Parents frequently ask me about why their toddlers behave the way they do? Why do they at times, get aggressive and push or grab toys from other children? They find some of their toddler’s behaviors disturbing, disappointing, and embarrassing. The symptom that parents bring up most frequently, usually at their child’s 18-month checkup, is biting of other children. Why does little Janie bite other children and is this behavior normal? Let’s break this down in today’s discussion that I have titled “Why Little Janie Bites“?
I don’t blame parents for dreading the call from daycare…”Mrs. So and So, your child bit another child again and it is time to find another daycare!” These calls evokes feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, and downright despair in parents. Even if their child is not expelled from daycare, the stress of such a call and the realization that they can do very little to change this situation is upsetting, to say the least. I can hear the distress in the parent’s voices when they bring the subject up at Janie’s checkup. So in today’s pedcast, I thought we would take a closer look at the origins and natural history of some of the aggressive behavior parents are likely to encounter from their children during the toddler years. Stay tuned.
What behaviors are we talking about?
What are the behaviors we are talking about? Biting is just one but there are others that I group into the disturbing category that I call unusual toddler behavior; behaviors that are unique to this age group (1-3 years of age), that are exhibited by otherwise normal children, and that are likely to disappear in time. When I use the verb biting in this pedcast, you could easily substitute any of the other aggressive behaviors we are about to discuss. I think of them as all the same thing. The aggressive behaviors are things like grabbing, pushing, head butting, hitting, and biting. Just spend a little time in a daycare and you will think you were in a bar with a group of drunken sailors watching the toddler’s go at it. Not a lot of diplomacy and self-control going on in that room. There is another group of behaviors that are somewhat unique to toddlers and disturb parents; those that are intended to give the toddler a unique sensory event. Things like rocking, head banging, spinning, and even masturbating but we are only going to focus on aggressive behaviors in today’s pedcast.
Why are toddlers so impulsive?
Why are toddlers so impulsive you may be asking yourself and is their impulsiveness normal? Well, I think the answer to the first question is simple… a toddler’s frontal cortex, the place where they think through behavior and its consequences just hasn’t developed to a point where they can make socially acceptable judgments about how to react. Janie was not born knowing right from wrong or how to deal with her own anger and she certainly doesn’t know what behavior is socially acceptable. Properly handling anger or disappointment are learned abilities that you will slowly teach her over years and that require a functioning and trained frontal cortex to master. As I said before, a toddler’s brain is just like the adult sailor’s brain under the influence of large amounts of alcohol. Neither can control their impulsiveness. Neither group, the toddlers nor the drunken sailors can stop their instinct to hit or bite, albeit for different reasons. They are up against the same problem. Impulses to act that are unchecked.
So you can see that a toddler who reacts to frustration by biting or hitting is normal since they don’t have the ability, the reasoning power, the practice or even the language skills to work through these situations. They just react and act on whatever impulse is driving them at that moment.
Actually these are the same impulses that we all have; moments of resentment, embarrassment, fear, anger, and sadness. And here is an important point to remember. Harshly punishing these aggressive behaviors probably won’t change the child’s near term behavior quickly. This child is caught in the stimulus/response cycle of thinking. (Frank took my toy and I am mad. I need to bite him). That’s not to say that you, as her parent or teacher, shouldn’t react. I’m not saying that. I am simply pointing out that you should not expect your response to change Janie’s behavior quickly. Rapid change is not likely to happen since Janie still doesn’t have the ability to think this through after your punishment. She still just has her rage that Frank took her toy. More on your response in a few minutes.
When do the aggressive toddler behaviors typically start and disappear?
When do the aggressive toddler behaviors typically start you might be wondering? It turns out that toddler behaviors are not exclusively seen during the toddler years. These behaviors can be seen as early as 9 months of age but typically are most prominent between 1.5-2.5 years of age. Biting for instance peaks between 22-24 months of age. And when should you expect these behaviors to disappear? This typically happens as a child’s language skills improve and they are able to express themselves without needing to resort to biting or other aggressive methods of communication. Two and a half years seems to be a turning point for most children and disappearance by the third birthday is the outer limit in my experience. Frequent hitting, biting, grabbing or pushing beyond a child’s third birthday starts to worry me.
What is Normal and When Should Parents Worry?
As a parent, when should I worry when my child exhibits these behaviors? Generally speaking, if your child shows aggressive toddler behaviors under the age of three years, I think this is pretty normal. As your child begins to learn to share and can express their wants and needs with words, aggressive toddler behaviors should fade in frequency. And remember, these behaviors have a lot to do with the child’s environment. I think it is clear that children who are in group care settings from a very young age exhibit more biting and aggressive behavior than those not in these facilities. These kids are often just imitating the behavior they see around them. But daycare or no daycare, I think three years is the upper limit of age a child should resort to these behaviors. Overly aggressive behavior in children three and above may be a sign of a problem, like a developmental delay (especially of language), an emerging behavior disorder like ADHD, or a child who is experiencing abuse. I have also read that self-biting beyond age three years may indicate severe anxiety or even autism but I have not seen this myself.
How should parents of Younger children handle biting?
Now here is an important aspect of the whole discussion about toddler behaviors, how should parents and other supervising adults react to these aggressive acts? Well, if your goal is to stop the behavior quickly, that probably won’t happen for reasons that we have already discussed. Toddlers just don’t have enough self-control, consequence thinking, or language skills to handle things differently. But that is not to say that reacting to this behavior is fruitless. A child will eventually need to learn to stop these things. Here are a few ways you can start that process:
-Show empathy toward the bitten? Maybe creating a little guilt and drawing attention away from the biter and toward the bitten might help.
-Make a timely negative statement if your toddler bites like “No Biting, Biting hurts”. But remember, if your response is not made very close to the time of the biting, it is unlikely to have any impact whatsoever but will, over time, have an inhibitory effect for future biting.
-And how about this one, try positive reinforcement when your child is restraining herself during times of frustration. “Good work Janie, Frank grabbed your toy and you just let it go.” “Nice job.”
-Or, model the behavior that you want your child to exhibit, like when you see them starting to tussle over a toy, show them how to solve this dilemma by showing them how to take turns or simply get another toy if one is grabbed from them.
-O course, your grandmother’s naughty corner is also an option.
– And finally, try and avoid frustrating situations for your child that is likely to cause them to bite or become aggressive…if possible.
-And here is my opinion…I feel that very harsh punishments like spanking the child, putting bitter things in their mouth, getting out a wooden spoon, or even biting them back are not necessary and may confuse your child or even make them more aggressive in the future.
So, let’s summarize what we have discussed today.
- What is a unique toddler behavior? They are behaviors that have three essential features:
-Aggressive behaviors that are unique to the 1-3 year old of age group
-Aggressive Behaviors that are seen in otherwise normal children.
-Aggressive behaviors that in most children will disappear as they mature.
- Why do toddlers in particular exhibit so much of this behavior?
– Primitive behavior goes hand in hand with toddlers, because of their lack of language, lack of experience, and impulsive nature. Time, patience and gentle corrections will solve most of these behavior problems over time. Your parents did this for you… now it’s your turn. Be patient. If you are unfortunate enough to have a biter as a child and are experiencing a lot of negativity from a daycare center or even worse, your child has been expelled from a daycare, I am sorry but try and not take it too personally. What do grandparents often say, “This too shall pass”.
- When should a parent worry about these behaviors?
-If your child hasn’t learned to handle frustration without biting or other very aggressive acts by their third birthday, there may be a bigger problem at work such as a significant developmental delay, autism, ADHD, or other behavioral disturbance. In this situation, by all means, consult that wonderful person you call your child’s pediatrician. I am sure they can be very helpful.
If you enjoy exploring topics in pediatrics with pedcasts, please take a moment to help spread the Portable Practical Pediatrics word by liking the DocSmo.com Facebook page, writing a short review on iTunes, or simply sharing an episode with family and friends. This is Doc Smo, broadcasting from studio 1E, hoping that when your child dishes out an angry bite, you don’t become too uptight. Until next time.