A recent question in my inbox: "My 19-month-old toddler is becoming very aggressive … biting, pulling hair. She has picked up this behavior at her day-care center, where it seems to be rampant. I am quite concerned about transferring her to another day care where she might be a primary aggressor and, therefore, not accepted or get kicked out. While I understand that some of this behavior is not uncommon at her age, it seems excessive to me. She is even doing it with me and is hard to redirect. How can I help my toddler before this becomes more difficult to stop?"
You are right, children don't have to be taught to bite or pull hair. It comes naturally. Biting (or spitting) is usually the first aggressive behavior a child demonstrates as the jaw muscles develop early. Pulling hair is also easy because the baby has a palmar grasp by 6 months and a very effective "pincer" grasp for small objects by 9 months. A child has to be more mature to hit, shove or kick another child because these acts take more coordination.
Biting in babies and toddlers is common behavior, but there is a different underlying cause in each age grouping. In babies under a year, biting is an extension of mouthing behavior and does not seem to be aggressive. Rather it seems to be exploratory - I wonder what would happen if I closed my teeth when Mother's finger is in my mouth?
Biting behavior in the toddler is definitely aggressive behavior and should be stopped. Both at home and at school if a toddler bites or pulls hair, the adult in charge immediately says, "No! Biting hurts!" And quickly removes the child from the other children. This must be repeated every time the child bites. The child will learn that if she wants to be with other kids, no biting.
Some parents and child-care workers tell me they can see a look in the child's eye that means "I'm about to take a big bite out of someone!" What they see is anger becoming aggression and the intent to strike. If they step in quickly, they can often redirect the behavior or minimize damage.
Wherever there is a group of toddlers, at school or at home, there should always be a "designated toddler watcher" or a nearby teacher who swoops in when he or she sees trouble brewing. And it follows that there should be a sufficient number of workers in child-care settings to prevent or handle such aggressive acts.
Prevention is always the first line of defense. Biting most often occurs when the young child is tired, hungry or overwhelmed by the presence of other children. The savvy adult in charge will notice the toddlers are playing roughly and suggest quiet games or a snack.
It helps to teach a young child that feelings have a name. "You are angry! Let's march around the room together until the angry feelings go away." Even if you are dealing with a pre-verbal child, tell the child that everybody gets angry and that you understand how it feels. But biting is not allowed.
If your daughter bites you (or anyone else) at home, use the same routine until she learns if she wants to be with Mommy (or other people) she cannot bite.
If the day-care center your daughter is in allows the kids to get frustrated or overtired or does not immediately stop such acts of aggression, change schools. The last thing you want her to learn at school is that she can continue to do hurtful things and that it is OK to hurt others.
Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal, and private answer to your questions.