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My wife and I have gotten into a bad habit with our 3-year-old. When he misbehaves, sometimes he bites or otherwise physically assaults one of us in frustration, particularly when we are telling him he cannot do something he wants to do. We will then tell him he shouldn't bite, that it hurts, and then he'll laugh at us and act as if it's a hilarious game.

These aren't little bites or hits, mind you; they're very painful, and they often make the recipient quite stressed out. Further stressful of course is the laughing and gamboling about. This usually happens when he's a bit tired (and thus hyper). We will then make some effort to take him to a time out, but it won't work; it will devolve to that parent having to physically restrain him to keep him from running around and ignoring us, which just leads to another biting or hitting incident, and the cycle repeats.

We're well aware that essentially none of this works, but we haven't been able to come up with something that does, and is reasonably doable during these times. Our son is pretty mature and able to be talked to when he's not over tired, and normally behaves quite well; our discipline usually only has to be occasional time outs, and the worst thing he does on a normal day is complain too much that his screen time is over. But when these incidents occur - probably 2 times a week - it's a completely different story. Once we do get him calmed down - often after getting him to go elsewhere - he's able to understand that he shouldn't lash out in frustration and talk about it, but getting to that point is what we can't seem to do in a calm manner.

We've discussed all sorts of options, and don't really like any of them. We don't like having nonimmediate penalties (i. e., removing privileges), as he's just barely three - from what we've read (and seen) he isn't old enough to understand them. We're considering star charts, but we don't have a lot of confidence there; the core of the issue is that he gets tired, either because he misses his nap (which he does fairly often, as he's not a good napper) or just because it's 7 or 8 pm.

What should we consider to deal with these outbursts? What works well with otherwise well behaved children who have lost control over their behavior?

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Toddlers this age (and younger) bite. That's just a fact. Most of them outgrow it fairly unceremoniously.

They bite for a number of reasons, three of which are 1) reaction, 2) attention, and 3) frustration. Usually this frustration stems from not being able to "use their words" to adequately express their frustration. To combat this, show him all the time how to use words (especially when he's well rested and receptive). Phrases like I want..., You're too close, I'm angry..., etc. might help him; you can refine these as his vocabulary increases.

Also, easier said than done, try to anticipate when he might bite, and distract.

I agree that you should make the consequences immediate, and clearly understood. This might be over the top for some people, but when my 2.5 yr old son started to bite, I would try to startle him with a very firm and loud No bite!! Biting hurts!! I would then sit him down on the sofa without toys while I made a fuss over taking care of my 'wound", giving him no attention, and making sure only that he sat on the boring couch. If it's someone else bitten, shower that person with an amount of attention. After things calm down, you might ask your child to bite himself in a clam way just to know how much it hurts.

I vividly remember the last time my child bit. (none of my other children did it.) He wanted something and bit his playmate. I jumped up, took my child under my arm (carrying him on my hip like he was a roll of carpet) and marched him home without saying a word. I put him on the couch and said, NO MORE BITING!!! and left him there until I had calmed down. Then we had the nth nite talk, but he stopped that day. I guess that was dramatic enough that he got the message.

I am a firm believer in time outs, and recommend the book 1,2,3, Magic to anyone who'll listen. It teaches the are of non-conflictual time outs, and rewards for good behavior.

Good luck. This is usually just a phase. This too shall pass. :)

Zero to three: Why Do Toddlers Bite? Finding the Right Response
Biting and Hitting: 16 Ways to Stop it
American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Note that biting itself isn't exactly the concern; it is the misbehavior in general. He went through a biting phase as a 1 year old, and we definitely went through the 'biting hurts' material (and it seemed to work). Now the only targets of that biting is us (and his little brother occasionally, though he's more often the recipient from the one year old who's teething), and I don't think it's a matter of him not knowing it hurts; it's intentional, he's trying to get our attention and/or hurt us because he's upset and lost control. – Joe Sep 23 '14 at 4:35
  • 1,2,3 magic is roughly what we follow for discipline (we are avid readers so we sort of mix and match, but that's the closest thing to a single philosophy.) Unfortunately it doesn't seem very well matched to this particular problem, because timeouts don't work when he isn't in control of himself. When he is, they work very well for him and he often takes himself to them with no argument, but in these situations he basically ignores the time out and runs about the house. – Joe Sep 23 '14 at 4:36
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    I think the first part of this answer is very important (especially if you feel timeouts & 1,2,3 aren't working). Since he only does it when 'worn out', I think the number one thing you can do is give him tools to express his feeling. I tell our 3.5 year old that if he is frustrated he can stomp the floor or bite or hit a pillow - not a person. It might not be behavior you want to see in an adult, but it might help him at the moment. Also help him to use words - it is OK to say 'I am angry', 'I am frustrated'. – Ida Sep 23 '14 at 19:55
  • @Ida - you are quite right in adding this elaboration. – anongoodnurse Sep 23 '14 at 21:35
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I mostly agree with anongoodnurse's answer (+1 from me), and would add:

Between 2 and 4 is the phase where children learn to deal with the frustration of not getting something they want, and where they can be very demanding, impulsive, and sometimes violent. However, that doesn't mean they are evil or mean. They just have to learn how to do that thing called "society". For that reason, I wouldn't assume your son is laughing at you mockingly – he might just as well not know how to deal with the situation he caused and then tries to be friendly.

Especially during this time it is very important to consistently encourage good behavior (e.g., being sad about not getting something is fine, comfort your child) and discourage bad behavior (e.g. throwing a tantrum is not fine, don't pay attention).

Think about the good and the stressful situations your family has gone through recently and try to find ways to deal with them in that light. And the next time you get into such a situation try to apply what you thought of. Remember that, in the long run, encouraging good behavior is more important than discouraging bad behavior. Give it a few weeks/months and then compare your son's behavior with his current behavior. If there's no improvement by then, consider seeking help.

Until then, remember the parental mantra: It's just a phase. :)

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