How to Wean a Child to Spit

Do you have a preschooler or toddler? Do they hobble around and do delightful things, like giggling uncontrollably as you pretend to bump into walls, say “empty” instead of a blanket, and occasionally release an aggressive jet of their own saliva in your direction? Oh wait, the last one isn’t really cute.

But this is normal behavior for young children. Many toddlers and preschoolers spit to show frustration or anger because they don’t have the self-control or language to express it differently. They may do it out of defiance (because it annoys you), self-defense, to get attention, or just because it’s fun to do with their mouth. He tickles, makes noise and gets things everywhere. (Three things babies love.)

While this is a normal phase, it is also annoying and disgusting and needs to be stopped. Here’s how.

not impressed

Although it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes the best response to a child’s negative behavior is no response at all. I know it might feel like you’re letting them get away with it right now. But if you think about the long game – eradicating the behavior – then pretending it didn’t happen robs the behavior of the energy it needs to live: the thrill they get from watching their parents lose their shit. Playfully act like you didn’t even notice. (I’ve used the “turn to face the cabinets so no one can see my face” method more times than I can count.) Of course, you can’t really pretend this didn’t happen every time, especially if someone else’s saliva is your chin. In this case, go to the suggestions below.

Calm down

If you’re hot-tempered or were raised by hot-tempered people, I’m sure you’ve learned one of the most annoying rules of thumb in all of parenting: no matter what happens, stay calm. (It’s a lot harder than it sounds.) Children imitate what we do, even more than what we say, and look to us for clues on how to manage their emotions. If you get offended and snap at them, you can expect to boomerang again in their behavior. Every time you demonstrate calmness, you are teaching them how to do it themselves. Keep your voice and facial expressions under control, reminding yourself that it’s not you, it’s them.

Let them know that spitting is unacceptable

Without getting into harsh arguments about why spitting is disgusting (which, frankly, might make them do it more often – they love rough stuff), just say, “We don’t spit.” If your child is old enough to understand what germs are, you can add, “He spreads germs and makes people sick.” (Or appeal to what will someday be their social radar by saying, “This is not good for other people.”) And then stop there. Again, say it calmly .

Bring on the natural consequences

If saliva gets dirty, ask your child to take a rag or towel and wipe it off on their own. If they refuse, withhold what they want until the task is completed. If their spray hits you in the face, teach them that people don’t like being spat on by creating some temporary distance between them (do it in a neutral way, not angrily). Remove yourself from their orbit for a few minutes by saying, “I’m coming here now because I don’t like being spit on.” Remove toys they can play with because “we don’t spit on our toys.” If it lands on their clothes, indicate 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 the next time they are so upset (or bored or sloppy) they can spit? Teach them these alternatives. It can be a verbal script, for example:

  • “Just say no thanks, I don’t want that”
  • “You can say, ‘I’m so angry right now!’
  • If they persist, set up a specific spot where they can do this (this should be outside, where it’s hopefully cool). Every time they check the border, ask if they’d like to go outside and helpfully offer to escort them there.

Continue to set consistent, neutral reminders of why not to spit. This transformation won’t happen overnight, but rest assured that whatever lesson you consistently teach gets there and pays off in the long run.


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