Why is my toddler (Yr 1-3) hitting/ biting/ throwing/ kicking/ pulling hair?

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Our 2 year old son seems to be very aggressive – hitting, pushing and biting us and others. It’s embarrassing when he hits others, and it makes me angry when he hits. It’s getting out of control, and we don’t know what to do?

A concerned mother

As a parenting coach, who speaks with Moms daily, the first thing I can assure this mother who’s just as concerned as you, is that – this behavior is very common among toddlers aged 1-3 years.

Parents often complain that their toddler hits one or both parents, or the nanny, or the grandparents. Other complaints include that the child often hits himself, hits his head with hands, or bangs his head against the wall or floor and hits other children “for no reason”. I hear similar complaints about biting and pulling hair, and also that the child is always throwing things or kicking “in anger”. If you’re reading this article, you would have experienced one or more of the above behaviors with your child.

Often as parents, we are taken by surprise when our child hits/bites us for the first time. We feel embarrassed when our child hits someone else in our presence, or when others complain about his hitting behavior. When he throws things at us or pulls another child’s hair – we feel clueless about WHY is he doing this?

We try to deal with the behavior in the best way we know, and yet, when our child continues expressing himself aggressively in socially unacceptable ways – we feel that we’ve failed as parents!

I see you, and I feel you! And I want to assure you that:

  • By the end of this blog post, you will know the WHY behind this behaviour. This knowledge  will help you meet your child where he is, and connect with him deeply before you try to correct his behavior.
  • And then, I will direct you to well-researched resources that will help you with the exact action plan & strategies to help you and your child overcome aggressive behavior peacefully. 

Read on, if you’re ready!

Here are FIVE things every parent needs to know about WHY their child is indulging in aggressive behavior like hitting/ biting/ throwing/ kicking/ pulling hair?

1. It’s not intentional

As much as it might seem that your child is acting this way on purpose, that he’s doing it intentionally, to make you angry – trust me, he’s not. A toddler is a little baby with relatively more physical and verbal skills. That’s all. He’s not cognitively developed enough to pre-meditate, plan and act in ways to manipulate you. So, if you’ve been feeling this way about your child, just strike that out right away. And give your child the benefit of doubt that he deserves.

2. It’s usually experimentative

Toddlers are little scientists who are always in action – creating new experiments, observing the results and archiving their analyses of the situation for future reference. Most of the time, hitting/ biting/ throwing/ kicking/ pulling hair is just to see what happens? As silly as it might sound, this is a serious ‘experiment’ for your child. The way the other person responds is the ‘result’ he’s looking for. And based on that result, they often have the ‘urge’ to repeat the experiment (maybe with the same/different persons) to just see if the results are consistent, or they may decide to move on to something new. 

At times, your toddler might have seen someone hit / push, or might have been hit or pushed by someone. Now, the little scientist is just curious to know how it feels when he does it, how do others react (“so I can do the same when someone hits me!”)

3. When it’s not an experiment, it’s just an impulse

Your toddler’s brain is still developing. Parts of the frontal cortex / higher brain required for impulse control and rational thinking develop gradually through life and are fully developed only when the child reaches adulthood. In simpler terms, your toddler lacks impulse control.

However, the lower brain AKA the reptilian brain is completely developed, and that’s the reason your toddler often acts more like an animal (hitting & biting) rather than a socially sophisticated human being. (No offense intended, it’s just scientifically correct!).

So, make peace with the fact that aggressive behavior arises out of impulse in a toddler, which they cannot control without help from you or another caring elder. (I’ll tell how you can help your child with impulse control – here)

Often parents find that their child hits someone and smiles or laughs, as if he’s deriving some evil pleasure out of this. But experts say that, the smile is usually out of embarrassment or discomfort for not being able to control themselves, thereby unintentionally hurting someone. It’s a sign of their innocence & helplessness.

Some parents complain that their child bit them in the midst of an enjoyable cuddle. That seems very odd and offensive, right!? But it’s just that your little tot had a gush of STRONG (happy) EMOTIONS in his brain, which he could not handle; and the bite was an act by his (immature) brain to release the emotional pressure! So, please be kind! The same is true if he experiences an overwhelming gush of negative emotions, which I explain below.

4. There are TRIGGERS which lead to the impulse to hit, bite, kick, pull or throw

There are 3 alarm systems in your child’s brain which are triggered by Rage / Fear / Pain. So, anything that can cause your child to feel anger, fear or pain will activate these alarm systems, which in turn activates the instinctive & less rational ‘fight-flight-freeze’ responses. Go back and think about those situations where your child acted out aggressively – what was the trigger?

  • You did not give in to their demand
  • You set a limit that they did not like
  • A new situation, too many people around
  • An unexpected change in routine
  • An unmet need – was he hungry, sleepy, tired or overstimulated?
  • Or was it a pent-up frustration of needs that have been unmet for a longer time – like the need for attention, connection, a predictable routine or more power and freedom? You can read more about ‘unmet needs of toddlers’ here.

Remember, it might seem that they hit you or the other child “for no reason”, but there’s always a trigger! Sometimes, the trigger is in the situation, or it could be something pent-up over time. At times, you might be able to identify the trigger and respond accordingly, but many-a-times, you might not be able to pinpoint the trigger. But even in those cases, trust your child – they’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time.

5. An aggressive breakout is often a CALL for HELP

Dr. Mona Delahooke, a pediatric psychologist, describes disruptive behaviors as “just the tip of the iceberg,”. They are important signals a child may be sending that are symptoms of an underlying issue.

All forms of aggressive behavior among toddlers is the child’s way of saying, “I really don’t know how to handle this, I need HELP.” And here’s where your response matters.

Imagine you’re looking up to someone for help, and they yell at you or punish you or behave as if you’re some alien doing weird things. How would you feel? It’s in your hands to help your child not feel that way.

These out-of-the-blue, sometimes embarrassing moments are great opportunities for you to connect deeply with your child, show him that you love him despite his behavior and that you CAN and WILL help him get through this.

Your perception of the situation and of your child is extremely important for you to help your child effectively. I am confident this blogpost helped you perceive your child as completely normal & human for acting the way he does.

What’s more important is ‘Being Well-Prepared’ to handle these situations effectively, so you can help your child get through this phase, and develop a strong control over his impulses & emotions.

So, to prepare yourself to handle your toddler’s aggression more effectively & peacefully, read on to know the 9 mistakes you must avoid while dealing with aggressive behavior.

Or even better – Download the FREE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE for Effectively Resolving Aggressive Behavior in your Toddler

If you’d prefer a more personalized solution for your toddler concern, book a consultation with me (FREE for a limited period only) by clicking here.

If you’ve benefited from this blogpost, and know others whom it can help – Show that you care, and share!!

Follow me @Sharon Mary and my page @Thought Symphony on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you!

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Author: Sharon Mary

Hi! To say the least about me, I am just a Mom trying to figure out the best way to raise my little daughter. 'Thought Symphony' is the fruit of my passion to share my learning and experiences as a ‘Mom’ to help parents like you have the smoothest ride possible on this roller coaster called ‘Parenting’.

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