Aggressive Toddler Behavior (Hitting, Biting, Spitting)

In this episode: Janet responds to a father whose 2.5-year-old is acting out at home and at school by biting, hitting, and sometimes spitting when she doesn’t get her way. The toddler’s dad says he’s tried a respectful approach to curb her behavior, but it seems to be getting worse.

This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to a letter from a father who is concerned about his daughter’s aggressive behavior.

Here’s the letter I received:

Janet, our 2.5-year-old is very smart, very caring and daring. She doesn’t fear easily. Loves to read. Loves to play by herself and is extremely strong-willed. We’ve been following RIE principles since she was six months old. When she was 18 months old, her speech was delayed, possibly because we spoke four languages at home.

In the last two to three months, she’s picked up so fast that it is no longer an issue. She has been going to daycare since she was 18 months old, and lately she’s been very aggressive in dealing with peers who try to take away her toys. She doesn’t like anyone in her personal space. She has been biting other kids, regardless of size. No amount of talking to her has helped. We even read her Teeth Are Not For Biting on a regular basis. We have tried telling her to express herself in other ways, telling her teachers or expressing her frustration in other ways. She understands this, and will repeat it if we ask her what to do in such a situation.

Even at home, if we take away something from her, about one in five times, she’ll resort to hitting or spitting. Trying to calm her down by telling her that we understand she’s frustrated, angry, etc., hasn’t helped in preventing future episodes.

We have a second one on the way and are concerned about curving this behavior early. Any suggestions would be helpful. – A concerned daddy.

First of all, I love how he just tagged that at the end: “We have a second one on the way,” because this happens a lot in my conversations with parents. I think when we’re in these situations where we feel like we’ve got a lot going on. Now we’re having another baby. Our child is having difficult behavior. Maybe to us, it just seems like our issue, but the fact that there is another baby on the way is actually, I’m sure, a huge factor in his daughter’s behavior, because children feel this shift.

Births are mysterious to us as it is, and we’ve got a frame of reference for what’s going to happen with the pregnancy and having the baby and how that’s going to go. But for a young child, all they know is people are talking about something that’s going to change their life, and they don’t really understand how and what the implications are and what that means in terms of their relationship between them and their parents, so it’s a huge mysterious, scary thing for most children.

And then, there could also be… sometimes the mother’s not feeling very well at this time, and so that makes it even harder because the child senses the parent isn’t really up to speed. As I was reading this letter, I was thinking to myself, “Something’s obviously going on with this little girl.” And then at the end, ah-ha.

And actually, there’s another part in this story about all the languages. That another bit of stress going into the pot there at a time when children are figuring out how to speak, how to say all these words, and exploring the subtleties and learning these complicated things, and then there’s four languages that this child has learned. That’s pretty amazing, and this is a lot of work that this little girl has done to be able to achieve this, and there’s stress involved in that. There’s a lot of stress involved. It’s hard enough to figure out how to express yourself to people, and then express yourself in daycare to those people that don’t know you as well as your parents, and now I’ve got four languages that I’ve got to sort out, which words I say to who. So, I’m not saying that this is a wrong choice for these parents to make, but there is going to be an effect on the child, and I think that needs to be recognized that when children have stress, the way they express it is through their behavior. It’s not reasonable.

So I appreciate this parent, his interest in being so respectful and telling her not to do these things and having her read books about it. I believe what he says that she understands and that she can repeat it back to him, but that doesn’t conquer her impulses. Impulses are not reasonable. They don’t make sense. They are just feelings that come popping out of us at this age. So talking to her about this behavior is not going to help.

What’s going to help is first of all understanding it, understanding that her feelings really make a lot of sense. Her behavior makes a lot of sense when you consider the four languages, the daycare, and now this big huge one, the biggest one of all, “My life is changing, and I don’t really know what that’s going to look like, and I feel the shift already happening.” It’s scary, and so she’s going to be lashing out. It makes a lot of sense.

One thing that we can always say about children when they’re aggressive is that they are uncomfortable on some level. It might be just a small level. You know, I don’t really feel like I’m getting a safe response to this, that I’m not being stopped, and I feel out of control, and nobody’s stopping me. It could be that level of discomfort, or something bigger like I’m scared of my parents because they scream at me when I act this way. I can see their anger, or they punish me physically, and I don’t know why I’m doing these things, and now I’m getting completely rejected for them. It’s that total fear that happens.

But most of the time, it’s somewhere in between those things that children are feeling, that make them behave aggressively.

Now, this dad says the behavior is mostly in response to someone taking something from her. Well, why would she want someone to take something from her? She’s not going to have a good reaction to that right now. When she’s feeling … I’m feeling a little sensitive. I’m feeling a little tense. I’ve got a lot going on, and now you’re taking stuff from me. It’s like that makes a lot of sense that it’s taking her over the edge, and her impulse is taking hold in those moments, so that’s another part of this that I would acknowledge.

“I need to take that from you.” She gets mad. “Yeah, you didn’t like that. You’re mad,” and meanwhile, your hands are up, and you’re blocking the hitting. “I see. That makes you want to hit. That makes you want to spit.” If you could ignore the spitting as much as possible, that would be great. Not ignoring her, but not making a big deal about the spitting if it’s really … If there’s time, and she’s still spitting, I’m going to escort you to the bathroom where you can spit safely, something like that, or over the sink. But, not having a big reaction to that, because that will only create more of this behavior.

So acknowledge how much she doesn’t like something, and in your mind, realize this is putting her over the edge because it’s like all of us. If we’re having a really bad day, and now somebody says the wrong thing to us, we’re going to go off. That’s sort of where she’s at. She’s in a stressful period of life, and the slightest thing could put her over the edge. This isn’t forever, but this is what she’s in right now, and she needs help with it.

And regarding somebody being in her personal space, be there for her if you can, when you can. Be her, what I call a buddy guard, and if somebody’s coming to close and you see her getting upset, that feels a little too close for you. I see. So have your hand there in between them. Be ready for her to last out. Maybe ask her to step back, or ask the child could they step back a bit if that’s appropriate. That’s what I would do as a teacher. That’s what I would do as the parent.

I also have to point out that the book … I’m not aware of this book, but Teeth Are Not For Biting, that’s just funny to me because teeth are for biting, aren’t they? I mean, they’re not for biting other people, but they’re definitely for biting, so that confused me, and that’s one of the reasons that I love Magda Gerber’s advice to use real, honest, person-to-person language with children.

We’ve all heard a lot and read about probably about the importance of connecting when you correct, and we’re not connecting when we’re saying, “Teeth aren’t for biting.” Or, “We don’t hit.” Or, “We don’t bite.” Meanwhile, the child is, “Well, I hit. I bite.”

So that real, honest language which, I believe the most helpful way is saying, “I won’t let you bite. I see you want to bite.” Or, if it’s after the fact, “I saw that. You’re having a hard time. Sorry I wasn’t there to stop you.”  But really letting that child know that I understand you have the impulse. I don’t blame you for having the impulse, and I realize you can’t control it right now. Not that we’re going to say all these words, but this is the attitude. I realize you can’t control yourself right now, so I’m going to be there to stop you.

It would be great if the teachers could be there to stop her in the act. A lot of times with biting, we can do things like give her something on a necklace, a teething ring or something that, “Here. You can bite this. I see you feel like biting.” But really understanding that impulse and that she’s not bad for having that impulse, that would be saying that this thing that’s coming out of you that you can’t control is a major defect in you. That only creates more fear and discomfort, and therefore, more uncomfortable behavior like this.

So, the key is to create safety. When you have these feelings, your feelings are normal, and when you can’t help yourself in these periods, we’re going to be there to help you. That kind of response will help her to feel safe and comfortable in her relationship with these important people that are caring for her, both at the daycare and at home, especially, and there will be less and less of this behavior.

So instead of talking to her about these things like, “You really shouldn’t bite. This is what we want you to do there. We want you to express your frustration in other ways.” Instead of talking about those kinds of things, I would talk to her in a calm time about, “Wow, this change that’s happening can make children feel a lot of scary things. We understand that you probably have a lot of feelings around this, and we want to help you with them as much as we can. And maybe sharing some things about what’s actually going to happen that we know, how the day is going to be different. Sometimes you’re not going to like the baby, and you’re going to be upset that that baby’s there. All of that is okay with us.”

We’re on her side here. We’re not disappointed with her. We’re a team, and we’re going to do everything we can to actually help and let her know that we’re in this together and we understand you, and whatever we don’t understand, we want to understand because we treasure you.

So, what this dad said about we’ve tried telling her to express herself in other ways, telling her teachers or expressing her frustration in other ways. There is maybe some problem solving you could do together around this, but instead of telling her to do this and that, which is saying to her, “You’re messing up kid.” And offer her suggestions in a teamwork kind of way as like a coach. “Wow, what’s going on with you when you feel like biting sometimes? What else can you do, do you think? Maybe you could let your teacher know.” Offering suggestions from a place of, “Let’s figure this out together.” Instead of “This is what you’ve got to do, and you’re not doing it.” Which again, this girl is obviously so bright and sounds like a really capable girl. She knows what she’s supposed to do. She’s just having a hard time doing it right now.

So letting her know that we want to help, we want to figure this out, taking the judgment out of the picture. Throw that judgment in the trash because the judgment will only push you further apart when what you need is to embrace her in this process.

She is only two and a half. She’s very smart. She’s daring. She’s fearless. She loves to read, and all of these things, but she’s still only two and a half. That’s so tiny, and that’s so tiny for these impulses and to try to understand a pregnancy and speak four languages and be in daycare with people that don’t really … You have to express yourself to them to get your needs met, and there’s more kids around. There’s stress there, and again, not saying that stress is bad for kids when it’s age-appropriate stress, but it does have an effect, and her behavior is a very common effect of this.

So, not making a big deal out of it, trying to be there when she has the urge to bite, trying to help her with that urge. Hopefully the teacher’s taking that same attitude, being on her team. That will help a lot.

That is how we can curb this behavior, but you know, it’s still going to flare up in the next year to two years, to three years maybe. It’s going to flare up because she’s going to be in this process of transitioning into a sibling, all the different stages of now that sibling’s crawling, and now they seem more like a person to her. Now that’s more of a rival. Now she’s walking. So, it’s going to be a while like this. Not quite this intensely, but we can expect this kind of behavior, impulsive behavior in children dealing with this transition.

I hope some of that helps. Thank you so much for listening everybody, and again, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame is very applicable to this talk today, and it’s available on Amazon and Audible and Barnes and Noble and in ebook. And for a complete understanding of how to handle aggressive and all other behavior, my new No Bad Kids Course gives you the whole picture along with an abundance of encouragement and confidence. Check it out! 

We can do this.



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you Janet! What if my child is on the receiving end of a similar situation: girl a few months older than my daughter hits, tackles, pushes my daughter on occasion when we are together and I’m usually not hovering over the two of them to stop the older girl. Today my daughter was hit very hard in the face. Should I not put my daughter in this situation at all and/or my husband and I have been thinking about how we need to be more assertive when the two are playing together as to stop any hitting, etc. The older toddler does have a new sibling, and we are also expecting another; I want to keep my daughter safe and it does feel like this is harm that I shouldn’t subject her to. Please help!

    1. This is a very valid question. My toddler’s cousin hits and scratches constantly (both are two) and the parents and grandparents don’t do anything about it. The onus is on ME to protect my child or to let them “both figure it out”. Is this appropriate for two year old children? I am very resentful about it. My daughter’s skin was broken last time and everyone was busy making sure the hitter and her parents were not feeling bad. I have decided to simply not take my daughter around them any longer.

      1. My son is 5 years old he is in kindergarden and im having alot of trouble with him in school.he is hitting,spiting,kicking the teacher,he does not listen or focus/puts attention.He throws everything to tje floor amd does not sit still.He mainly does this when he is around kids and people.I dont know what to do

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