Hitting, Biting & Pushing

By Dr Lin Day, founder of Toddler Sense

Hitting, biting and pushing (and other challenging behaviors) are ways in which toddlers express stored or pent-up emotions when words fail. When toddlers can express themselves verbally, biting, hitting and pushing generally play themselves out. Some toddlers hit, bite or push when they are overexcited, or when they feel threatened, angry, frustrated or insecure. They may hurt other children who refuse to share or when the parent says “No.” Some toddlers hurt others for attention. Hitting, biting and pushing often occur during play. Victims tend to be children that the toddler does not know very well or younger and smaller children, including siblings. It is rare for toddlers to be deliberately aggressive. The vast majority of children want adults to approve of the way that they behave.


Most toddlers go through a hitting, biting or pushing phase. Such commonplace behaviors have nothing to do with how well children are parented, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Some children become anxious about going to nursery, moving house, a new baby sitter or find it hard to deal with a new sibling. Waking in the night, thumb-sucking, and prickly behavior during the day may suggest that the toddler has stored emotions that are difficult to manage. Toddlers don’t make a conscious decision to hurt other people. But when a big wave of sudden (or stored) tension, anxiety, tiredness, jealousy, frustration or fear suddenly floods the brain, there are big feelings that need to be released.

Most children hide their feelings from an early age. We try to get them not to cry, we distract them when they’re upset, and we try to fix things so they don’t have a tantrum. So their fears go underground, where powerful feelings cause trouble.

What to do

1. Intervene by getting close to the toddler.

2. Don’t scold - take it easy and stay calm.

3. Tell him the victim that you’re sorry you didn’t get there in time to keep things safe, and ask the parent to offer comfort.

4. Look into the toddler’s eyes and ask, “How do you feel?” or “Why did you do that?” Don’t persist and don’t expect an explanation.

5. The toddler who feels bad about hurting someone can’t look at you and can’t connect.

6. The toddler may writhe and squirm, wriggle away, cry, laugh, ask for mum or dad or have a tantrum. These are good signs and major steps in the tension release process.

When things have calmed down, explain why you don’t want the toddler to hurt other children, but avoid lengthy explanations, which he or she may not understand. Don’t repeatedly insist that the toddler apologise to the victim if unwilling. It can make things worse.

Managing challenging behavior

You need to notice and get close at a time when you think the toddler is likely to hit, bite or push. If you can place the palm of your hand on the toddler’s forehead just before another child is approached or you hold his or her hand gently, you can stop the behavior. Say gently, “I can’t let you do that.” Then offer eye contact. If you remain calm, and you’ve gently prevented the toddler from hitting, biting or pushing, stored feelings will bubble up in a great big emotional wave. You want all the negative energy and emotion that is waiting to cause trouble to be safely released.

Effective strategies

• Praise the toddler whenever he or she is kind and gentle and whenever you see positive behavior.

• Ensure that rules are fair and consistent so that toddlers know what is expected of them.

• Give toddlers the attention that they need a few times a day so they know they are loved and wanted.

• Make sure there are enough toys and interesting pieces of equipment for toddlers to explore on their own terms.

• Ask toddlers to help with everyday chores to raise their self-esteem.

• Get out and about in the fresh air and sunshine to relieve tension and frustration.

• Encourage toddlers to make music, dance, and run around to relieve excess energy.

• Check fatigue levels. A healthy snack can boost brain glucose levels and self control skills. • Teach toddlers to hug rather than to hurt.

• Books such as ‘Teeth are not for biting’ can help toddlers cope with frustration, and feeling sad and mad.

• Invite friends who have older children to your home.

They will show your toddler how to take turns and play cooperatively.


If the toddler continues to hit, bite or push, try to distinguish a cause or common trend such as tiredness or frustration. If you are aware of what leads up to a particular behavior, it is possible to have some influence on what follows. Parents can be very upset and distressed to find out their child has been involved in a biting, hitting or pushing incident. They need to know that the behavior is not their fault and that there is nothing wrong with their child. Toddlers are generous beings at heart and they don’t intentionally want to hurt anyone. The behavior isn’t planned.