Link copied to clipboard

Just about as soon as children sprout teeth they discover what teeth really are good for. My year-old second son discovered that a quick nip during breastfeeding resulted in a very amusing jump and yelp on my part. (Amusing to him! Needless to say he was graduated to a sippy cup pretty soon…) Biting is a most excellent way to get attention and even to get one’s way. Why wouldn’t a toddler bite, when biting accomplishes so much?

Even grown-ups who should know better have been known to bite. At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, a boxer was disqualified after he bit his opponent on the shoulder. In the audience was American boxer Evander Holyfield who was bitten on the ear by opponent Mike Tyson during a match in 1997.

Hitting is effective too, as most older children realize, but hitting requires some coordination and some force (which even professional boxers might feel they don’t have enough of). Toddlers don’t have much upper body strength and they don’t have much ability to aim a blow.  Biting is easy. Not only that, but the other thing one can do with a mouth – talk – is something toddlers can’t manage. It’s useless to ask a nonverbal child to “use her words.” So biting is the method of choice. Little kids bite when they have no other way to get their point across.

What To Do About Biting?

So rather than asking “Why do children bite?” we might ask ourselves, “What to do instead?” If a small child bites because he is angry or frustrated, how else can he ease his anger or get what he wants? And how can we convince a non-verbal child that biting is not socially acceptable?

First off, let’s remind ourselves that we’re talking about toddlers up to about age two. Children who are old enough to speak should be reminded to talk out their anger, at the very least. The older a child is the less biting can be forgiven as part of his age.

But if your toddler or if toddlers in your care bite, here are some strategies to try:

  1. Be vigilant. If you can deflect the bite before it happens, then not only will there be no painful bite marks on somebody but the biter will learn more quickly not to bite. This means that when two toddlers are playing together, be aware of disputes. Intervene by redirecting one toddler or the other before a bite can happen.
  2. When a bite happens, be quick with a verbal correction: “No biting!” Please do not hit your child or bite back (I’ve actually had parents suggest biting back as a strategy!). Notice that this verbal correction has to happen immediately, not minutes later when you notice the bite marks. Children have very, very limited memories.
  3. Once you’ve made the verbal correction, lavish your attention on the victim. Pick him up, soothe him, offer him a choice toy. If the bite was caused by a dispute over a toy, remove that toy altogether – don’t give it to the victim, since the biter might decide to try to get it once again.
  4. As quickly as possible, resume normal play. But remember to be vigilant and try next time to avoid the bite altogether.
  5. If your child bit someone else’s tot, you must apologize and probably remove your child from the sandbox or wherever it is you are. Biting is not viewed casually by other parents and bite marks will linger as a reminder of the event. Make no excuses. Apologize.

Although there are no good excuses for biting, children may be inclined to bite because they are teething. Itchy gums make biting top-of-mind, as you can imagine. If this is the case for your child, give him things to bite that are acceptable: teething toys, a washcloth, or teething biscuits. You might find using a gum-soothing product or pain-reliever that’s safe for infants helpful as well.

The Good News

Biting is an issue for only a few months. Most children quickly move on to talking out their disputes (okay, they move on to yelling and throwing tantrums) or they become good at hitting and shoving. The road to socially-acceptable behavior is long and winding and parents are advised to be prepared.

Remember, it’s important to model what you want to see – no hitting, smacking, or screaming at your child – and to realize that helping your toddler become a model citizen takes time.

A lot of parents try using a Time-Out Chair with their preschoolers (and even older children) only to find out it doesn’t work all that well. The punishment doesn’t seem to teach kids not to do something. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get a child to stay in the Time-Out Chair and parents get more angry, not less angry, as things go along.

The problem comes in thinking of the Time-Out Chair as punishment. It’s not. It’s a gift.

A child sent to sit in the Time-Out Chair either sees this as a challenge – can you keep him there? – or by the time he gets there, he can’t remember what he did wrong. Remember that small children don’t have a good idea of cause-and-effect and they have very short memories. Older kids sent to Time-Out may know what they did but they don’t spend the time in Time-Out contemplating how they will do better next time. Instead, older kids spend Time-Out sitting and seething about how mean Mom is or how sneaky his sister is to have got him into trouble. If he’s not thinking bad thoughts, he’s just sitting, thinking about whatever. He’s not learning anything.

And the whole point of discipline is to learn something, to learn how to behave. And the behavior we want to teach is self-control.

Kids get into trouble because they didn’t think ahead or they let their worst impulses take over. Time-out is a chance to reset the action, to regain self-control, and to learn what went wrong. A Time-Out Chair can help with this, but not as punishment. It has to be a place of safety and calm.

Here’s an example. Janie starts throwing things around the room, shoving her baby brother and generally creating mayhem. Mom captures Janie in her arms and says, “Whoa, Janie! Calm down! Come sit with me.” Both Mom and Janie sit together on the couch or on the floor.

“Janie, you’re heart is really racing! Feel your heart right here…. We need to slow that down. Let’s take some deep breaths….”  Sit still together, trying to control breathing, getting back to calm.

If Janie struggles and tries to get away, remember that she wouldn’t have been able to sit still in the Time-Out Chair by herself anyway. She needs your support. And remember that feeling out of control is not comfortable for her. It’s not comfortable for anyone. Helping her to notice her uncomfortable feelings and find a way back to calmness is what you want to do. It’s what you want her to learn: how to recognize when she’s out of control and find ways to get back in control.

Once Janie is back in control is the time to say, “So, are you feeling sick? You were throwing things around and hitting the baby. What was all that about?” These questions would have had no effect if Janie were still out of control. Getting your child back to calm is the first step in thinking about behavior and what to do better next time.

Now is the time to talk calmly about handling feelings, and then perhaps to pick up the thrown toys. Sitting in a Time-Out Chair alone cannot accomplish this. Kids who are out of control need to take a time-out but they still need your help to get there.

Time-out is good for parents, too. When you start to feel frazzled, announce that you’re going to take a time-out because you’re starting to get angry. Modeling the behavior you want kids to learn is always a good strategy.

We all need a time-out now and again. Adults have learned how to do this but children need to be taught. The most important thing we can teach our children are how to control themselves. Learning how to take a time-out is a key part of this.