Do you have a preschooler or toddler? Do they toddle and do adorable things like giggle uncontrollably when you pretend to bump into walls, say “blankely” instead of blanket, and occasionally send an aggressive spray of their own spittle in your direction? Oh wait, that last one’s not actually cute.
But is this common behavior for young kids. Many toddlers and preschoolers spit to show frustration or anger because they don’t have the self-control or language to express it otherwise. They may do it out of defiance (because it gets a rise out of you), self-defense, for attention, or simply because it’s a fun thing to do with their mouths. It tickles, makes noise, and gets stuff everywhere. (Three things toddlers love.)
Though it’s a normal phase, it’s also annoying and gross and must be stopped. Here’s how.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes the best reaction to negative child behavior is no reaction at all. I know this can feel like you’re letting them get away with it in the moment. But if you think of the long game—extinguishing the behavior—pretending it didn’t happen deprives the behavior of the energy it needs to live: the thrill they get from watching parents lose their shit. Gamely act like you didn’t even notice. (I’ve used the “turn around and face the cabinets so no one can see my face” method more times than I can count.) Of course, you can’t feasibly pretend it didn’t happen every time, especially if someone else’s drool is hanging from your chin. In which case, proceed to the suggestions below.
If you’re short-tempered, or were raised by short-tempered people, I’m sure you’ve realized one of the most annoyingly true edicts in all of parenting: no matter what happens, stay calm. (This is much harder than it sounds.) Kids mimic what we do even more than what we say, and look to us for cues on how to handle their emotions. If you get offended and snap at them, you can expect to see that behavior boomerang, repeatedly. Every time you model calmness, you’re teaching them how to do it themselves. Keep your voice and face regulated, while reminding yourself it’s not you, it’s them.
Let them know spitting isn’t tolerated
Without going into a stern discussion of why spitting is gross (which may, honestly, cause them to do it more—they love gross things), simply state, “We do not spit.” If your child is old enough to understand what germs are, you can add, “It spreads germs and makes people sick.” (Or appeal to what will someday be their social radar by saying, “It’s not nice to other people.”) And then leave it at that. Again, say this calmly.
Invoke natural consequences
If the spit makes a mess, instruct your child to get a cloth or towel and wipe it up themselves. If they refuse, withhold whatever it is they want until the task is complete. If they their spray hits your face, teach them that people don’t like being spit on by creating some temporary distance between you and them (do this neutrally, not angrily). Remove yourself from their orbit for a few minutes saying, “I’m going over here now because I don’t like being spit on.” Take toys away that they may be playing with, because, “We don’t spit on our toys.” If it lands on their clothes, point out that their shirt is now wet; another reason not to spit.
Teach them what to say or do instead
What would you like your child to do next time they are so frustrated (or bored, or slaphappy) they could spit? Teach them those alternatives. It could be a verbal script such as:
- “Just say no thank you, I don’t want that”
- “You can say, ‘I’m so mad right now!’”
- If they persist, set a specific location where they can do it (that location being outside, where it’s hopefully chilly). Every time they test the boundary, ask if they want to go outside and helpfully offer to escort them there.
Keep setting consistent, neutral reminders of why spitting isn’t acceptable. This transformation will not happen overnight, but rest assured any lesson you impart repeatedly is getting in there, and will pay off in the long run.
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