Dear Dr. Yael,
We are a family of five, with three children, the youngest of whom is two years old. He is generally well-behaved and very loved; in fact, he receives a great deal of affection and attention. I am writing today because of one issue: he sometimes bites – both at home and at playgroup.
Please give us some ideas how to handle this.
Before we discuss anything else, let’s remember to never refer to this child as a biter. We “label jars and not people.” Labeling him a biter will exacerbate the situation and may cause him to identify as a person who bites.
Now, children often bite to try to cope with a challenge or to fulfill a need. Does your child know how to express his needs? Sometimes children bite to express their frustration – they want something but cannot express it – or if they feel another child is standing too close to them. If the child lacks the proper language skills to say, “I am angry at you” or “You are standing too close to me,” he may resort to biting.
Perhaps your son bites when he is overtired, is overstimulated by light, activity, or sounds or is just experimenting to see what reaction he gets. Does he need more attention or more oral stimulation? It is important to observe him when he plays with other kids, so you can try to discern a pattern of behavior. Some things to consider: what he is doing, what the other child is doing, who is usually watching your son when he bites, and is it the same or different children who usually get bitten? Once you are able to anticipate when your child may bite, you can use some prevention strategies. As this is taking place in playgroup as well, be sure the teacher is committed to following along.
Here are some strategies to try once you have a good idea when the biting will take place:
Distraction! Distraction is always a good technique for toddlers because they usually cannot understand consequences. You can try reading him a book, bring out another game or another technique to redirect his behavior.
Verbalization: Try to give your son words for what may be frustrating him. If you notice that he bites after another child takes his toy or invades his personal space, help him express himself before he bites. If he still wants to bite, he may need more oral stimulation. Using a more age appropriate teething ring or giving him crackers can help.
My toy: Sharing is very hard for young children and is often a trigger for toddlers to bite. Preparing your son for how long he can have a toy and using a timer to help him understand time may help him more readily give up a toy he wants. It will be difficult, but can work if he understands that he will get the toy back when the timer beeps.
Reading: Using books to help your son understand biting can help as well. Just as we read a lot of “new baby” books to a child when we are expecting a new baby to help him process his feelings, reading about another child’s frustrations and biting can help your son do the same. Some of the books I recommend are: Teeth Are Not For Biting by Elizabeth Verdick; No Biting by Karen Katz; No Biting, Louise by Margie Palatini.
Your reaction to his biting is critical. As hard as it is, try to stay calm. Of course you may feel angry, hurt, frustrated, or annoyed when your child bites you, so, take a time out, count to ten, take a deep breath, talk yourself down, etc. Then, in a firm voice (not angry, just firm) say, “No biting! Biting hurts.” Try to use simple language to show your son that he hurt someone. You can say something like, “Dovid is crying because he is hurt, biting hurts.” Then immediately shift your attention to the hurt child. Giving your son attention for biting, even negative attention, can reinforce the behavior. You want to completely shift your focus to the child who was hurt so your son sees that there is no benefit to biting.
Lastly, once you begin seeing any improvement, use a lot of praise to help reinforce positive behavior. Say things like, “You are playing so nicely!” Or “I am so proud of how you are playing!” This will hopefully start a new trend and help him stop this difficult habit. Hatzlocha and please let us know if any of these ideas were effective!