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Ask Dr. Sears: Stopping Biting

Q  How can I get my 13-month-old to stop biting, pulling hair, and pinching? I am trying to teach him sign language so he can express himself in other ways. I was given advice from numerous people, and one person said to put a little dab of hot sauce on his tongue...I only want to use that as my last resort!
A: Aggressive behavior is most common among toddlers between one and two years of age. They don't yet have the verbal skills to communicate their needs and frustrations, so they express themselves with the only tools they have: their teeth and their hands. Teaching him sign language to express himself is a good idea! Keep trying that, but scrap the hot sauce advice. The only thing this will accomplish is to teach him to hate hot sauce. Besides wouldn't you rather have him develop a natural freedom to express himself  -- yet in socially appropriate ways? Here's how:

Track the trigger. Keep a journal of what triggers this aggressive behavior. Is he tired, hungry, or overwhelmed by too many kids in a small space? Do what you can to lessen the circumstances that lead to aggression. For example, if you notice his behavior disintegrates just before naptime, intervene with some gentling interactions, such as holding time just before his scheduled nap.

Remove bad influences. Toddlers often pick up aggressive behavior from older siblings, other kids in daycare, or from even from television. Toddlers are always searching for the norm, and asking themselves, "How am I supposed to act? How do people treat people?" What they see is what they do, because that's what they conclude is the norm. If the older siblings are aggressive to each other or to your toddler, teach them to model gentle behavior. As much as possible, surround your child with non-aggressive playmates. If your child is in daycare, try to spend a few hours there to see if there is a hitter or biter in the crowd that may be influencing your toddler's behavior.

Model gentle alternatives. Anytime your child bites or pinches, play show and tell. Tell him, "We don't hit, we hug" or "We don't bite, we pat someone's arms." Then show him how. When he starts to pinch, take his hand and say "nice touch" as you guide his hand to patting your arm. If he bashes dolls, bangs toys, or kicks pets, this could reveal some pent up anger. In this case, take inventory of your whole family situation and see if there are some lifestyle changes you could make to allow yourself more quiet time with your infant.

Supervise playgroups. If your child is going through an aggressive stage, share your concerns with other parents. (Don't worry; they've probably been through  -- or will be going through  -- the same phase with their own children.) For safety's sake, you owe it to the other children in the playgroup to monitor your child. Again, if you see him start to bite or hit, immediately intervene and show him a gentle alternative, such as a pat or a hug.

Start giving time outs. Even a thirteen month old can learn consequences of misbehaviors. We always had a rule for our children, "If you hit, you must sit." If he hits or bites, immediately put him in a one-minute time-out on a bench, chair, or step. This gives him time to think about the wrongfulness of his actions, especially if you plant a bit of memorable discipline into his mind by saying, "Use your nice touches..." and "We don't hit, we hug..."

Let him know that biting hurts. Pre-verbal toddlers are used to doing so much with their mouths that they don't realize that those sharp, little teeth hurt. If you've tried all the above tricks to stop the biting, yet it is still occurring, gently and not in any anger place his forearm against his upper teeth, not enough to hurt but enough to show the teeth marks. Say, "See, biting hurts." By at least eighteen months your toddler should be able to make this connection and learn from this lesson. Above all  -- contrary to some advice  -- don't bite or hit back. This will simply reinforce aggressive behavior, since the child concludes, "If adults do it, it must be okay."

Foster his empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else feels as a consequence of his actions. Toward the end of the first year if your child's aggressive behavior continues, ask him, "How would you feel if your friend hurt you..." At thirteen months he is too young for this psychology, as he can't yet fully understand the consequences of his actions. So, best you can do at this age is to show and tell him gentle alternatives. As your child becomes more verbal, you will notice that he is better able to communicate his frustrations in words rather than actions, and the aggressive behavior will gradually cease.}]