Hitting and Biting

My 3-year-old son constantly hits and bites (more clothing than skin, but sometimes skin) and pulls hair. He has a hard time listening. We’ve tried several disciplinary actions (time-out, holding time-out) but nothing works and sometimes he smirks! What can I do?

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

Most kids hit or bite at some point. Those who keep it up usually feel they are getting something out of it. Either getting their way or getting attention (even negative attention), getting their siblingunhappy, or just getting a chance to express anger.

To help them go faster through this phase, immediately go to the child who is bit or hit, scoop him/her up for a hug, while saying, “No, no biting” to the biter. Then say he is in time-out and set a timer for three minutes. Don’t give him the attention to try to get him to stay in any particular place or go anyplace, just don’t pay attention for three minutes and at the end, when the timer dings, it is over.

For most kids, it is better not to have a “time-out” spot because if they leave, they are getting away with something or you pay attention to them trying to get them to stay. Either way, the time-out doesn’t work. The timer is important so that the end is not subjective. After the timer rings, treat him normally. In between, repeat the message, “In our family, we don’t bite.” Kids are trying to learn family identity at that age. In the meantime, try to teach him alternatives to get his way or express being upset.

In addition to time-outs for negative behaviors, give your child plenty of praise for positive behaviors. When your son is playing well with others and not biting or hitting, praise him for playing nicely. Children innately want a parent’s attention and affirmation. Your praise will act as strong motivating force for your child to avoid aggressive behaviors in the future.

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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  1. Sylvia meza

    My 3-1/2 yr old niece, which lives with me and my husband and her dad, hits kids at daycare. She’s been through like 4 different ones and kicked out of 2. Time out don’t help. And she throws tantrums. Help! I don’t know what to do? Want to take her to get evaluated. She can be the sweetest girl ever, but just out of nowhere she’ll hit kids. And the teacher.


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