Hitting, Biting, Kicking: Dealing with Aggression

Hitting, Biting, and Kicking: Dealing with Aggression

It’s possibly the worst feeling as a parent: when you realise your kid is actively displaying aggression towards others. Why are they doing this? Where did they learn it? How COULD THEY?! The shame is strong with this one, and you want to react appropriately so that it’s clear this is not behaviour you condone. Both to your child, and everyone else around you. Because the only thing worse than having the asshole aggressive kid is being the parent who isn’t doing anything about it.

The Mantra of Aggression

“Give attention to the victim, not the aggressor.”

As I explained in my recent post on Planned Ignoring– the dopamine system of the brain is what causes us to seek, be curious, and explore. When we land on satisfaction, we get a hit from our opioid system. When a child is aggressive what they’re seeking is a reaction. Whether that reaction is from their victim or the parent doesn’t really matter- it’s all the same to the brain. When a child is displaying aggression they usually get a LOT of reactions: pain from the child, outrage from the adults…and this can unintentionally reinforce the unwanted behaviour: attention- positive or negative- feels good.

To once again cut this off at the knees, in the face of aggression we need to focus on the victim, to begin with. Remove the victim from the situation, tend to any wounds, and meet their emotional needs. In the beginning, this can result in an extinction burst from the aggressor especially if they’re accustomed to being given lots of reinforcement. If possible, it’s best to remove the victim to another room or area the aggressor can’t access if this is the case. Usually, we only see this in instances where the motivation for the aggression is attention and revenge.


There’s been a lot of questions in the Posse about what to do when YOU are the target. The process is the exact same- you’re the victim here, so remove yourself to a safe place.

Second – Figure Out Motivation.

There’s no one reason for why children are aggressive. The most common are frustration, attention, and revenge. Your child’s motivation will influence what you do in step 3. If your daughter bit her brother because he was pestering her and wouldn’t stop- that’s a combination of frustration and revenge and needs to be dealt with differently than if your child’s hitting their baby brother every time you try to feed him- which is motivated by attention.

Three – Actively Teach Empathy and/or Coping Skills

Return to the aggressor and use a Logical Consequence Process. The deviation from the standard here would be to focus your problem-solving question on how the child can make amends/ cope better next time.  Some examples would be:

“What can you do to make your friend feel better?”

“Next time, instead of hurting your friend, how can you show them you’re angry?”

“When you’re feeling frustrated, what can you do?”

“How can you tell your friends what they’re doing is bothering you?”

“What can you do when I’m feeding the baby?”

“When So and So hits you, how does it make you feel?”

…get the gist? Your controlled choices would then be two possible answers to your question which results in the child either practising for next time, or demonstrating empathy and concern towards their injured peer. Practice makes perfect.

Reinforce Good Choices

In future, when you see your child attempting to use the strategies they learned- proactively recognise and encourage them using declarative statements. For instance “You’re trying to use your words to tell your brother you don’t like it when he pokes you instead of biting him.” (And in this instance- you’d apply a Logical Consequence Process to the antagonizer.)

Remind Them!

If you see your child getting frustrated or attention-seeking: use declarative statements to remind them of their strategies BEFORE it gets out of hand: “Max, you’re upset that I’m busy feeding your brother right now. What can you do while you wait?” If you can see the foul wind coming, never wait for your child to act out. You can apply a Logical Consequence Process without waiting for your child to incriminate themselves this way.

Have you tried addressing aggression this way? Let us know in the Posse!




D. Koralek, “Understanding and Responding to Biting,” In Classroom Strategies to Promote Children’s Social and Emotional Development, 135–138. Lewisville, NC: Kaplan Press, 1999. © 1999 The Devereux Foundation, Villanova, Pennsylvania.

Kutner, L. (2016). Toddlers and Preschoolers Who Bite. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/toddlers-and-preschoolers-who-bite/

Allen, Turner, and Evrette, “A Behaviour Modification Classroom For Head Start Children with Problem Behaviors”, Exceptional Children, 1970, 37, 119-127

Judith Worell, “Psychological Development in the Elementary Years”, Academic Press, Sep 17, 2013

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8 thoughts on “Hitting, Biting, Kicking: Dealing with Aggression”

  1. Madeleine Hayden

    Any suggestions for my 17 month old who has taken to head-butting my husband and I when he’s frustrated? He does this when we’re holding him, so we get a forehead or back of the head right to our jaws. It seems practically impossible not to yell, “ouch!!” when he does this. He understands a lot, but not quite to the level of advice given above…

    Thanks for the help!!

    1. Put him down and walk away! Remove yourself from the situation. Body language is extremely powerful. If he’s put down and you leave him alone every time he attempts to head butt you- he’s going to get the message very quickly.

  2. This is a fantastic blog! My question is similar to the one above. Our toddler (16mo) can’t talk yet, and has starting hitting/grabbing me in the face when I’m saying something he doesn’t like “time to put shoes on” or he wants me to put him down (so he can play instead of get changed). So if I put him down, I’m worried that it’s reinforcing that hitting gets him what he wants. We’ve started trying to actually show really exaggerated emotions of crying when he hits, like big sad faces and crying noises, and he seems to stop what he’s doing and really look at our faces. Sometimes, we’ll ask him to give a hug or kiss to make us feel better. Is that something that will keep working at building empathy at this young age? I’d really appreciate other strategies, since he can’t talk yet!

    1. It could, or it could encourage it due to attention-seeking. You can put him down without allowing him to play. Ignore the behaviour, not the child. So put him down but keep him in the front entrance with as little interaction as possible.

  3. I love this post! Any advice on a toddler (23 months) who gets frustrated and bangs his head on the floor? I know it’s attention seeking but he gets huge bruises on his head and I’m worried he will be so frustrated that he hits it’s really hard on a surface like a tile floor and crack it open. I’ve tried walking away when he does it but it doesn’t seem to be working. Thoughts?

  4. This is excellent! But my 14 month old daughter doesn’t have any siblings and she doesn’t really act aggressive toward anyone else besides my husband and I. When she gets angry or even sometimes just playing, she seeks some part of me to bite. Like, she actively looks for some part of my body to bite. And then she pinches my face or my chest really hard. I tell her no, I grab her hands gently and stop her, I say ouch that hurts mommy, etc. I can’t get her to stop! She’s hurting us, we have scratches on our faces!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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