We recently received questions from Priya and Tertia about biting. Biting is every parents nightmare. We don't want our kids to be known as "the biter." We don't want our kids to hurt others. And we certainly don't want our kids getting kicked out of school or daycare for biting. So what do we do?
Well, before Mary answers that question for us, let's first take a look at why children bite (Davis & Keyser, 1997; see the book in our sidebar!):
1) Anger -- some kids hit when angry, others bite.
2) Feeling out of control -- biting can offer temporary relief from such an uncomfortable feeling.
3) Limited verbal abilities -- the child may want to express his anger or frustration, but simply doesn't have the vocabulary to do so.
4) Communication -- maybe even if they do have the verbal skills, they may find biting to be a more efficient way to communicate, "Get out of my way!"
5) Teething pain -- the pain in their gums may create the impetus to bite as a way to offer relief.
6) Imitation -- the scary thing about biting is that it can sometimes run rampant in schools or daycare settings. When one child does it, all the children may start imitating him or her! They may also imitate it as a way to explore how it feels to bite another person.
7) Experimentation -- they may want to know what happens when they bite. In particular, they may want to know how their peers versus their parents react to it.
8) Tension release -- again, biting may offer some feeling of relief.
9) Attention -- if a child bites someone, that child is certainly going to get attention from one person, if not more!
10) Power -- it can feel powerful to bite. It sends a message to the bite-ee that the biter is dominant, and, because people respond so quickly, that powerful feeling is enhanced because the biter's action made all those other people react.
11) Impulse -- sometimes, kids don't even want to bite another person. They just need to bite. Did you ever bite your pencils when you were in kindergarten? I did!
So now we know why kids bite. Mary, tell the people what they can do!
Knowing the why's doesn't help when you have a child who's taking chunks out of their family and friends. You can't tolerate repeated bitings while you wait for the child to outgrow these factors. That can take weeks or even months! What do you do in the meantime?
1. As far as possible, keep your child out of situations that are likely to lead to a bite. When you see the frustration rising, intervene. Help her identify and communicate her feelings. If the frustration is too great for calm intervention, remove her from the situation. The debrief can come later, when she's calm enough.
2. Should a bite occur:
a) Give the injured child copious amounts of sympathetic attention, first, before you even so much as look at the biter. (What to do with Mr. Teeth in the meantime? You keep him right beside you, with your arm around him. But you're not looking at him, and you're not talking to him. If he can't/won't stand with you, he goes to a time out, preferably where he can see and hear your interactions with the injured child.) We don't want to reward the biter with huge amounts of attention - and remember, to a toddler, attention is attention. Even if they're being scolded, that's attention.
b) Part of what you say to the victim is intended for the aggressor, but you don't make that clear. As you give the other child a hug and maybe kissed the bo-bo, you will say things like, "I bet that hurt, didn't it? I bet it makes you sad when your friend hurts you. Mr. Teeth must have been upset, but that doesn't mean he can bite. He needs to learn to use his words, not his teeth. Don't worry, I'm sure Mr. Teeth will soon learn to Use His Words."
(Yes, it's preachy, but subtle doesn't get you far with toddlers.)
c) If the skin has been broken, it will be necessary to wash and disinfect the wound. If she's calm enough, the aggressor can watch this, again, while being completely ignored; if she's still too upset, she can go to time out.
3. Once the victim has had a few minutes of consoling attention, they can be sent to play. The biter now gets your attention. Hopefully, by now they're somewhat calmer, and they've also seen that biting doesn't get them lots of intense, immediate attention.
I generally kneel in front of the child, make firm eye contact, and act tremendously shocked and dismayed. "I can't believe a nice little boy like you would bite someone! You're not a wild animal, you're a little boy. It's okay to be upset, but people don't bite. When you're upset, you use your words." Now, I'm not angry, mind you, I'm just very, very shocked.
I give the child a few seconds to absorb my utter dismay, then I relax, smile, and draw the child into a warm hug. "I'll bet you're sad you hurt your friend. I'll bet next time you'll use your words, right?"
This generally gets a nod. Should there be another incident, the follow-up would have more dismay and less comforting in it, and a longer, more deliberately punitive time out.
The theatrics go a long way to teaching and preventing further episodes -- the empathy with the injured child; the shock, dismay, then the warm reassurance of the aggressor. Is it manipulative? I don't think so. Small children are still learning the emotional ropes of life. I am simplifying and exaggerating my response, but the response is real. Biting is a shocking thing to do. (Imagine another adult biting you, and test your response.) It's so common as to be within normal behaviour patterns for a child under the age of three, but that doesn't make it acceptable.
This is the response I typically use, and generally the biting is eliminated within a month.