There are no baby bul­lies

Hit­ting, bit­ing and pinch­ing are a nor­mal part of devel­op­ment

Your Baby & Toddler - - Must Reads - By Me­lany Bendix

Your tot’s bit­ing, hit­ting and scratch­ing doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean she’s a bud­ding psy­chopath. In fact, it can be quite nor­mal be­hav­iour

The first time my one-year-old daugh­ter bit an­other child I dis­missed it as nor­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. The sec­ond time I hoped it wasn’t a new habit. A few weeks later, when other moth­ers be­gan fran­ti­cally pick­ing up their tod­dlers when­ever mine en­tered the play area, I knew we had a prob­lem. My kid was that kid: the face biter.

I be­gan to get se­ri­ously con­cerned when, af­ter tak­ing a bite out of Max or Sofia or Faiez, she would stand there grin­ning and then laugh up­roar­i­ously when she was told off for it. Were th­ese the first signs of a psy­chopath? Was lit­tle Han­ni­bal Lecter also a re­morse­less face-biter? Did he too lure in his vic­tims with a hug be­fore tak­ing a chomp out of their cheek?

age ap­pro­pri­ate ag­gres­sion

Turns out there was noth­ing ab­nor­mal about my daugh­ter’s be­hav­iour. The only ab­nor­mal part was my – and, dare I say, the other moth­ers’ – over­re­ac­tion to it. Ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour such as hit­ting, throw­ing items, kick­ing, bit­ing and hair pulling is a com­pletely nor­mal part of devel­op­ment for tod­dlers be­tween the ages of one to three, spe­cial­ist nurse prac­ti­tioner, par­ent coach and au­thor of Tod­dler Sense Ann Richard­son as­sures par­ents.

Ag­gres­sion is trig­gered by a com­bi­na­tion of not be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate very well yet, a fierce de­sire for in­de­pen­dence and dif­fi­cul­ties with im­pulse con­trol. “Chil­dren also of­ten do nasty things if they are feel­ing tired, hun­gry and over­loaded,” adds Ann.

Tyneel Burger, a Cape Town child be­hav­iour ther­a­pist, points out that most ba­bies and tod­dlers ex­plore the world by plac­ing ob­jects in their mouths (“mouthing”), which can be an­other rea­son why they bite.

In my daugh­ter’s case it was nei­ther. It quickly be­came clear there was no mal­ice in her Suarez-style be­hav­iour on the play­ing field. She only bit when she was ex­cited, which was, iron­i­cally, when she was happy to see other chil­dren. It seemed to be her way of say­ing: “Hi, I’m so happy to be here and to see you, look at me, look at me!” Ex­cept, in the ab­sence of flu­ent speech, it came out as “Chomp, chomp, chomp…”

And no, the laugh­ing in the face of an­other child’s pain was not the sign of a bud­ding psy­chopath (phew). “Chil­dren un­der the age of four do not have the cog­ni­tive abil­ity to fully un­der­stand their own feel­ings, never mind those of oth­ers. They have not yet de­vel­oped em­pa­thy and can­not un­der­stand how it may feel to be in some­one else’s shoes and can­not in­ten­tion­ally hurt some­one else’s feel­ings,” ex­plains Cape Town child and ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist Anel An­nan­dale.

Rather, the rea­son my tod­dler was grin­ning and laugh­ing ma­ni­a­cally was be­cause I was show­er­ing her with at­ten­tion, al­beit neg­a­tive at­ten­tion, which added to her gid­di­ness and ex­cite­ment in the mo­ment. I was un­in­ten­tion­ally break­ing the cardinal rule of deal­ing with ag­gres­sive tod­dler be­hav­iour: ig­nore the per­pe­tra­tor and shower all the

at­ten­tion on the vic­tim. “Show your child you are dis­pleased by the tone of your voice and your body lan­guage – turn your back on her – and turn all your at­ten­tion on the child she has bit­ten, hit or pulled,” ad­vises Ann.

There are a few other ways you can deal with ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour (see the side­bar on the next page), but what­ever you do, al­ways talk through what hap­pened af­ter­wards. Even if your tod­dler doesn’t un­der­stand ex­actly what you’re say­ing, Ann be­lieves that talk­ing it through “is still im­por­tant be­cause this will show him that talk­ing, not bit­ing, hit­ting or push­ing, is the way to solve prob­lems.”


It’s equally im­por­tant that you take ac­tion if your child is the vic­tim of ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour, but re­mem­ber not to over­re­act, says Anel. “Try to re­strain your­self from tak­ing your anger out on the of­fend­ing child. This just re­in­forces the be­hav­iour and con­tin­ues the neg­a­tive cy­cle.” All you need to do is calmly alert the par­ents of the other child to what’s hap­pened in­stead of con­fronting them or get­ting emo­tional, she ad­vises.

Of course you can’t be on guard for­ever, es­pe­cially if your child is go­ing to crèche or playschool. And it gets tricky when your pre-ver­bal child can­not tell you if an­other child hurts them. Anel sug­gests look­ing out for phys­i­cal signs such as bite marks and bruises. Tyneel says other signs in­clude your child not want­ing to go to school, bed wet­ting, be­com­ing less so­cial, re­gres­sive be­hav­iour and gen­eral changes in nor­mal be­hav­iour such as nail bit­ing and sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety.

Once chil­dren have de­vel­oped ad­e­quate lan­guage skills, it’s eas­ier to pre­pare them to deal with the pos­si­bil­ity of ag­gres­sion in the play­ground. “It is im­por­tant to de­fine bul­ly­ing to them in lan­guage which they are able to un­der­stand,” says Tyneel. “Make sure they know it is im­por­tant to let you know if an­other child is phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally hurt­ing them, and give them a list of safe peo­ple whom they can speak to should you not be around. You could also sug­gest a few safe spa­ces in their day­care cen­tre where they could go to es­cape bul­ly­ing be­hav­iour.”



Play­ground pol­i­tics is some­thing all kids have to learn to ne­go­ti­ate at some stage or an­other. So when should you jump in and help, and when should you leave them to sort it out them­selves? If it hap­pens, con­sider the op­tions and cir­cum­stances. “I don’t be­lieve a phys­i­cal in­ci­dent should ever be over­looked,” says Anel. “Al­ways ad­dress it with the teacher or the other child’s par­ent in a calm man­ner.” Tyneel also sug­gests dis­cussing the is­sue with the teacher be­fore act­ing, as they may have some in­sight into the sit­u­a­tion which you don’t. And if you do then de­cide to act, she echoes Anel’s ad­vice to be non­con­fronta­tional. “It is never ad­vis­able to dis­ci­pline an­other per­son’s child or tell them how to raise their chil­dren,” she em­pha­sises.

She also sug­gests us­ing such a sit­u­a­tion to em­power your tod­dler by mak­ing them part of the so­lu­tion in­stead of a pow­er­less vic­tim. Tell them how to re­move them­selves from the sit­u­a­tion or to stand up for them­selves ver­bally by say­ing some­thing like: “I don’t like that, please stop.” “By work­ing to­gether to solve the prob­lem, the tod­dler has power over the sit­u­a­tion, learns valu­able prob­lem solv­ing skills and builds their con­fi­dence, which bul­ly­ing of­ten takes away,” Anel ex­plains.


Whether your child is the per­pe­tra­tor or the vic­tim, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber there’s ac­tu­ally no such thing as a baby bully. “Even the wildest, most ram­bunc­tious child can­not be con­sid­ered a bully at this age,” stresses Anel. What we con­sider “bul­ly­ing” is usu­ally a child dis­play­ing nor­mal ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour that hasn’t yet been dealt with by the par­ents.

Af­ter some painstak­ing trial and er­ror I hit on a sim­ple but ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion for my pint-sized biter: re­move her from the play­ground for a calm down­time when I saw she was get­ting overex­cited. I also re­in­forced pos­i­tive al­ter­na­tives to ag­gres­sion – kiss­ing in­stead of bit­ing and stroking in­stead of hit­ting – and praised this be­hav­iour ex­trav­a­gantly. It was a win­ner. Six months later she’s no longer known as the play­ground face-biter; she’s now the face-kisser. But at least she has play­dates. YB

Dis­plays un­usu­ally ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour for more than a few weeks. Pur­pose­fully fright­ens or up­sets other chil­dren. Hurts adults in­ten­tion­ally. Fails to re­spond to par­ents’ at­tempts at dis­ci­pline.

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