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Ask Dr. Sears: Biting and Screaming

Q  My 18-month-old bites and screams to get what he wants. How do I stop this?

A Everything toddlers do revolves around their hands and mouths. These are their first social tools, so they like to practice using them. Unfortunately, that sometimes means that children this age do bite the hands that care for them. Don't take this annoying behavior personally; nips and slaps are often playful attempts at communication - and, at worst, expressions of frustration. Aggressive biting is most common between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, when your child doesn't yet have the words to communicate his needs. Screaming, too,peaks around this age. Believe it or not, your toddler's goal is not to drive you up a wall, but to discover both the decibels he can reach and the impact his "siren" has on his audience. Here's how you can redirect your biter and mute your screamer:

  • Pay attention to the circumstances. While it's unrealistic (not to mention unhealthy) to remove all sources of frustration from a child's environment, you can keep a step ahead of your child by removing the situations that trigger screaming and biting and providing alternatives. Also be aware that for many toddlers, these behaviors occur at the end of the day, when they're worn out.
  • Show and tell your toddler that biting hurts. You can demonstrate this by gently pressing your son's forearm against his upper teeth and showing him the resulting marks on his arm. Demonstrate this to him immediately after he bites so that he makes the connection, but avoid doing it in a punitive or angry way. You simply want to get your point across: "See? Biting hurts!" Obviously, don't bite him back - that's not good modeling of how you want your child to behave.
  • Use "signing." This technique, which worked well in our family, is done by showing your toddler hand gestures he can use to signal to you what he wants. At the first I'm-about-to-yell facial gesture from one of our screamers, for example, I would put a finger to my lips to signal to one of our toddlers to use his or her "nice voice," and then demonstrate what that sounds like.

    Here's another trick we used to handle screaming: When our son Matthew was going through a screaming stage, as soon as he was about to let loose I would interject in a soft voice, "We only scream on the grass," and quickly usher him outside to the yard, where he could let go.

While the advice to simply ignore biting and screaming - that by doing so they'll eventually go away - may have some truth to it, in general Martha and I are not fans of any advice that includes ignoring a child's behavior. An important principle of parenting is making the effort to turn a problem into an opportunity, so ignoring undesirable behavior deprives you of the chance to creatively shape difficult behaviors into acceptable ones.