When toddlers hurt other toddlers, parents get embarrassed. Last year, there was a rash of aggressive behavior at my daughter’s daycare. And when I say “rash of aggressive behavior,” I mean my daughter was biting and scratching kids left, right and center. One terrible day, which I now refer to as “Black Monday,” I got a call at work that Nora had bitten five children. The center director told me that if she bit again that day, I would need to take her home.
My daughter had bitten before, and sometimes she scratched. Every incident generated an “incident report” which I would find taped upside down to her sign-out sheet at the end of the day. When I would see that tell-tale slip of paper, I would make a silent wish as I flipped it over that Nora had been the day’s victim, not the perpetrator. No one wants to wish ill on their child, but having your child be the perp can feel even worse. The names of her victims were always withheld, but as soon as I walked in her classroom and saw a little face with a scratch across a cheek, or a forearm with teeth marks, my heart would sink. Did other parents know it was my little girl roughing up their kids? As much as I would have liked to pretend that nothing was wrong, shame and denial wouldn’t have accomplished anything. Here’s what I learned about pushing through embarrassment and helping a tiny perp and her victims.
Get the Details
Knowing the circumstances of what leads to aggressive behavior can help determine your child’s triggers. Does the biting always happen close to naptime, or when your child is hungry? Is it always a fight over a toy? For Nora, her biting and scratching was usually the result of an invasion of her personal space. Once you know the trigger, you can strategize ways of dealing with, or preventing, the behavior.
Ask for Insight
Swallow hard and ask your child’s care provider for his or her take or the situation. It was very helpful for me to hear her teachers say that Nora was not a bad kid. They felt that part of the issue was that she spoke too quietly when she didn’t like something a kid was doing — so the soon to be victim did not take her warning seriously.
Offer Suggestions Based on Your Unique Child
Your child is unique and no one knows her better than you do. Speak with her care providers to offer approaches you feel will work best. Also, make sure the approach of the daycare is in line with your parenting philosophy. For example, we do not use “time-outs” in our family, as we want our daughter to develop skills to deal with a situation and not create a climate where she feels she is “bad” and needs to be separated from the group.
Talk to Your Child
You can’t really sit a 2-year-old down and lecture them about an incident that happened six hours ago. What you can do is remind your child about treating friends gently. When I dropped my daughter off in the morning, I would kiss her and tell her I hoped she’d have a fun day and remember to use gentle touches with her friends. I also coached her on using her loud voice if she didn’t like something, and to bunch up her fists when she was mad (you can’t scratch someone if your hand is clenched in a fist!). I also read her the book No Biting by Karen Katz.
Look at Your Family Stress Level
Though it’s natural for toddlers to bite, scratch or push from time to time, if you notice an uptick in aggressive behavior, it’s important to take a look at your family stress level. Are you following routines? Does your toddler need more rest? Is your stress through the roof and leaking onto your child? Make any necessary adjustments.
Take it Seriously, but Not Too Seriously
The evening of “Black Monday,” Nora was fussy and tired. She pointed to her mouth and said “owie.” I looked in her mouth and saw three erupting molars. No wonder she was cranky and prone to bite! The next day, a tube of Orajel accompanied her to school and my little perp was an angel once more. It’s normal to feel embarrassed and want to over-react to show that you’re “doing something about” the situation. But try to keep it in perspective. Your child is not destined to a juvenile detention center or a life of crime. One of the most helpful things a teacher told me was “Don’t worry, this is nothing we haven’t seen before.”