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Biters, hitters and kickers, oh my!

6 tips to stop aggressive behavior in its tracks

boy “Your child bit my child,” is something no parent wants to hear.

Whether it’s kicking, biting, hitting or grabbing, aggressive behavior is something nearly all children experiment with, said Dr. Phaenarete Osako of Novant Health Medical Plaza Pediatrics in Charlotte, North Carolina. “When your child does it, you might feel mortified. But 90 percent of parents are thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so glad it wasn’t my child because mine has done it before,’” she said. “It’s not a reflection on parenting skills. It’s incredibly common.”

Osako explained that children of any age can display aggressive behavior, and age is important to determine what’s really going on in a child’s life. “Toddlers usually bite for completely different reasons than 3- to 6-year-olds,” she said.

“Toddlers have very little impulse control," she added. "Plus their language skills are just starting to surface so they can’t even communicate that you took their toy, so biting seems like a pretty good option to them. They’re also at an age where they want to do everything themselves. All of that bundled together results in frustrated biting, kicking or hitting. It might not be aggressiveness, per se. It’s just their means of trying to communicate.”

Older children might display aggression, Osako said, because they haven’t learned any other way to handle their emotions or communicate effectively. “Sometimes they’re also just testing their limits. It’s our job to set those limits for them,” she said.

“Aggressive behavior can persist, especially if it gets the child what he or she wants or if no one stops them,” Osako added. “It’s really important that parents figure out what triggers their child and intervene as soon as possible.”

  • Stay calm. “This is the most important thing,” Osako said. “Remember that you are the grown-up. The worst thing you can do is bite them back. That only shows them that what you’re saying is not OK is actually permissible. Remember that your child is looking to you for guidance all the time. It’s our job to model good behavior for them.”
  • Be clear about what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t. “This means tailoring your talk to your child. If your child is young, keep it short. ‘We don’t bite. Biting is bad.’ It may sound mean but kids get it. If you use the same words over and over again, it’ll sink in,” Osako said. “It’s tempting to try to reason with your child and ask them to consider how they’d feel if someone bit them. If you’re 2, though, that doesn’t mean anything to you. You only know how you feel.” She added that older children can handle a little more explanation, but in the heat of the moment, short and to the point works best.
  • At the first sign of aggression, intervene and diffuse. “Take your child out of the situation,” Osako recommended. “Acknowledge their feelings but reiterate in easy-to-understand terms what went wrong.”
  • Have your child apologize. “Once your child has calmed down, have them say they’re sorry,” Osako said. “Even if they don’t mean it at first, they’ll realize an apology is important, too.”
  • Give your child options. “If you have a toddler, ask them why they did it. If they don’t have the words, help them figure it out,” she said. “Reiterate that being angry is OK, but biting or hitting is not. Give them other ideas for what else they could have done.” She recommended that parents instruct little ones to instead “use their words,” such as “No!” or “Stop!” or “I’m mad!” “Usually, that is enough to catch an adult’s attention to intervene before anyone gets hurt,” Osako said, adding that older children can be taught to stop and count to 10 when angry or take deep breaths. “Amazingly, children will listen to you and will try what you tell them to do,” she said.
  • Be just as swift with praise. “Be just as fast to jump in there and tell your child, ‘Good job! I like the way you said, ‘No!’ or ‘Way to count to 10! I saw you do it!’ Children really want that positive reinforcement,” Osako said. She adds that parents should set their children up for success by anticipating potentially difficult situations and ensuring their children are well rested and well fed before social gatherings, play dates and more.

If aggressive behavior becomes a pattern despite clear and consistent consequences, Osako recommended consulting a pediatrician.

“Any child may display some aggression, especially after a significant life change, such as a move or divorce, but anything prolonged should be shared with your physician so we can make sure there are no underlying conditions,” she said. “I think sometimes parents are embarrassed and want to try to handle it on their own. If it’s not working, we’re here to help. We can be a really good sounding board and often that’s all parents need.”