Toddlers' Biting: Nip It In The Bud!

Toddlers biting is a most distressing problem for parents and childcare workers. A midwife and mother of five offers advice.

Why do toddlers bite, anyhow? Well, in the first place it is an elemental response to attack a person who is frustrating or angering us. Toddlers are little, relatively weak, and not coordinated enough to hit or kick very effectively in most cases. Biting is one thing they can do easily and well--and it IS very effective! Kids feel so powerless in so many situations, that when they discover how much power biting gives them, small wonder they use that power.

Kids whose parents are "strict disciplinarians" may feel especially powerless--and resentful of being victim of their own powerlessness. Those kids are especially inclined to grab a bite of a playmate or sibling just to feel less helpless and more powerful.

On the other hand, kids who are raised with little or no discipline, who expect to get whatever they want, when they want it, often have no tolerance for frustration or for not getting their accustomed instant gratification. They are the kids who are likely to bite to get what they want NOW!

There are two important things to remember when dealing with biting toddlers. First, remove any reward or gratification the child may get from biting. If they want the truck the other kid is playing with, and bite him to get it, be sure they don't get that truck.

Even if a child bites because another child is trying to take his/her toy, keeping possession of the toy would be a reward for biting--don't let that happen.

If the child bites just as a show of power, don't let him/her get the gratification of seeing the other child crying etc. If at all possible, remove the biting child from the scene while you comfort and attend to the bitten child. In a pinch have them stand in a corner facing the wall.

The other important thing is that you want to teach the child that biting other people is absolutely unacceptable. So, under no circumstances should you or anyone else EVER bite the child to "show them how it feels." Biting anyone--whether they are smaller, bigger, or the same size as you--is unacceptable. The last thing you want to teach your child is that it's ok to bite if you're bigger!

How you deal with the child specifically will depend on a number of factors--the child's age, the child's apparent attitude and intent, the frequency of the problem.

First, let's talk about age: If a one year old crawls or toddles up and idly bites your knee, it may hurt, but it isn't a behavioral problem like an 18 month old who struggles and bites when you're putting him/her to bed.

Attitude and intention is the next thing to look at. Did the child bite to make the other person do what s/he wanted? Or to deliberately hurt/intimidate the other person. Or was the biting done in self-defense?

Even self-defense is usually not an excuse, though I've always told my kids that if someone tries to grab them and take off with them, they SHOULD bite, scratch, kick and scream. But if one toddler pulls the hair of another, and in return is bitten, both children need to be taught those behaviors are inappropriate and unacceptable. Underline, getting your hair pulled is no excuse for biting.

It's important to teach kids how to resolve problems without resorting to violence, and it's particularly important to teach them not to bite because even a very young child can cause real injury by biting.

That's why I believe it should be dealt with firmly the very first time it happens--regardless of attitude or intent.

Tell the child very firmly that biting is a very bad thing to do. Please note--don't tell the child s/he is bad--tell them clearly that the behavior is bad. A child who is taught that s/he is bad is very likely to believe it--and to act accordingly.

Again, resist the temptation to bite, hit or otherwise cause pain to the child. You want to enforce the lesson that violence is not appropriate.

However, to impress upon the child that biting is unacceptable, they should be disciplined--even if it is their first offense. A time-out is usually appropriate. Make sure the child really understands why they are getting the time-out.

To make sure they get the connection, have them put their hand over their mouth. Tell them, "You bit Timmy with your mouth! That was a bad thing to do! Cover your mouth up with your hand so it can't bite!" Hold the child's hand in place if necessary--firmly but gently. This really focusses their attention on what they have done.

After the time-out, calmly discuss what happened with the child. Try to get them to tell you why they bit. For instance, you might ask, "Did you bite Timmy because you wanted to play with the truck?" or "Did you bite Sarah because she was trying to take away your doll?" or "Did you bite the baby because she pulled your hair?" or "Did you bite Sam because you were mad at him."

Do not do this before the time out. The first and most important thing you want them to know is that biting is bad, period. After the time-out is the time to discuss motives, etc.

Once you find out the child's motive (if you did) make sure s/he knows that you really understand why they did it. Repeat yourself--"So, you bit Timmy because you wanted the truck." When the child knows you understand why they did it, they are less likely to feel misunderstood and unfairly treated. Then you need to repeat, in no uncertain terms, that biting was the wrong thing to do. Then suggest other things the child might have done instead that would have been better and/or more effective. In many cases, there's really nothing a child could have done differently to get what s/he really wanted--but there are other ways for them to deal with their anger or frustrations--and, over-all, that's exactly what you want them to learn.

Kids who don't learn to deal with frustration or anger without resorting to violence grow up to be adults who have serious problems with their relationships, and often, with the law.

Do allow your child to have outlets for anger. Give them a special "mad-pillow" and say, "if you get really mad at Baby (Mommy, Timmy, whomever) you can hit this pillow really hard--You can bite this pillow if you feel like it." Allow your child to express their angry feelings, but teach them that saying (yelling, screaming) that they are really angry is fine, but that name-calling, etc. is not. Basically, kids should be allowed to express their emotions, but not to hurt others in doing so.

After a biting incident, be sure to pay really close attention so that you will catch a potential biting situation before it happens. If the child wants a toy another child has, be ready to jump right in, reminding the child of good ways of dealing with it. If your child, with or without your prompting, hits or bites their "mad pillow," make a point of telling them how appropriate that was, and how proud you are that they chose to do that instead of hitting or biting a person. That positive reinforcement of harmless, appropriate anger release will go a long way toward protecting the child from making future wrong decisions.

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