How to handle your little one’s embarrassing moments

From biting to spitting, why do they do these things, and what should you do about it.

30 June 2018
By Glynis Horning

Most behaviour we find embarrassing in our young children is perfectly normal. From sexual touching to biting, spitting and swearing, it generally stems from curiosity – exploring their bodies and the world – and emotions they’re not yet able to understand and control.

Once you figure out the cause for a behaviour, it’s easier to step back from your own feelings, and take positive steps to manage it.

1. Sexual touching / masturbation

When your little girl rocks dreamily on the arm of a couch, or your boy slips his hands in his pyjama bottoms, ask yourself why you squirm. Many of us grew up being told masturbation is bad or dirty, “but it’s part of normal sexuality development when children explore their bodies,” says Gauteng counselling psychologist Karin Steyn. Enjoying your body parts is part of liking your body, and helps develop self-confidence and a healthy sexuality.

Why they do it

It feels good! It’s only when masturbation becomes frequent and intense and there are signs of stress or anxiety that you need to be concerned (withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, complaints of headaches or stomach aches). The child may be using it for tension relief and to self-soothe.

What to do

Don’t overreact, set boundaries. “Explain calmly that you know it feels good, but it should be done in private,” says Steyn. Suggest things to distract them. If it’s accompanied by signs of stress or anxiety, find the cause and address it – anything from the arrival of a sibling to bullying. Help them name their emotions and talk about how they feel. And help them adjust by giving lots of attention and loving reassurance. Get professional help if need be.

2. Swearing

It can be a shock when your innocent poppet drops an adult oath.

Why they do it

“Young children most likely don’t understand the meaning of swear words, they only repeat what they hear and model behaviour they observe,” says Steyn. “They’re also likely to repeat behaviour that elicits strong emotional responses from others – this gives them power.” They may swear to express frustration, get a reaction, or because they think it’s funny.

What to do

Keep calm and tell them: “That’s not a nice word, we don’t use words like that.” Suggest more acceptable words to vent: “flip”, “darn”, “rats”, or make up something together. Encourage them to name their feelings: “I’m so mad!” and to cool down by taking deep breaths. Consider the source of the words: are they watching unsuitable material on TV or online? Set controls. Do you swear in front of them? Start a swear jar for a charity, or explain there are some things only adults get to do, suggests Steyn.

3. Spitting

This is as unhygienic as it’s unpleasant.

Why they do it

Children are still learning to problem-solve and handle emotions, so they can resort to spitting out of stress, anger (especially if they’ve been taught hitting is bad), or to get negative attention when feeling neglected or slighted.

What to do

Try to figure out what motivates your child. If it’s anger, tell them you understand how they feel, but spitting is not the way to deal with it: “We don’t spit”. If it’s in response to a stressful situation or another child’s aggression, suggest other solutions (walking away, coming to you or a caregiver). If it’s to get attention, make sure you give them plenty in future – but in the moment, simply tell them spitting is not acceptable, and get them to help you clean it up. “Don’t reward the behaviour with yelling or a reaction,” says Steyn. “Stay neutral and move to natural consequences and discipline. Also make sure to reward positive behaviour, and consistently model the desired behaviour for your child.”

4. Biting

This can be painful as well as embarrassing, especially when your little one sinks their choppers into someone else’s kid.

Why they do it

Babies bite to learn about objects, and to get relief when teething, or a reaction (the victim’s “ouch” can seem a game). But toddlers have learned that biting hurts – they do it when overwhelmed by their feelings: tension, stress, fear, frustration or anger. Instead of release, however, they often feel guilt and shame, and become more upset or frightened.

What to do

Keep calm. Give your attention first to the victim, then take your little one aside, get down and make eye contact. Ask why they are so upset. Reassure them you love them, no matter what, but it’s never OK to hurt others. “Children who bite need support to release their pent-up emotion,” says Steyn. “Don’t punish, shame or blame them. Prevent the need for biting by spending quality time each day with them to provide the love and attention they crave. Engage in play and activities that bring laughter – it’s a wonderful way to release tension.”

IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images