Kids’ Health Questions: What Do I Do If My Toddler’s Biting or Hitting?

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Question: My 2-year-old is starting to hit and bite his siblings. How do I stop him?

Answer: Kids can hit or bite at any age, but it’s usually the ones under 2 exploring this kind of violence on a regular basis. While their smacks and nibbles may not leave lasting damage, you’ll want to make it clear that this kind of behavior won’t fly. And since kids this age can’t really grasp the point of a time-out, you have to respond in a different way.

One effective strategy is to withdraw your attention for about 30 seconds. That means if you’re holding them, put them down, and don’t interact for half a minute. It’s not as severe as leaving them isolated in a corner for minutes on end (which they wouldn’t understand at this age anyway), but toddlers don’t like to be ignored. It’s an unpleasant, concrete consequence that they’ll eventually learn is a result of their hitting or biting.

Another helpful tip is to loudly say “ouch!” when they hit or bite. Loud sounds are startling for young kids, and they’ll learn to associate your yelp with their action. If they’re hitting or biting their older siblings, teach the older one to say  “ow!” right away, too. Giving the big brother or sister a specific plan of action can help them feel in control and less inclined to retaliate or run off crying.

You may be wondering why you wouldn’t just respond with a firm “no!” I believe showing pain by saying “ouch” or “ow” is what teaches your child that the behavior is having a negative effect on others — that’s more transparent than just saying “no” and implying the behavior is not allowed.

But be patient if your toddler doesn’t quite respect your authority immediately. A mom recently came into my office and told me that she started saying “ouch!” very loudly when her 15-month-old would bite her, and the toddler laughed in her face. I explained that laughter can be a response to something unexpected, and advised her to keep delivering the loud reactions. Eventually, the biting stopped!

Distraction is also one of your biggest tools when it comes to children under 2. If they’re not being violent, but are acting fussy or uncooperative, then distract, distract, distract. Sing, bring in a toy, point out the cars driving by — whatever it takes to redirect their attention.

And finally, it’s important to model good behavior, so no spanking or slapping wrists. This will just encourage your kid to copy you and hit back. Instead, use your words — just like we tell them to do.

No matter how young they are, this is the best way to praise what they’re doing well, and let them know which behavior could use some work.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.

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