Most toddlers do some biting, and this behaviour is well within the normal, yet painful, things that toddlers do. Although a common phenomenon, it is still important to nip biting in the bud.
There are four main reasons that toddlers bite. I will list those below with suggestions to help in each case.
1. It looks like fun:
You might be asking… how does biting look fun? Toddlers may have seen someone else playfully nibbling on another, which made that person laugh or perhaps your toddler saw a dog gently gnawing on someone’s arm, which was met with smiles.
When the toddler thinks he is being fun, he needs to understand the biting he is doing is not the same as playful biting. I would suggest not using cute biting games if your toddler is biting. Follow the script I outline below. The toddler brain can’t really process the difference between you lovingly pretending to chew on his fingers and he chomping down on yours.
2. Communication goes sideways:
In this case, parents need to help the child put words to what he is thinking or feeling. In the case above, you can say, “OUCH! Biting like that hurts. No biting.” Another example is when a child bites a sibling. The parent can take on the role of commentator to help kids “find their words,” like this, “I saw your brother take your toy. You must be mad! Let’s tell him. Tell him you are mad. NO biting!” *Remember not to use too many words. Keep the sentences short for toddlers.
The key for stopping biting is to be firm (definitely no “please” or “okay” here!) and use a strong (not yelling) voice. “OUCH! That HURTS! No biting.” The important thing to remember with toddlers is that repetition is necessary. I know that’s frustrating, but it will take a few times of your consistent, firm response before the toddler gets it.
If one child bites another and you have one shrieking child and one biter to deal with, I suggest going into slow motion. Hit the pause button; this is not an emergency. Yes, your child that was bitten might be freaking out, and even bleeding, but this is not life threatening. Take a moment to calm yourself, then do your firm words with the biter. Look at the shrieking child and say, “I know you are hurt. I am here to help. Let’s calm down together.” Bites, scrapes, bruises, and bonks are things children can learn to soothe themselves through. We can encourage them to use their own strength to pull through a hurt, rather than rushing to their aid, which can make them expect this in the future. Your two roles are to respond to the biting, and let the other child know he has been heard. You want to use this moment to teach one child not to bite and the other to find his own inner strength.
3. Intense feelings become overwhelming:
In the case of overwhelming feelings, there are two important aspects to consider. The first one is how do you model being mad? Your children will learn more about how to do anger by watching your response, than what you tell them. Be obvious about your anger response. I do this: “WOW! I’m really mad. I’d better sit down and breathe before I let my mad turn into mean.” I sit down and breathe. Then I say, “I really didn’t like it when my friend was late.” I love using some problem solving questions here. I turn to my boys and ask, “So what do you think I should do about my friend being late?” Their answers are always interesting!
The second aspect is giving your child permission to let his big emotions out. Sometimes a child will bite when he really needs to have a big cry. As I mentioned above, help the child connect with the feeling and try to put a word or two to it. “OUCH! No biting. That’s hurts! Do I see you being sad?” You are allowed to lead the witness here: “Your sister took your toy. I would be sad, too. Sad.”
Anger is what I call an “icing” emotion—there is more underneath. Most of the time anger has roots in sadness. When the child can shift from anger to sadness, he is more able to be rational and less aggressive. Once the child makes the shift to sadness and the tears flow, you can scoop the child up and hug him until all the tears are out. Hugs that happen after the sobbing starts are okay, and will not be a positive reinforcement for biting.
4. The child is attention-seeking:
The fourth reason for biting is when a toddler is looking for more attention, and that his attachment tank is low. If you would like more information about this, please click here to read about what an attachment tank is, and how to fill it.
I would like to thank all the awesome parents on my Facebook page who helped me write this article by asking lots of super questions, and providing different angles to consider.
Photo: flickr creative commons Rebecca and Bernhard