My Toddler Pinches and Bites When We Try to Get Her To Talk

My Toddler Pinches and Bites When We Try to Get Her to Talk.

Why does my toddler bite and pinch

Why does my toddler bite and pinch

Photo Credit: bradleygee

Several posts back I wrote:

Why does my Toddler Pull and Point But Not Talk? and 7 Ways to Get Your Toddler to Communicate

These two posts were in response to an email from a My Toddler Talks reader asking how to encourage her toddler to communicate with words rather than pulling and pointing.

A few weeks ago, another My Toddler Talks reader emailed with the following question:

“We have two children, a 3.5 year old boy and a 20 month old girl.  We did not have any speech issues with our son, however our daughter is not speaking as much as we believe she should be able to at this point. She has maybe 10 words.  She will resort to biting or pinching at times if she becomes frustrated.  I really want to be proactive about this.  Do you have any suggestions or resources?”

In this post, I’m going to address:

  • Why biting, pinching, hitting and more challenging behaviors occur

  • Give strategies to help replace these behaviors

  • Share some resources

In NEXT month’s post, I’ll share:

Here we go.

  • Think and ask yourself - What triggered the biting and pinching? Knowing the trigger will help you, the parent or clinician, modify your own behavior. Toddlers who cannot communicate their needs and wants resort to biting, pinching, hitting, and lashing out because they are frustrated and don’t know what to do. Many of these aggressive behaviors are pretty instinctive. Young children (sometimes even adults) demonstrate such behaviors because they can’t yet control their emotions. Therefore, it helps to know the trigger.

    • Perhaps the demands or expectations placed on her were too high?

    • Perhaps she was asked to do something in front of others and this made her feel self-conscious?

    • Perhaps she felt overwhelmed?

    • Perhaps she chose to bite or pinch as a way to avoid or escape a demanding task?

Interesting to note: Non-compliance and boundary pushing is pretty typical in toddlers. They are becoming more mobile and independent and thus feel the need to test the limits. However, children with delays or impairments tend to more frequently demonstrate adverse behaviors. Research from a recent longitudinal study on 120 toddlers reveals that poor language skills lead to later behavioral problems (James). The good news- with proper support and early intervention many toddlers CAN catch up.

  • Anticipate and (try to) prevent the biting and pinching.

    • If an upcoming task is challenging for your toddler and you expect some resistance (like biting or pinching) tell them what’s about to happen. Do this BEFORE the demanding task occurs. Also, tell them what you expect. Too often adults think that children who aren’t talking don’t understand what’s going on. Sometimes they don’t, but many times they do. If we deny a child with a language delay the chance to engage in conversation, we consequently deny giving the child a fair opportunity to know what’s going on in his world.

      • For instance, let’s imagine that you dread changing your toddler’s diaper because he always cries and rolls, making it a pretty unbearable task. You anticipate that it’s going to be miserable so you react with quickness, surprise, and trickery. You scoop up your child in the middle of his post poop bliss and swiftly put him down on the changing table. You do this without any warning because you think the less he knows the better. Or, maybe you think: What does it really matter? He’s going to complain anyway. I urge you to talk to him. Talk to your toddler as you would anyone else. Too often children who are not talking get spoken to the least when in fact they need it the most! You could try saying: “Georgie, I’m going to change your diaper. I know you want to play with your kitchen (yes, folks – kitchen), but first, I have to change your diaper. Please lie down. It makes mommy happy when you listen.” This leads to my next point.

      • Let’s face the facts - we can’t always prevent a toddler from becoming frustrated. He may be tired, in pain, hot, hungry, and not have the words or know how to express himself. However, we can gently but firmly tell the child – “No biting. Biting hurts.” Talk at a level your child understands. If necessary, repeat yourself. I would also use the same key phrase each time that defiant behavior occurs.

      • If you find that the biting behavior (or other adverse behaviors) is on the rise, perhaps you need to reassess your child’s daily routines? Are they predictable and consistent? In My Toddler Talks, I write how important routines are for toddlers. I also write about it here.

  • Control your own reactions. How do you respond when your child bites or pinches? Are you quick to yell? Do you get angry? Do you over-react? Recent research indicates that parents who over-react and are quick to become angry are more likely to have toddlers who act out and become easily distressed.Shannon Lipscomb, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences at OSU-Cascades states the following:

    • "Parents' ability to regulate themselves and to remain firm, confident and not over-react is a key way they can help their children to modify their behavior," she said. "You set the example as a parent in your own emotions and reactions." (“Over-reactive parenting linked to negative emotions and problem behavior in toddlers”)

If we can’t regulate our own feelings actions, how can we expect this from our children?

  • Give words to help them self-regulate. Language helps us to regulate our thoughts and emotions. I'm going to repeat that - Language helps us to regulate our thoughts and emotions. The results from the longitudinal study "...suggest that language skill predicted growth in self-regulation, and self-regulation, in turn, predicted behavioral adjustment.” (James)

  • Provide alternative behavior strategies/modifications.

    • If your child needs to let out her frustration or anger, encourage her to do it in a physical but safe fashion. Teach her to squeeze a ball or stomp her feet.

    • We all get angry. Anger is a human emotion. Depending on your toddler’s receptive language, explain how you deal with anger. When I get angry, I take a deep breath, count to 10, splash water on my face, etc. If you DO lose your temper and throw an adult tantrum, fess up and apologize to your child. Say you’re sorry and acknowledge that you handled the situation poorly. Yes, you can do this even if your little one is not yet talking.

  • Reduce the pressure when trying to have your toddler to communicate!

    • I will be addressing this topic in my next post, so please stay tuned!

Additional Suggestions and Resources:

In the meantime, a 20 months old toddler who only says ten words is on the low end for her age.

I would recommend having her evaluated by a certified and licensed speech language pathologist (SLP). You can find an ASHA certified SLP by clicking this here.

Since she’s young, there’s still time for her to catch up to her peers!!

If you think you're a parent who has lost that peaceful feeling, I highly recommend reading Dr. Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting (please see picture in the left corner).

The website Zero to Three also has a wealth of information for parents of toddlers.

Occupational therapist and Yoga instructor, Lindsey Lieneck has written a fantastic article, 4 Surprising Ways to Support a Child’s Self-Regulation & Avoid Melt Down. It’s definitely worth reading.

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Thanks for reading!


James, Tracy. “Do Toddler Language Skills Predict ADHD Later?” Futurity, 23 July 2014 Web. 27 July 2014.

Oregon State University. “Over-reactive parenting linked to negative emotions and problem behavior in toddlers.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 February 2012.