Why Do Toddlers Hit and Bite, and What to Do to Stop It

When your children reach the toddler stage, they begin exploring and interacting with the world around them. Their adventures can melt your heart, but some of their behavior might be confusing or even distressing for parents—particularly if toddlers start hitting or biting themselves or other people.

Here, child behavior experts explain why your toddler might be doing this and what you can do to stop it.

Why Do Toddlers Hit?

Sally Macaluso, a special education preschool teacher and education blogger at Tenderhearted, said a toddler might hit or bite because they are still learning the social-emotional and linguistic skills they need to communicate and cope with feelings. "They may also be imitating another child or exploring the concept of cause-and-effect."

Two toddlers playing together
Stock image of two toddlers playing. A toddler might hit or bite because they are still learning the social-emotional and linguistic skills they need to communicate. Getty Images/kiankhoon

There is often a period around the age of 2 when aggressive behavior such as hitting, biting and kicking may peak, according to Allison Chase, a psychologist at the Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center in Texas. "Often during this age, children do not have the developmental ability to express their needs appropriately and still have not developed self-control," she told Newsweek.

Why Do Toddlers Hit Their Heads?

When a toddler hits themselves on the head on purpose, it could be part of a temper tantrum or a way to express to caregivers that they're suffering from a headache or earache, said Macaluso.

Toddler crying on the floor
Stock image of a toddler crying on the floor. When a toddler hits themselves on the head on purpose, it could be a temper tantrum or an attempt to communicate that they have a headache or earache. Getty Images/Lisa5201

"Head banging is a common behavior in toddlers and is usually not a concern as up to 20% of children do it," said Dr. Willough Jenkins, inpatient medical director of psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego.

"However, it can be a sign of developmental concerns. If your child has other developmental delays or is head banging to the point of causing injury such as bruising or swelling, it's important to talk to your pediatrician more urgently."

Why Do Toddlers Bite?

Much like hitting, biting can be extremely distressing for parents and caregivers. However, it's an age-appropriate behavior for toddlers and a normal part of child development, said Chase.

There are a variety of reasons why toddlers bite, according to Catherine Hallissey, a child psychologist in Cork, Ireland. "The most common reasons are difficulties coping with anger, frustration and sensory overload," she told Newsweek.

Biting can also be a way that some toddlers look for attention. "If a toddler realizes they get a lot of attention from a parent or caregiver when they bite or hit, even if it's negative attention, it can unintentionally reinforce those behaviors," said Jenkins.

Toddler biting father's nose
A young child bites his father's nose. Biting is an age-appropriate behavior for toddlers and a normal part of child development. Getty Images/dusanpetkovic

Why Do Toddlers Bite Themselves?

Toddlers who are seeking attention or in pain from teething may also bite themselves. They "may not have the verbal skills to express themselves, so they rely on their behavior to do so," said Mary Beth DeWitt, chief of child psychology at Dayton Children's Hospital in Ohio.

Aude Henin, a child psychologist at Mass General Hospital in Boston, told Newsweek that toddlers may bite themselves or others in response to becoming frustrated or overwhelmed.

"It is usually an impulsive, aggressive act in reaction to someone doing something that makes them angry," Henin said. "When toddlers bite themselves, they do not tend to injure themselves. When they bite others, they may leave marks or break the skin, which can be a bigger issue."

How to Teach Toddlers Not to Hit or Bite

When parents talk to their child about hitting or biting, they need to stay calm and not react with high levels of anxiety, anger or distress, according to Henin. "It can be upsetting to see a child do something to hurt themselves, but it is key for parents to first manage their own intense emotions in the situation before supporting their child."

Mother disciplining her toddler
Stock image of a mother disciplining her child. Parents must stay calm when they talk to their toddlers about hitting or biting. Getty Images/AntonioGuillem

"Whether or not to discipline your toddler depends on where the child is at developmentally," said Chase. "I think a better approach is to look at how to prevent, redirect and hopefully lessen the behavior in the future. Better understanding the biting behaviors is an important place to start."

Hallissey said: "The true meaning of discipline is to teach, not to punish. We need to teach children the skills to cope with frustration and anger, along with more appropriate ways to communicate these needs."

To prevent your toddler from hurting themselves or others, redirect their emotions elsewhere. "The best strategy is a gentle redirection by placing something in the child's hands such as a stuffed animal or providing a distraction," said Jenkins.

Stephanie Fox, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests that parents try oral-sensory chew tools and educate their children about biting through books such as Teeth Are Not For Biting by Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen or Little Dinos Don't Bite by Michael Dahl and Adam Record.

Hitting and biting tend to subside when the child reaches the age of 3. If this behavior continues beyond the "terrible twos," Jenkins recommends that parents seek professional advice to help figure out how to support their child.