There are no baby bullies
Hitting, biting and pinching are a normal part of development
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.”
WHEN TO STEP IN
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.
BABIES CAN’T (REALLY) BULLY
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