Learning how to cope with and help a child who lashes out physically is a task many parents will have to face. Even the best-behaved, gentlest toddler will occasionally act out by biting, hitting, or kicking those around them. After all, children are just learning to regulate and respond to their emotions, so occasional outbursts are to be expected.
Thankfully, with the right techniques and frame of mind, you can help guide your child to more peaceful, calm interactions with others.
Understand Why Your Child is Acting Out
To help figure out the best way to react to your child’s aggressive behaviour, you’ll want to zero in on why your child is behaving aggressively in the first place.
Some toddlers will hit, bite or kick as a form of experimentation. Other times, your child may lash out because they are feeling frustrated or angry and don’t know how to express it. It’s also common for a child to react physically when they are feeling insecure or intimated. The cause may even be something as simple as teething.
Give Yourself Time to Calm Down
It can be easy to feel angry, frustrated, or overly-emotionally when your child bites or kicks—especially if they end up hurting you. (Any parent knows how surprisingly strong even a tiny toddler can be.) If you need to give yourself a moment to calm down before you address your child, take it.
An angry, upset, or scared child will react much more positively to a calm parent, so you’re doing the best thing for both of you by caring for your own emotional needs first.
Gently Prevent Experimental Hits
If you’ve determined that your toddler is kicking or biting out of curiosity, then the best thing to do is find a way to calmly stop them from making contact until they become distracted by something else. For instance, if they’re trying to hit another child, gently hold onto their hand and begin to redirect their attention “How about we look at what is over here instead’.
If they’re attempting to kick you, step far enough away that they can’t reach you. You can also, calmly, tell them “How about we go kick a ball instead?” but be sure not to yell or frighten them. Typically, a toddler will move on to another experiment quickly.
Help Them Learn That Hitting Hurts
Very often, a child will bite or kick another without actually realising that it can hurt the other person. They’re just now learning to link actions with consequences, so this can be a very challenging task for them. If they try to physically hurt you or another person, calmly and gently tell them, “Hitting can hurt so-and-so. You don’t want to hurt them.”
If they’ve already hit someone, you can allow them to be present while you console and care for the injured child, so that they can see that their actions have reactions. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t want to shame your child; instead, treat it as a learning experience.
Help Your Child Find Healthy Ways to Express Their Emotions
Being a child is hard: they’re dealing with brand new emotions and situations, and have yet to learn how to best handle negative feelings. It’s a natural instinct to react physically when angry, afraid, or confused and more healthy reactions often need to be learned and practiced.
You can help your child by asking questions that allow them to open up about their feelings “Sharing is hard for you, isn’t it?” “What Tommy said to you made you feel angry, right?” or by allowing them to lash out in less destructive ways such as screaming into a pillow, popping bubble wrap, crying it out, etc.
Make sure your child feels safe and supported when sharing their emotions and opening up; don’t judge or mock them for reacting strongly to what you may feel is a small issue.
Learn Your Child’s Triggers
Once you’ve learned what sets off your child, it can be far easier to prevent them from physically reacting. If you’ve noticed that your child always acts up when they’re somewhere over stimulating (like a busy store, public transport, or a loud relative’s house), you can take steps to make the situation more comforting for them.
This can also help you keep an eye out for any aggressive behaviour and stop it before it starts. For instance, if they tend to hit and kick when they’re asked to share, you’ll know to keep a close eye on them on playdates, and you can be ready to jump in to help redirect their emotions.
Give Your Child Something Else to Bite
If your child is showing a strong urge to bite (including other children, you, toys, or even themselves), giving them something else to bite on can greatly help out. While this is especially important to consider if your toddler is going through a painful teething stage, even non-teething children may go through a biting phase.
Putting things in their mouth is a common way children learn to explore, and biting is a natural extension of that. A teething ring or other teething toys, kept within easy reach of your child, can help them through the urge to bite.
Teach Your Child to Use Expressive Language
Sometimes, the right words can make all the difference. Your child may not know how to communicate their fear, anger, or other negative emotions to you effectively—and so end up resorting to physically expressing themselves.
Help your child learn how to say what they’re feeling in clear, simple ways: “I don’t like that,” “I don’t want to do that,” “I feel scared,” “I’m angry about this.” Not only may this prevent their hitting or kicking, but it will help you to better understand what is setting them off.
Set Clear Behavioural Boundaries
Since your child is just learning what behaviours are harmful and unwanted, and what behaviours are healthy and encouraged, they need clear, focused guidance on what is okay. Take time to explain to your child that it is never okay to physically hurt another person or to destroy objects.
Instead, give them examples of healthy ways to express their feelings. And be sure that the line between okay and not okay is clear and constant; it will be impossible for your child to tow the line if the line keeps changing.
Don’t Shame or Hurt Your Child as Punishment
Even if you get frustrated or angry at your child’s aggressive behaviour, don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Your child is likely lashing out because they are sad, scared, hurt, or angry, and what they need to heal and feel safe is love, validation, and comfort.
It’s possible to let your child know that what they did was wrong, while also making it clear that you love them and know what they did was a mistake that everyone has likely made.
Remember That Your Child Isn’t “Bad”
If your child lashes out physically, it can be easy to worry that they’re a “bad” child—but that’s simply not the case. All children have to learn how to express themselves clearly and healthily, and even the “best” child will be prone to some slip-ups.
It’s equally important to remember that just because your child acts up doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. This is often a normal, natural part of growing up; it’s not a sign of you or your child failing.
With love, patience, and understanding, you can help your child stop hitting, kicking, and biting—and start expressing themselves in a safe, healthy way.