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

Sep 7, 2016
By Sarit Silver
Young mother and baby girl

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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Sarit Silver

As a pediatrician, Sarit listens carefully to both children and their parents in order to create a comfortable environment for care and build a trusting relationship with each family. She enjoys providing support and education for families during the growth and development of their children, offering advice for everyday issues like tantrums and picky eating as well as acute and chronic illnesses. To keep healthy, Sarit stays mindful about her food choices and enjoys hiking. She fosters stray cats and volunteers with Cat Town Oakland, a cat cafe and adoption program. Sarit graduated from New York University and completed her residency at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland. She is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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