Writer and broadcaster

My toddler bites people. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I’m struggling with the behaviour of my daughter. She’s two and for four or five months, has been lashing out on occasion, scratching or biting, sometimes managing to draw blood and cause real pain. She does it to my partner and me, but also to other children. Sometimes it seems to be a response to irritation (eg, when we are trying to change her nappy or when another child is playing with a toy that she wants), but at other times it is completely unprovoked. 

We’ve tried all the usual tactics of clearly telling her no, removing her from the situation, ignoring her for a couple of minutes while giving the other child attention – all to no avail. Indeed, she shows little reaction even when the child she has hurt cries – almost as if she isn’t bothered or doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions. 

Since this behaviour started, we’ve had another child (now 15 weeks old) and we have to try to be extra careful that she doesn’t bite or scratch him as well, at the same time as encouraging her to develop a relationship with him.

My daughter goes to a childminder two days a week and I’m also worried about the impact her scratching and biting is having there. I’m conscious that my social embarrassment about having a child who bites may be affecting how I handle this situation. 

P, via email

A biting, hitting toddler is not unusual. The parents usually always find it mortifying (and the situation isn’t helped by other parents who can use it as an opportunity to be judgmental if their child doesn’t do it), but it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your child or that she will grow up to be violent. If everything else is fine – she doesn’t show any other behavioural issues, she can see and hear fine (I say this in case there are physical barriers), then try to see it for what it is: a phase.

“Given her age,” says psychotherapist Dehra Mitchell, “this is quite normal. Biting, scratching, hitting are very common. It is often a response to frustration and, at your daughter’s age, language isn’t developed sufficiently so that she can tell you verbally what is upsetting her. Biting and scratching is a way of communicating.”

Sometimes a child can be highly articulate and still hit or scratch because they can’t process the emotions they feel. You seem concerned, too, about the fact that your daughter doesn’t seem bothered when she hurts someone. I asked Mitchell if this is cause for concern. “Not really – when children get into trouble for something they either tend to burst into tears or turn around and ignore you.”

So, your daughter may be upset and just doesn’t want to show it.

It may help you look at things from your daughter’s point of view – I say this to be helpful, not to make any of it sound like it’s your fault. She’s still extremely young. I realise this started before the baby was born and by my calculation, it must have begun when you were heavily pregnant. I wonder how the new baby “idea” was presented to her? I wonder if she resents his arrival and sees going to the childminder as being sent “away”?

When you have a new baby, the older child can suddenly seem much older than they are and they are expected to behave in a way that’s more grown up than they really are.

Are you making enough time for her, by yourself? I know this can seem hard to do with a young baby, but it’s worthwhile.

“As a child matures,” says Mitchell, “they change. It’s a maturing process. Your daughter probably doesn’t have the language skills to explain herself, nor the cognitive skills. Try to help her communicate her feelings. Try to give your daughter age-appropriate words. For example, say something like ‘You know, I wonder if you feel upset about the baby’s arrival?’ Help her put into words how she feels and reassure her that it’s OK if she’s not happy.”

You need to be firm, but calm and kind, while teaching her that hitting etc is not the way to behave. I don’t personally advocate time out – especially if she’s doing this because she already feels wretched. You need to work out how to deal with it in a way that works for your family and then be patient. She’s not going to learn overnight, so don’t despair if something doesn’t work immediately. Be confident. Your child is not a psychopath.

Mitchell also suggests you look at zerotothree.org for information.

“I understand your feelings of embarrassment,” says Mitchell, “but your daughter is trying to tell you something, so find a way of encouraging her to communicate in a different way. I wonder if you have a group of other mums to talk to? You will most likely find they too are dealing with difficult behaviour, including biting.”


First published in The Guardian on 29 November 2013.