How to Discipline a Child for Spitting

Young child crying
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Spitting can be one of the most repulsive and frustrating behaviors children exhibit. Whether your child spits at you when you say something he doesn’t want to hear, or he spits on a friend who refuses to share, it’s important to curb the habit as soon as possible.

Why Kids Spit

Sometimes, kids just spit for fun. They may simply spit on the ground because they think it's entertaining. If they get a reaction from anyone, it can make spitting even more fun.

Toddlers sometimes spit because it's a good way to get attention. Spitting on someone will certainly get some type of reaction.

Preschoolers tend to spit out of anger. When they aren’t able to verbalize their feelings of frustration, they spit to show how upset they feel. A child who knows not to hit may think spitting is a better alternative.

Spitting can also be a self-defense tactic. A child who doesn’t want his friend to steal his toy may spit on him in an effort to keep him at bay.

Older kids tend to spit out of an act of defiance. It’s a great way to say, “You can’t control me,” or “There, take that!”

Some children with autism or other special needs spit as well. They may find it's an effective way to express their feelings or a way they can gain a little bit of control.

How to Respond

Almost all kids spit at one time or another. The way you respond to spitting will play a major role in how likely your child is to do it again. Here are the most effective ways to respond if your child spits:

1. Stay Calm

The disrespect—combined with the disgust factor—that accompanies spitting might cause you to lose your temper. But when your child loses his cool, the best thing you can do is role model how to deal with your emotions in a socially appropriate way.

Yelling or spanking sends the wrong message. If you’re really upset, walk away for a few minutes. Don’t address the situation until you’re calm enough to speak in a normal tone of voice.

2. Tell Your Child Spitting Is Unacceptable

Avoid the urge to give a lengthy lecture or scold your child endlessly. A quick, simple reminder that “spitting is gross,” or “spitting is inappropriate,” is all you need.

Send a clear message that says, “Spit is for chewing.” If your child spits in more than one setting, adults should give the same, consistent message about why spitting is a bad idea.

3. Make Your Child Clean It Up

A helpful natural consequence for spitting includes cleaning up the mess. If your child spits on the floor, give him some cleaning materials so he can wipe it up. If he spits on you or someone else, have him assist in washing it off—if it’s appropriate to do so.

4. Place Your Child in Time-Out

Time-out is a helpful consequence, especially if your child spits out of anger. Place him in a quiet area for one minute for each year of his age. This can help him learn how to calm himself down when he’s upset.

5. Use Restitution

If your child spits on someone else, or on their property, restitution may be in order. For example, insist that he loan the victim his favorite toy for the day or assign him an extra chore to do. Doing something kind for the victim can help him make amends.

6. Teach Your Child What to Do Instead

Spend time teaching your child alternatives to spitting. Show him how to use his words and encourage him to use healthy anger management skills. Eventually, your child will learn how to deal with uncomfortable emotions in a socially appropriate manner.

7. Reinforce Good Behavior

If spitting is a big problem for your child, a reward system can be helpful. Create a behavior chart that allows your child to earn stickers or points for managing his behavior appropriately. Then, allow him to exchange stickers or points for tangible rewards, like TV time or an opportunity to play his favorite game with the family.

Provide lots of praise. Say things like, “Great job using your words when you were mad,” or “Nice work telling your brother no when he tried to take your toy.” Praise will encourage him to keep up the good work without spitting.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Understanding Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents.

  • Aggressive Behavior.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics: Aggressive Child.