One day at the playground, when my son was almost 3, he was playing with one of his best friends, a small boy who matched him in energy and strength of will. They were devoted to each other, but their rowdy play often devolved into tussles and tears. And yet I never saw this coming.

“Mommy, look!” My son showed me his arm, which had two small arcs of tiny red teeth marks on it. “Liam bited me,” he said, shakily, he wasn’t crying but he looked stricken.

Why preschoolers bite and hit

At the time I was stricken, too. I suspected there was something seriously wrong with Liam. But preschool teacher Eric Wilson says that hitting — and even biting — are normal preschool behaviors. Small children typically hit or bite because they don’t have the words to express their feelings of anger, frustration, or fear, though it can also be a result of something simple, like a child testing limits, seeking attention, or even, counter intuitively, showing affection.

“We usually see it in the younger kids,” says Wilson, who is a head teacher at Pacific Primary Preschool. “They start at our school at 2½, and they’re still learning to communicate. The more they can communicate, the less they are going to bite. That’s why they do it: they don’t have words to express their feelings.”

Bay Area pediatrician Laurel Schultz says that when her son was little, he used to occasionally bite her when she got home from work, because he was so glad to see her. “Kids get overwhelmed by their feeling and that’s normal – but that doesn’t make it okay,” Schultz says.

Putting a stop to biting and hitting

If your child hits or bites, take her aside and speak to her using simple language. Say something like, “No biting. Biting hurts.” If you say these words with expression and make a sad face to show your child that you’re in pain, it’ll help your child make the connection that biting hurts.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to teach them social and emotional skills,” says parent educator Nancy Gnass. Ask your child how she’s feeling, and see if you can help her find words to express herself verbally instead. By helping your child label her emotions, says Gnass, you’re teaching her an alternative to hitting or biting next time.

Then sit with your child quietly, keeping her removed from whatever prompted the hitting or biting, so she has a chance to calm down. It’s a way of hitting the reset button, says Schultz. She stresses that discipline is about teaching, not punishment. You should never hit or shame your child, Schultz says. When your child is calm, you can talk to her about using words, and help her think about other ways to express frustration and solve problems in a better way, like asking an adult for help.

In many cases, your child will be going right back into the same situation after calming down. To set your child up for better behavior rather than repeated frustration, Gnass suggests redirecting your preschooler to a new toy or activity.

Wilson says that teachers at Pacific Primary take hitting and biting incidents seriously. “When it happens, we talk to the child a lot,” he says. “We talk about respecting other peoples’ bodies and feelings, and we help kids learn to use their words. In some cases, we have a teacher shadow the child, so they can jump right on it before it happens again.”

“Preschool-age kids are learning the rules,” Schultz says, “and your job as a parent is to teach your child what’s okay and what’s not.” Be sure to set an example and model the behavior you would like her to use, and praise her when she uses it. Just be prepared to do this over and over, Schultz warns: “You’ll have to teach them over and over because that is how kids learn.”

Happily, that consistency should pay off relatively quickly, according to Wilson. “For most kids, it’s a phase that doesn’t last long.”

Enjoying our preschool behavior series, Is it normal? Get the lowdown on other actions that confound parents of young children, including: shyness, confidence, and trouble with transitions; behavior changes at school versus home; hurting animals; learning manners and nice words; lying, hiding things and stealing; gun play; “magic years” behaviors, like dressing up, cross-dressing, and imaginary friends; and more!

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Updated: July 14, 2015