Biting and Young Children

Biting is a common behavior many two- and three-year-olds go through. Some children bite out of frustration, or simply to protect what they perceive as “theirs”. Others may bite if they feel threatened, crowded, or inferior to others in terms of strength or verbal ability. The good news is that this phenomenon seems to have no lasting significance, although at the time it occurs, it can be extremely stressful for everyone involved. When a child bites, it’s not the parents’ fault, even though they may be feeling so guilty and embarrassed they suspect that everyone is talking behind their backs about their poor parenting skills.

Helpful immediate responses:

  • Address the behavior immediately by briefly but firmly stating the rule “Biting is not allowed.”
  • Give your attention to the bitten child. Say, “Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it? Let’s go wash it together.”
  • If the biter is still angry, guide her to a place where she can cool off.
  • If the biter is totally out of control, give him a firm but gentle “hug hold.” This often helps him to regain composure.
  • “Hug Hold” from behind, embrace the child under his arms and around his chest, restraining him firmly but lovingly. This position allows you to get very close and whisper something calming in his ear and also prevents him from biting or lashing out again.
  • Say “We’ll discuss this later,” rather than asking the child questions such as “Why did you bite your friend?” in the heat of the moment. (A furious child can rarely tell you why he acted out the way he did.)
  • Stay in control yourself when biting occurs; talk firmly, but avoid yelling.
  • If you notice that a child with a history of biting is getting wound up or frustrated, stay close and be prepared to intervene.
  • Comfort the victim, not the aggressor.
  • Invite the biter to help comfort the victim. Even fun, silly things can really help change everyone’s mood.
  • Keep in mind that the person who is bitten isn’t necessarily an enemy or even the source of the biter’s anger: he may just be the closest target.
  • Provide an out-of-control biter with the structure he needs in order to calm down. This could mean sitting quietly in a chair, going to the time out area, or cuddling quietly with you.
  • Establish an appropriate consequence at a family meeting, and follow through every time to discourage repeated biting.
  • Expect either no reply at all or a “tall (but often very clever) tale” if you persist in asking questions. A biter can’t be counted on to answer about why the bite occurred.
  • Tell your child that biting hurts the victim every time it happens. Keep in mind that most two-year-olds do not yet have the ability to “put themselves in another’s shoes” and know how another feels. Teaching empathy is a very slow and gradual process.
  • Let your child know that biting is not an acceptable way to get your attention.
  • Provide your child with something he can bite; even older kids go through teething episodes. Set out a handy “biting basket” stocked with “feel good” or “taste good” items: jelly-filled teething rings, iced washcloths, peeled apple slices, frozen bagels, carrot sticks, or chewy licorice.
  • Help your child express his feelings in non-aggressive ways.
  • Realize that biting can be very scary for the biter as well as the victim. A toddler’s biting is more an instinctive animal reflex than a conscious response to a situation. The biter needs help in overcoming this instinct, rather than condemnation for having yielded to it.
  • Help your child understand that biting is not a game; it really hurts people.
  • Learn to recognize the cues that your child is about to bite and be ready to intervene immediately.
  • Consider hugging the child who has bitten someone. This might help restore a sense of security to a child who is temporarily out of control or who may not even realize what he has just done impulsively. (Some children will refuse this.)
  • Biting is often a response to excessive stimulation or anxiety: respect your child’s space and threshold for stress.
  • Try to get the biter and the victim together again soon, and focus on praising cooperative behavior when it occurs. If your child is the victim, understand that one incident doesn’t necessarily mean repeat offenses are predictable. If your child is the biter, assure the parents of the child who was bitten that you will be watching your child closely to ensure the behavior doesn’t continue at future play dates. If the two children seem to be locked in a pattern of pushing each other’s buttons, however, it may be best to give them space from each other for a while without labeling or otherwise punishing the aggressor.
  • Refrain from demanding that a biter play with other children if he seems unwilling. Instead, provide similar toys for “parallel play” (side-by-side play, with each child doing his own thing).
  • Be aware that, if your child hears constant talk about his biting, or if he is labeled with a negative nickname, you may be setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Excessive attention to the undesirable behavior may actually reinforce it.
  • If your child is routinely biting at the age of four, consider seeking some professional counsel to help you evaluate and address any underlying issues that may be causing the behavior.
  • One final note: A young child who bites occasionally is usually going through a normal developmental stage; take comfort in the fact that he is not destined to become a bully or even a constant discipline problem!