Show me a young child that doesn’t ever bite, push, shove, hit or throw and I’ll show you a pig that flies. These behaviours are just part of the territory that comes with being little. They don’t mean that the child is ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ and in most cases are not a reflection of ‘bad parenting’ either. For most children they are simply down to biology. Biting, pushing, shoving, hitting and throwing are usually due to one or more of the following:
- Frustration (that they can’t have something or do something, or perhaps because they are being made to do something they don’t want to do).
- Feeling unhappy, sad or insecure (perhaps after the arrival of a new sibling, a house move or starting preschool).
- Brain immaturity and a lack of impulse control.
- Brain immaturity and the inability to regular their big emotions.
- Brain immaturity and the inability to understand the consequences of their behaviour.
- Brain immaturity and the lack of developed empathy.
- They can’t cope with an invasion of their personal space.
- They are not getting enough exercise, physical or messy play.
- Tiredness or over-stimulation.
- A need for adult attention and connection.
- They simply enjoy the physical sensations, particularly true of biting.
- Their parenting is too strict, authoritarian and controlling.
- They are modelling the behaviour of their parent, or that of another adult or child, close to them.
The easiest way to deal with hitting, biting, shoving and throwing is to look for the cause of the behaviour. Once you identify triggers, a good first step is to try to avoid these as much as possible. Importantly consider any emotional cues. By re-connecting with your child and spending more time playing, rough-housing and enjoying fun ‘special time’, these unwanted behaviours usually dramatically lessen. Giving your child more control over their daily activities, choices and self care also helps hugely too. Come up with a strategy to help ‘in the moment’. The first step, and indeed the key here, is you.
Your reactions and your behaviour when your child is behaving violently are perhaps the most important predictors of whether you will be able to extinguish the behaviour. Remember you are modelling to your child the behaviour you want to see from them, which means you need to be calm, kind and respectful at all times. If you yell, spank, put the child in time out or on the naughty step you run the risk of perpetuating this cycle of behaviour for years to come. The key is to put a big space between your child’s action and your reaction.
Once you have taken time to calm yourself, it is time to respond to your child with your full attention. Put the phone down, abandon your conversation or shopping temporarily and focus on your child and nothing else. At this point it’s also time to keep them, you and anybody else in the situation safe too by moving away from roads and dangerous objects. Calmly and simply tell your child what they have done wrong and why. You could say “You mustn’t hit Johnny, it hurts him and now he’s crying”, “Owwww, you bit me, that really hurts, we don’t bite people” or “Stop – you mustn’t throw toy cars in the house, they will break something”. Next, help your child to understand and name their feelings. “I can see you didn’t like it when he hugged you and it’s OK to be angry, but you mustn’t hit people”, “Did it feel good to bite me? Are your teeth hurting?” or “Are you bored with being in here?”. After this, help your child to find an alternative, more acceptable solution. You could say “you can come and hit this cushion if you want to?”, “How about I give you an apple to bite into?” or “”Shall we go in the garden so you can throw your ball around?”.
It is important to realise however that responding gently won’t elicit a magic response or prevent your child from acting in the same way the very next day. Until their brain matures you can expect lots more similar behaviour. In time, with consistent (and I cannot emphasise how important that consistency is) responses your child will learn and in time the behaviour will cease. This could take weeks, months or even years. There are really only three things that really eliminate these totally normal behaviours once and for all: time, patience and understanding. The last two you need by the bucket load.
If this has piqued your interest and you’d like to learn more about gentle, but effective, discipline; check out my Gentle Discipline Book – available HERE in the UK, HERE in the USA, HERE in Canada, HERE in Australia/New Zealand and HERE in the rest of the world.