Divya Sainathan is a writer and editor with a special interest in early childhood education.
Are you confused, embarrassed and stumped by your child’s tendency to spit when you least expect it? At a loss for how to handle this seemingly rude, aggressive and unhygienic behavior? Read on to better understand why your child spits and what you can do to help them overcome this behavior
Kavitha Gautam, a working mom living in Bengaluru, had guests over one evening. A colleague of hers had brought her family along so their kids could play with each other. Kavitha was looking forward to her single child having a good time interacting with other children. While the parents were happily chatting in the living room, the kids appeared to be engrossed in play. The colleague’s children were busy exploring the toys and books belonging to Kavitha’s son. The evening rolled along pleasantly enough, till Kavitha’s 4-year-old son barged into the living room and randomly spat on the floor, in front of them all! A shocked Kavitha gave her child a flick on his mouth.
“I just couldn’t contain myself. I was so ashamed and infuriated that I did the first thing that came to my mind. Only when my child ran away in tears did I realize I may have reacted hastily and hurt him without giving him a chance to explain,” she confessed.
Spitting is a fairly common behavior among toddlers and preschoolers. It often prompts parents to respond negatively, by admonishing, threatening, or disciplining the child on the spot. It pushes all our buttons and blows consideration and logic out the window.
Behind every behavior is an unmet need. What does your child aim to accomplish by spitting? Observe when and where they spit, and you might have some answers to the mysterious workings of your kid’s brain circuitry. Don’t be surprised if there are many right answers. Just look at the context and situation to help you identify the behavioral triggers. Here are some possibilities...
Your 2-year-old may have just discovered their ability to shoot spit projectiles from their mouth. They’ll then proceed to hone and perfect this skill at the drop of a hat. As for a preschooler who has long since mastered the fine art of spitting, they might just enjoy your reactions to their spitting episodes. Don’t expect them to see how this is so not fun for you.
Admit it—you can never ignore it when your child spits. This is one behavior no parent will let slide. So, if your kid has been clamoring for your time and attention while you went about doing chores or office work, spitting will do the trick for them because most of us are wired to reward negative behavior with attention.
Emotions can be very challenging for younger kids, who feel different emotions in just a minute. And they may not have the ability to identify and convey what they feel. Your child could spit on you, others, or the ground:
Children with additional needs (such as those on the autism spectrum) may resort to spitting to communicate, in the absence of language skills.
Your child could be anxious or stressed out because of something in their surroundings—it could be a wet bathroom floor, pungent smells, loud noises, flying insects, or simply a change in routine. Spitting can be a coping mechanism to deal with their stress.
There’s a good chance that your kid is honoring a new friend with the highest form of flattery—by imitating what they have seen their friend doing. If you are sure that your child’s spitting is linked to their interactions with a specific child, you could work through this problem along with the parents of that child.
Spitting is messy, unhealthy, and rude, and it alienates friends and undermines adult authority. During the COVID-19 pandemic, spitting is downright dangerous. A tiny splotch from an asymptomatic child is enough to infect an entire family.
Parents need to step in and address spitting before it develops into a stubborn habit. Here are some things you can do to nip this problematic behavior in the bud.
Spitting grosses us out and provokes us. When we lash out at our kids in anger, we lose a great opportunity to role-model positive emotional regulation.
You could try stepping away for a few seconds to calm down a bit. Let your child know what you’re doing, “I’m angry with you for spitting, so I’m going to close my eyes and take some deep breaths and count to 10. Then I won’t be so angry anymore, and you can tell me what you’re feeling. I will listen to you.” Both of you could even try to cool down together, breathing and counting in tandem. This exercise tells them that it’s normal to get upset, but spitting is not the correct way to express themselves, or communicate.
You can encourage your child to try some calming techniques when they’re upset. Don’t forget to appreciate their effort at emotional regulation.
Have a brief, age-appropriate chat with your child. Let them know it’s okay to spit in the sink when you brush your teeth, rinse your mouth after eating, have a severe cold, or accidentally chew on something inedible. Spitting in any other situation or any other place is unacceptable. It makes one’s clothes, toys, or surroundings dirty. It can spread germs. It can upset friends and family and cost your child their companionship.
It’s not enough to just highlight the negatives. Make sure to demonstrate clean, correct, and socially acceptable practices as well.
If your child spits to garner attention, ignore them. Ignore them consistently, not paying attention to even a single instance of spitting. It’s only a matter of time before they grasp the futility of their attempts and move on. If you waver in your resolve and dignify spitting with a response even once, your child will cling to the behavior to seek your attention.
You’ll have some idea of the things that push your child to engage in spitting. So, when your child resists their urge to spit, acknowledge their effort and praise them. Be specific with your compliments: “Well done! You didn’t spit on your friend/sibling when they started playing with your toy!” or “Good job on telling me why you are upset, instead of spitting!” or “You ran to the washbasin to spit. Mommy is proud of you and very happy with you!”
Your toddler or preschooler may even respond well to a reward system that encourages the good behavior of not spitting. Give your toddler social rewards like hugs, high fives, enthusiastic verbal praise, or a happy dance. Use a star or sticker chart to award your preschooler for not spitting. They can trade in a specific number of stickers or stars for a tangible reward, such as their favorite toy, playtime with family, or choice of movie for family movie night.
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