"How can I make my child stop biting her little friends? She probably won't have any before long. Whenever she is frustrated, she just bites."
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
We hope it helps you to know that biting is a temporary behavior in some children from the time of teething until around three. Even though biting is embarrassing for parents of the biter and upsetting to the parents of the child who gets bitten, biting is not a misbehavior in most cases, but due to a lack of skills. Children who bite often do so when they become frustrated in social situations and do not know how to express themselves in acceptable ways. Some toddlers may bite because that is their way of exploring, "I wonder what Suzie will taste like or feel like." Children also may bite their parents and think it's a game. It is important to deal with biting in ways that do not leave residual problems, such as children feeling they are bad or deciding it is okay to hurt others smaller than they are because adults punish by hurting them.
- Do not bite the child back or wash the child's mouth out with soap. Hurting a child does not help her learn to stop hurting others.
- When your child has a history of biting, supervise closely. Intervene quickly when disputes begin (see Fighting, Friends).
- Watch the child closely for a few days during play with other children. Every time she looks like she is ready to bite, cup your hand over her mouth and say, "It is not okay to bite people. Tell the other child what you want." If the child is pre-verbal, after cupping your hand over her mouth and saying it is not okay to bite, offer a distracting choice: "Do you want to play on the swings or with the blocks?"
- When your child bites before you are able to intervene, quickly remove the child, give her a hug, and say, "It is not okay to bite people." You may need to do this several times while you are teaching the child other skills or waiting for her to outgrow biting.
- Comfort the child who has been bitten and apologize to the parent. Be honest with your feelings. "I feel very embarrassed about this, and I will do everything I can to help my child stop biting. However, I do not believe punishment solves anything." Comforting the child who has been bitten, after hugging the biter, models loving ways to deal with people.
- If you are dealing with another parent who thinks you should punish your child, stand your ground. "I can see we have different philosophies and that it would not be respectful for either of us to try to change the other." Then walk away with dignity and respect for yourself and the other person. Your child is more important than what others think of you.
- If your child is at the teething stage and continues to want to bite, offer her a stuffed animal or cloth to bite. Help her find relief for sore gums by offering a frozen juice bar.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
- Play "Let's Pretend" with your child. Pretend the two of you are fighting over a toy and that you are going to bite him. Stop and ask, "How would you feel if I bit you? What would you like me to do instead?" Then pretend you are fighting over a toy and let your child try whatever he suggested to do instead of biting.
- Brainstorm other ways to handle problems. If your child doesn't have any ideas of what to do instead of biting, teach him to use words. You can make suggestions, such as suggesting that he tell the other child, "I'm mad at you" or "Let me have a turn" or "I'll go get another toy and we'll trade" or that he ask an adult to help settle the problem. Then play "Let's Pretend" so he can practice these ideas.
- Use emotional honesty: "I feel bad when you bite other people because I don't like to see people get hurt. I wish you would find something else to do besides bite people."
- If you child is pre-verbal, it is important to accept the fact that he needs close supervision and kind and firm distraction until he learns socially acceptable ways to handle frustration. Take comfort in knowing that he will not be biting by the time he goes to kindergarten-if not much sooner.
- When you are supervising closely, you will be able to understand what your child is trying to accomplish. Verbalize his intention before showing him another way: "I can see that you want the ball. It is not okay to bite to get the ball. Let's find another ball."
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that it is not acceptable to hurt other people. They can learn that their parents love them no matter what they do, and adults will help them find acceptable ways to solve problems. Children can learn they are capable of solving problems in ways that don't hurt other people, and that their parents will remain lovingly kind and firm while they learn.
- Some people think hugging a child who has just bitten another child is rewarding the misbehavior. It is not. Hugging gives the child reassurance of your love while not accepting the child's behavior. Hugging helps the child feel belonging and helps reduce the need to misbehave. It also shows the child an acceptable way to behave--to love the other person and tell him or her what you don't like.
- Some parents believe you should bite a child back to teach them how it feels. By biting them back, you could accidentally be teaching them that biting is an acceptable way to behave-even if it hurts.
If you really pay attention, you can tell when your child is about to bite you. She gets a little gleam in her eye, throws her head back, and charges with an open mouth. So that your child knows this is not a game you wish to play, hold her away from you and say, "It is not okay to bite people. If you want to bite, Mom will get you a rubber toy to bite." If you say this and mean it, your child may stop biting in a few days.
These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.