Ask the Mamas: Correcting Negative Behavior

Each week we will ask our mamas a question from our readers that pertains to babies, toddlers, or parenting. Make sure to check back each Tuesday to see their responses!

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MSW reader Stephanie asks:

“My son is almost two and he constantly pushes other kids, pulls hair, takes toys away, bites, etc. I don’t really know the best way to handle the situation. Some people have told me that I should bite him back or pull his hair so he can see how it feels, but I’m not comfortable doing that. Others have told me I should talk with him or put him in a time-out each time. Have any Mama Say What?! mamas dealt with this? How did you handle it? What worked best for you and your little one?”

  • We haven’t had to deal with this yet, as our little guy is a pretty laid back and chill kiddo, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually. Sometimes, though, I catch him pulling our cats’ hair. Even though the cats don’t seem to mind, I know eventually he could end up getting scratched. When I see him do it, I usually pull him aside and say, “No!” with a very firm voice. Luckily, he knows what “no” means and responds to it. He’ll cry, and then I take him over to the cats and show him how to pet them gently. Good luck! ~Mary Ellen M.
  • Although we haven’t had to deal with this with other children yet, we run into a somewhat similar situation with pet playtime. My little man finds it to be a hilarious game to chase the dog around by tightly holding on to her tail. Luckily, our dog is pretty laid back and doesn’t seem to mind too much, but I know it’s just a matter of time before she loses her patience and Mr. C gets hurt. We try to enforce “gentle” playing and I’m constantly repeating this term over and over. He just needs to be reminded what is acceptable and what is crossing the line. I’ll bring Mr. C over to the dog and show him how to pet the dog nicely and give her hugs and kisses. I do the same thing if he unintentionally gets a little rough with me — hitting my face or pulling my hair. I’ll calmly show him how to gently brush mama’s hair or stroke my face nicely. Good luck, mama! ~ Erin F.
  • My daughter has gone through this, even at four years old. I send her to her room to think about what she has done (or to have a time-out). Then, we have a talk with her to discuss her actions and let her know this is not allowed. If she repeats the behavior, then she loses things she loves (like toys and television time). ~ Genae B.
  • Try to divert his attention to something else. Let him know the consequences — maybe start a time-out chair and give him one minute per year in his age. ~ Denise B.
  • Image by Cari Hollis Photography

    My son just turned two and he is going through something similar. I have noticed that it usually isn’t out of the blue, but it’s usually in response to not getting what he wants. So if he is hitting me or trying to bite me, I usually just hold his hand or hug him for a minute until he calms down. If he is hitting other kids (or pets), I usually put him in time-out. I do two minutes because he is two years old. If he is taking toys away, I teach him to give them back. If he responds by hitting or biting, then he gets a time-out. It’s a struggle to find the best solution sometimes, and what works once (or for another child) may not work the next time, or for all children. ~Amanda P.

  • This is a tough one, and I know it varies from one child to another on what will actually work. At this age for our son, time-outs were pointless because he wouldn’t stay in one spot. I would have to physically hold him for a time-out and he confused it with snuggle-time with mama. Redirection seemed to work best until he was talking a bit more. When it came to hitting, we tried our best to anticipate the hit, catch his hand and distract it into a high-five. If contact was made, then a stern “ouch” was said (rather than no), hoping he would get the hint. At this young age, they really have no concept of empathy— that their actions affect the feelings of others. So, in my opinion, hitting or biting back would be very confusing to them. If we want them to stop, then why would we do it to them? They also have no concept of the ownership of things like toys. If the toy was in TJ’s hands, then to him, it was his toy. Sharing is something that really isn’t understood until they are closer to three or four years old. We really emphasized taking turns when there was an issue with toys. “Right now it’s Colin’s turn. When he is done, then it will be TJ’s turn.” The whole taking turns thing was really successful for us and completely stopped our son from taking toys away from other kids. If another kid had the toy in his hand, TJ knew that he could play with it when that kid was done. This article from Dr. Sears really helped us get through this period. Our son was never a biter, but there is a great suggestion in this article to make a point about biting. Show your baby how biting feels by pressing their own teeth against the skin of their own arm to show them that it hurts. ~Alex T.

  • We have yet to go through this stage. Because most of C’s baby friends are older than her, she’s generally the one being “picked on” — being pushed, scratched, having toys taken away, etc. Luckily, she generally handles it pretty well — I can only hope she’ll continue to handle it well when she’s on the other side of the situation. At such a young age, I don’t believe your son knows that what he’s doing hurts. He sees a toy that he wants, so he takes it. It doesn’t occur to him that pushing someone else to get that toy is a mean thing to do; he simply wants that toy. I’ve personally never understood biting a child (or hitting, pushing, etc.) in order to teach them not to bite. If you don’t want them to do that action, in my opinion, it’s not okay to do it to them. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem, and like most things in raising children, what works for one kid might not work for another. I’d try a stern “no” or “hitting isn’t nice,” explain to him what he’s doing wrong and show your son how to touch gently and wait his turn for toys. If that doesn’t work, I’d try redirecting or distracting with a different toy. If that doesn’t work, then I’d go to time-out. You should know, though, that even if nothing works, by the time you’re at the end of your rope, he’ll likely grow out of it, like most things in a baby/toddler’s life. It *is* just a phase, and it is a phase that most kids go through. Good luck, mama! ~Cassie W.
  • We use positive discipline techniques with our two-and-a-half-year-old… mainly distraction and empathetic limit setting. Kind and firm is the approach of discipline we use to teach her the proper way to behave. Discipline is not punishment, which too many parents mistakenly believe— such as hitting/biting a child to try and teach them not to do it. Where is the sense in that? All you do is confuse the child and teach them to be afraid of you!
    For hitting and kicking, we’ll remove her from injuring others — people and pets — and ask her to not to do it. We also validate her feelings by telling her, “It’s okay to be mad/sad/frustrated, but it’s not okay to hit/kick/hurt others.” We also model “gentle touches,” and ask her to show us how to touch gently. Generally, the kicking and hitting happens when she’s frustrated or overtired, which we try our best to avoid with regular naps or rest. If it’s frustration, and we can read her early cues of being frustrated, we can usually distract or redirect her before it escalates. If not, then we step in, remove others (people/pets/things) from harm and set limits and talk her through it. If she’s in an all out tantrum, we remove her from hurting herself or others, and try to support her through it (less with talking, more by just being physically present — hold her or hug her, if that’s what she needs). Sometimes, in a tantrum she will bite herself. If that’s happening, I hold her in my lap with her legs and arms crossed under mine, and get her to calm down (we talk about deep breathing, making “shh’s”, blowing out candles, whatever we can do to get her to calm down). Once she’s calm, I allow her stay in my lap for hugs and cuddles, or if she needs space and is no longer hurting herself I will let her go from me. Sometimes she hits or kicks when she’s excited, and if that’s the case we say, “Ooh you’re so happy/excited… let’s stomp our feet/clap our hands,” to give her a physical option to express that excitement without it leading to hitting or kicking.
    I highly recommend Jane Nelsen’s book, “Positive Discipline: The First Three Years.” She specifically addresses tantrums, hitting, kicking, biting and how to best handle it on all sides. She outlines appropriate expectations for this age group and their development as well as offers practical gentle discipline techniques to help us parent through the baby and toddler months. She explains why telling a child, “Go to your room to THINK about what you’ve done,” is absolutely ludicrous for a child. I also love Dr. Laura Markham’s blog. which also offers lots of guidance for how to use positive parenting techniques to teach our children how to behave.
     ~Lori W.


The advice given here is solely based on our individual experiences and in no way is it going to be perfect for every mama, every baby, and every situation. None of us are medical doctors. If you have a question regarding a medical topic we can give our opinions, but please consult with your doctor. We are not liable or responsible for the results of following any specific advice in any given situation.

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