Gently Disciplining a Screamer, Biter

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My son turned one year old in January. He is a screamer. Not crying screams, but shrieking screams. We thought for awhile that it was linked to having ear issues, but it seems now that it is a habit for letting out his frustration. If he has something he shouldn’t, or is doing something he shouldn’t and I intervene, he screams, grabs my hand, and tries to bite me. It’s obvious the screaming and biting are out of anger.

We are having a power struggle, and to my knowledge it is rather early for this to start. We’ve been dealing with the screams by “shhhing” him and quietly telling him that he can’t do that. Sometimes in the moment it works, but over all he is continuing with the screaming.

Now with the biting, I think something more needs to be done. My family is telling me to smack him, but I don’t believe that’s right. Sometimes I do have to hold back because I get so frustrated. If there is any advice that you can give me as to what to do about the screaming and biting, I would appreciate it so much. He is such a strong-willed little man.

Here is what our NPN mentors had to stay:

Shae: I can totally relate to this! My almost-two-year-old is a screamer as well.

I try to remind myself how frustrating it must be to be that age. There is so much she wants to explore, and sometimes I disturb or flat out block her. As she is getting more words, I’m finding that she is screaming less and saying more – even if it is things like, “No Mummy, Harper’s turn.” Before she had words, screaming was her way of venting her frustration.

What I have found to work is to make her environment a “yes” environment as much as possible. This means if there are things I’m not comfortable with her touching, I put them away. I also had a hard look at what I was saying no to – a lot of the things really were OK with me, but I was trying to keep other people from thinking my children were “badly behaved” or “allowed to do whatever they want.” Now I try not to worry about what other people think and worry more about my connection with my children. If we are at someone else’s house, I help her look at things and try to make leaving as easy as possible. The less she has to be upset and angry about, the better it is for everyone. If she does scream or melt down, I validate her feelings: “You wanted to look at that, and I took it away. I know.”

I really like this article, “Emotions Are Not Bad Behavior,” by Robin Grille.

As far as the biting goes, I feel smacking would reinforce the idea that it’s OK to hurt someone when you are frustrated or mad. I would be firm without scaring or hurting him. When Harper tries to pinch or hit me when she is mad, I tell her, “NO, gentle hands,” and then I sit with her until her anger has passed. This is not as easy as it sounds for me. I was parented in a very traditional way and have to fight back all of the old feelings about what is and is not OK – and that she is being “naughty” when all she is doing is expressing her frustration.

This article by Naomi Aldort about toddlers is lovely. And I love The Healing Gap by Scott Noelle.

Nathan: Having a son who is just a month or so older than yours, I know how difficult things can be with a person who is developing his sense of self and personal preference. I also know how uncomfortable family pressures can be, especially if your family’s views on childrearing do not align with your own. Your instinct against hitting your child is right. Hitting him will be confusing and hurtful, not to mention ineffective. You’ve spent his entire life being his protector and teacher, and reacting violently will only undermine your bond and negatively impact your family.

While you divided your situation into two parts – the screeching and the biting – it might do both you and your son some good to view them as components of the same issue: communication. At this stage in your son’s life, he doesn’t yet possess the ability to control his impulses. If you do something to make him upset, he screeches to communicate his frustration and ultimately bites because he cannot control himself.

In situations where our son does something that he’s not allowed to (in cases where he tries to touch an electrical outlet or hit the cat, for example), rather than dwelling on the thing that he’s not allowed to do, we will bluntly state that he’s not allowed to touch it or that it’s not for him and then redirect him to a new activity (book, toy, drink of water, etc.). We also strongly encourage him to make good choices. We reinforce this with appreciation (“Thank you for making a good choice!”) when he chooses not to do the thing that he shouldn’t.

Since our toddlers aren’t able to control their impulses and emotions, ultimately we as parents are responsible for their actions. This also applies to how they interact with their homes. The things our sons can reach are our responsibility. Do you find yourself having to stop your son from getting into things he shouldn’t very often? If so, then perhaps some new consideration could be made with respect to baby-friendly space; more “yes touch” space and fewer “no touch” areas. Providing this for him will help build his confidence. We are by no means a family that believes in a home that is ONLY baby friendly. We have plenty of areas to which our son has limited access. That being said, my partner has put a great deal of effort into organizing some of our son’s toys and books in areas that he can access at will. This allows him to make some choices about how he wants to spend his time.

Depending on how verbal your son is, you might try to work on some baby sign language. Our son has many verbal words, but we continue to work on new signs to help us communicate more effectively. The more we use signs with him, the less frustrated we all seem to be. He’s now able to let us know what he wants and needs in many situations.

Another strategy that we found in Dr. Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, has seemed to work really well for our family when our son is very frustrated. Dr. Karp suggests that when your little one is sad, mad, hurt, etc., you mirror his emotions. If he falls and hurts himself, rather than telling him in some way or another to “shake it off,” we say, “Oh dang! That really hurt, huh?” Or if he’s really mad, we do something similar, exclaiming, “Oh, shoot! That cord was so tempting! I know you’re mad, but you can’t pull on Mama’s computer cord.” Showing that we’re on his side even when we might be the source of his frustration serves to help diffuse his anger or sadness.

Something that we’ve spent time encouraging in our family is the difference between gentle and non-gentle touches. If our son hurts either my partner or me, we make sure to tell him with a sorrowful face and a stern voice to stop; that he has hurt us and that we would like a “gentle touch.”  While over time, this has become rote – our son may hit us; we react; he kisses us – it’s clear that he recognizes the distinction between types of physical contact and it places a hard break in our interaction. This difference has been most apparent in our son’s interactions with our house cats – lots of “gentle pats” and proud expressions.

As you know, raising a child is hard work! While I have made my share of decisions based on gut reaction, those that I have made based on intention and discussion with my partner have seemed to have the most positive lasting impact. Stopping to think about my parenting choices rather than simply reacting has saved me heartache.

Lastly, hold tight to the fact that our children will pass through whatever phase they’re in currently. He might be teething, which could be making him especially frustrated. He could simply be developing his preferences, and the struggle between what he wants and what he should be doing are causing you both growing pains. I hope that my family’s experiences will help make this phase a little more comfortable. Hang in there and keep taking great care of your little one!

Amy: I appreciate your honesty about the screams and bites getting to you so that you need to hold back from following the family’s suggestion to smack your child. The first time I lashed out in anger against my oldest child was when she was around 18 months old. If I could go back in time and tell myself what I am about to tell you and make it stick, I would.

These are the words I needed to hear over and over as I taught myself how to respond and parent my children intentionally, using anger as a guide instead of a weapon.

If you ever have any question, trust that no amount of punitive or physical response will result in teaching the lesson you want to teach your child. All parents want the best for their children. Many parents who use punitive or physically harming methods with their children don’t know what else to do. From what I gather, you want to teach your son that screaming and biting is not okay. He may eventually learn that through physical punishment, but he will also learn that his parent causes him pain and he will be motivated through fear. If fear is the motivator, the child does not develop the intrinsic motivation necessary to cooperate with others and life itself. Defiance generally continues or resurfaces later in life. The long-term effects of physically punitive parenting are well documented in this Time Magazine article. I hear that you don’t want to hurt your son. I also hear that you need some support to refrain from doing so. It can be a challenge when we feel angry, don’t have inner resources, and our family of origin is suggesting a practice we don’t feel is right. Continue seeking resources to parent in the way you desire.

Be aware of the idea that children need to be instantly obedient. While we do want to create trusting relationships that foster cooperation for the sake of family and planetary harmony, the idea of instant obedience can kill the relationship. It assumes that children should be a certain way. When instant obedience is treated as just an idea – a thought one can subscribe to or not – rather than a necessity, you can release its hold on your parenting. You can try replacing it with “My child and I are creating a cooperative relationship based on trust and respect.” It is likely you will find your way to cooperation more easily.

Anger is a signal. It is frustrating to have a child who will not do as we ask – even if we understand that toddlers are toddlers, kids are kids, and it is completely natural for a child to resist doing what the parent asks of him – especially if the parent is doing so in angst. There are times when it is not only convenient, but socially necessary for children to understand that they can scream on the playground and not while people are sleeping (or whenever your family likes quiet). The anger you feel is in part a response to wanting to set a limit, have it be respected, and not knowing how to do it without force. Anger speaks to power, just like you mentioned. When you feel anger, bring your attention to your breath, let go of what you think has to happen, notice what you don’t want or like and then focus on what you do want. “I hate the screaming and biting” shifts to “I want to communicate with my son lovingly.”

You both have power, share it. As parents we can get caught in the power trap – we think we need to have it – to get cooperation, to be in charge, to protect, whatever. In truth, we have all of the power we need inside of ourselves. We have the power of choice. Your son does also, although he is developing the capacity to exercise it. He doesn’t have 20-30 years of life experience in this body to negotiate with you verbally. Experiment with ways you can both recognize your power. His power is centered very basically at this age. He needs attention, love, care, food, and a suitable environment to thrive. If any of those are out of whack for him, he may do something to exercise the power to get those needs met. That doesn’t mean you cannot communicate more appropriate ways than biting and screaming for him to do that. He is little and repetition is part of the process. Your power is in speaking your truth, setting boundaries for your life confidently, and following through to have them respected. Let go of the struggle and see him eye-to-eye – knowing that he is not manipulating. You do not have to manipulate him through force to teach him, either.

Kids are reflective. Our children can be a mirror for emotions in the environment. You may notice more screaming or biting when emotions are intense. He may be trying to communicate that what he is experiencing is too much. If he simply needs attention – he has discovered a way to get it. All children experiment with this. Some adults still do. Notice that screaming and biting both involve the mouth – our center for verbal communication. When we internally resist what our children are doing or say, “We don’t do that here,” we aren’t anchoring into the truth of the moment. Arguing with reality never works. Reflect what you see. Label the behavior: why it doesn’t work and what to do instead. Biting hurts, teeth are for chewing food. Screaming hurts my ears, please talk softly. Breathe, bring your own voice to a whisper, and connect to your son in some way – through eye contact, touch or otherwise, and let him know you hear him. Model what you want from him. Trust that this approach will yield results as you navigate the parenting path.

Consider a positive time in. If you are in a situation where you feel a limit needs to be communicated, consider a positive time out or in for one, either, or both of you. A positive time in looks like this: Baby screams or bites, it has hurt someone, you feel like you can’t handle it right now or you’re in a setting where you’re going to get flack for not smacking him – address the behavior and take him to a private space. If you’re at home, hold him on your lap for a bit as you breathe and redirect him to the appropriate behavior. This isn’t a punishment; it is an interruption for everyone’s sake. It is okay to stop a behavior that is harmful to provide loving guidance. The key is to take these time ins for yourself when needed also – to prevent an angry reaction that only fuels his frustrated reactions. Consider it positive time together to lovingly teach – because that is what it is.

Baby sign language may help. Teaching your son a few signs for things he needs – milk, eat, more, hug, sorry, thank you, etc. – may bridge communication until he’s talking clearly. Our family enjoys this form of talking quite a bit when the babies are growing. Joseph Garcia’s work with babies and sign language can be found at www.sign2me.com.

As the emotional intensity of this passes, your son will learn appropriate skills and how to communicate more effectively, and you are likely to find anger less of an issue. Until then, breathe and believe in your ability to guide lovingly. You can do this.

One Response to Gently Disciplining a Screamer, Biter

  1. Arpita  

    The post really spoke to me. MANY years ago as a nanny, I worked for a couple that instructed me to let their twins CIO. I did as I was told, although felt TERRIBLE about the 20 minutes of agony I was subjecting their babies to. Although I didn’t like it, I would often reflect on “was are the alternatives?”, and just assumed it had to be done if you wanted any one on one time with your spouse at the end of the day. I’m so thankful for posts like this, and other resources that show it is possible to attend to the crying, and frustration your child displays, and still maintain a happy healthy relationship with your spouse. Great article!!

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