best for me and my eldest is to really tune in to what’s going on for her. Is she getting enough sleep? Does she feel like I’m listening to her and genuinely care about her feelings? Is she getting enough exercise, enough time and freedom to play on her own for long stretches? Am I disciplining her harshly because that’s what I think other people expect? (This one creeps in easily, especially when she is throwing a tantrum in public) Am I getting my own needs met, or am I struggling to get through the day on little sleep and feeling miserable about things?

      Kids don’t usually freak out like that just for fun, or to manipulate their parents. They’re trying to tell you that something’s bothering them. They have a need that isn’t being met. They feel unsafe, or disconnected, or upset about something and they don’t have the verbal ability to express that yet. So they have tantrums and lash out. The behaviour is a *symptom*, not the actual problem. Sometimes all my daughter needs to get back on track is more one on one time, when I’m really paying attention to her and not trying to do anything else at the same time.

      Here are some more discipline related resources that you may find helpful:
      The Happiest Toddler on the Block
      Gentle Discipline 101
      Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves
      Playful Parenting
      Kids are Worth it!
      – and of course, my very own The Parenting Primer

      Good luck! Three year olds can be so frustrating, but they can be delightful too. :)

  • Stephanie September 18, 2013, 12:19 pm

    Hi.
    I found you through Pinterest and I’m so glad I popped over. The content of this post is incredibly important for parents to know. It arms is with the science behind childhood and thus we are able to better set our expectations… and then our reactions to our kids. I am excited to read more of your blog… I think we may be thinking about similar things.
    Stephanie
    (you can find me over at http://www.parentingwisewhys.com)

    • michelle September 19, 2013, 10:29 pm

      Welcome, Stephanie! Expectations truly are key, in so many ways…

  • Healthy Beginnings Montessori July 23, 2014, 11:47 am

    Hi Michelle,
    I love this article, something that definitely needs to be shared with families. I’m the Assistant Director for a Montessori school in Plano, TX. Probably about 80% of my job is counseling parents on their concerns for their toddler’s behavior (especially when it comes to biting…oh my word, so many meetings on the topic of “biting”). In Montessori, we often redirect the child similar to the ways you listed above. I would love to share your article on our school blog, if you wouldn’t mind. Please let me know!

    You can find us at http://www.healthybeginningsmontessori.wordpress.com.

    I look forward to hearing from you!

    -Carli

  • walrus1998headshothippo January 14, 2016, 4:07 am

    Thanks for sharing :)

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