Toddler Behaviour: Biting, Hitting, Spitting [PART I]

Dr. Alexandra LeggeToddler Times0 Comments


Biting, spitting and hitting are behaviours that lots of toddlers explore. This article combines a range of developmental and behavioural literature to take a closer look at why toddlers can use this behaviour, why this behaviour may be repeated, and what strategies can be used to help to reduce the likelihood of these behaviours.

Why Does My Toddler Bite, Hit or Spit?

There are several reasons why your toddlers may be trying these behaviours:

  • Toddlers have very limited ways to express themselves, as they are still learning a lot about how to communicate. Much of their learning at this stage is around cause and effect: if I do this, people respond like that. Although the toddler may have some language, their skills are not yet sufficient to tell people around them exactly what is on their mind. As a result they look to other behaviour to communicate.
  • Toddlers have a very limited understanding of their emotions. This can mean that when young children experience a strong emotion they struggle to manage these feelings. This can lead to ‘reactive’ behaviour with limited impulse control.
  • Toddlers also have a very limited understanding of the emotions of others. This means that they lack the understanding of why behaviour such as hitting, biting and spiting are inappropriate. They are not able to anticipate that such behaviour is upsetting to others, or what the upset of others means to that person. As such, the toddler simply understands that using the behaviour leads to a specific outcome rather than being able to fully understand the consequence of their actions.

Why Does My Toddler Keep Using This Behaviour?

First things first… the most important place to start is to reflect on your toddler’s behaviour. The points below should help you to think more broadly about your toddler’s use of hitting, spitting or biting behaviour, with the aim of getting a better understanding around why s/he is using this behaviour.

Some of the more common reasons for repeated hitting, biting and spitting behaviour, link with our responses to the toddler’s behaviour:

  • Even coming from your lovely toddler, biting, hitting and spitting can be extremely unpleasant. As adults we can have an emotional reaction to this behaviour, our immediate response may be to feel ‘wronged’ and therefore to shout at the child. To such a young child (with limited emotional and communication skills) such attention could lead to a continuation of the hitting, biting or spitting behaviour in the future, because your toddler knows it causes a reaction from you. This fits in with their learning about cause and effect.
  • When toddlers use biting, hitting or spitting behaviour it can be exhausting and embarrassing for the caregiver. These emotional reactions can have an impact on the adult’s response. It can be tempting to remove the child from the situation, or to give the child the item they want. Whilst this may work effectively in the short term (to stop the behaviour), it could reinforce the child’s behaviour for the future, for example: if I hit dad I will get the toy or if I spit at mum we will leave the supermarket. Again, this fits with your toddlers learning about cause and effect.

If after considering these points you feel that the situation is more complex, a great way to get a better understanding is to observe your toddler’s behaviour. Think about what’s happening when s/he hits, bites or spits. Look for patterns in this behaviour:

  • When is s/he most likely to spit? (Time of day)
  • Where are they when this is most likely to occur? (Type of environment; busy /calm, loud/ quiet, bright/dark etc.)
  • What are they doing before the behaviour occurs? (What activities)
  • Who are they with? (Person/ people, adults/ children, in a group or on a one to one)

Answering these questions should give you some further ideas about why your toddler uses this behaviour, for example it may occur because; s/he is overwhelmed by a busy environment, or has less attention from the caregiver because you are part of a group.

As well as looking at what might cause the behaviour, reflect again on the incident and think about whether there are any potentially positive consequences that may incentivise your toddler to use the behaviour again in the future.

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In Part II of this article, we will look at strategies to use during an incident while also listing some helpful general tips to help you handle this behavior. Whilst this summary provides some information on why toddlers can use behaviour such as biting, spitting, hitting, and what may be helpful to try when this occurs, we could not hope to cover everything in the detail you may require.

If you feel you need further advice around your child’s behaviour, there are a range of professionals who can offer evidence based support and advice. Feel free to contact MumRadar to get more information about local professionals who specialise in child behaviour assessment and interventions.

About the Writer

Dr. Alexandra Legge is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with extensive experience of working with children, young people and their families with a range of emotional and psychological difficulties. She also has particular expertise in working with people who have developmental conditions, such as Autism, Aspergers and Learning Disabilities. She is in the process of setting up her clinical services for families in Singapore. Please e-mail if you wish to contact Dr. Legge.