How to Discipline a Child for Spitting

Young child crying
Photographed by Sheed / Moment / Getty Images

Spitting can be one of the most repulsive and frustrating behaviors children exhibit. Whether your child spits at you when you say something they don’t want to hear, or they spit 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 their friend to steal their toy may spit on them in an effort to keep them 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 their 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 them some cleaning materials so they can wipe it up. If they spit on you or someone else, have them 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 them in a quiet area for one minute for each year of their age. This can help them learn how to calm down when they're upset. It best to teach your child how to do this by repeatedly, calmly showing them strategies such as belly breathing, muscle tension and relaxation, visual imagery, drawing, etc.

5. Use Restitution

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

6. Teach Your Child What to Do Instead

Spend time teaching your child alternatives to spitting. Show them how to use their words and encourage them 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 their behavior appropriately. Then, allow them to exchange stickers or points for tangible rewards, like TV time or an opportunity to play their 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 them to keep up the good work without spitting.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.