How can you keep your toddler from biting?

My two-year-old son has a problem with biting. We've tried all the recommended techniques; saying in a loud voice, "Don't bite," showing him the mark and then giving him a time out. It has gotten to the point where day care is asking us to take him out of school. Would you recommend counseling, or another course of action?

Question:

Biting is one of the most challenging behaviors that toddlers exhibit. Knowing some of the reasons a child bites can enable us figure out how to help our toddlers learn more positive behaviors. Although not all toddlers bite, biting is a normal behavior for two-year-old children. At this stage in their development, children are eager to communicate, but have few words, are full of strong feelings that need to be expressed, are victims of sore gums and are curious about how their actions can make things happen in the world around them.

Furthermore, toddlers have not fully established themselves as separate beings from the people around them. They still believe that whatever they feel, other people feel, also. Because biting feels good to them, it makes sense to toddlers that it should feel good to the other person, as well.

Toddlers' fascination with emotions lead them to research what causes certain feelings, what they look like in other people's eyes and what makes emotions change. They need to test these things again and again to find out if it works the same way every time. "If I bite Devin and he cries, will it work the same way if I bite Olivia?"

While it is important that we acknowledge and understand the ideas children are trying to express through biting, it is equally important that we stop biting from happening. Here are some suggestions:

  • Observe to find out when biting is likely to happen. If we watch the instances in which a child is likely to bite, we can gain understanding about the causes of biting and the situations to watch for in the future. Children may bite because they are tired, because they feel crowded, because they want to say "hi" to another child, because they don't want a toy taken away from them, because they are teething, because they are looking for a reaction from another child or an adult, or because they are having feelings they don't know how to express.
  • Provide close supervision and prevent biting whenever possible. If you know that your child or a child in your care might bite in certain situations, it is important to stay close enough to that child to prevent whatever bites you can. You can gently cup your hand around a mouth that is preparing itself for a bite and say, "I won't let you bite Ricky, biting hurts him."
  • Support your child's childcare program. Since some of your son's biting is happening in child care, you will need to work with the child care staff on coming up with strategies. Often, in child care if there is a child who is biting regularly, the program will designate a teacher to "shadow" the child, staying close enough to keep all the children safe. This can be a stretch for many, already small teaching staffs. Parents may be able to support the program by volunteering to help in the classroom or office for a time to allow a teacher to offer special attention to the biting situation. Parents and caregivers working together for a solution can provide the extra resources needed to get through this difficult, though normal, developmental behavior.
  • Offer children information. Children don't automatically know that biting hurts. Telling them that biting hurts, and allowing them to observe the bite mark and the crying friend will help them learn, over time, that biting is hurtful to others.
  • Provide redirection and alternatives. Toddlers are like two-ton trucks. When they get going with an idea, it can be hard to stop them. Our best strategy is to redirect their energy. We can do this by providing alternate things to bite. "You can bite this plastic hand, but I can't let you bite people." "I'll tie this piece of terry cloth to your overalls. You can bite it when you feel like biting."

    You can also provide the child with other tools to express what he is trying to say. "If you want to say, 'Hi' to Jesse, you can wave your hand at him." "If you don't want Terry to take your truck, you can hold on tight and say, 'Mine.'"

  • Avoid shaming. Often in our frustration we find ourselves shaming or blaming children who are biting. It is more helpful to children if we keep focused on the fact that they are good kids making mistakes, rather than that they are "bad" kids.
  • Offer children a chance to help. If we send the "biting" child away from the scene of the accident without giving him a chance to help, we are missing an opportunity to teach him that when you make mistakes, you can also help to rectify them. We may be tempted to require children to say they are sorry, but more effective than a rote response, is asking children if they could do something to help Mary feel better. Children can bring ice, a cold cloth, a special blanket or a kiss to the injured spot, if the injured child is receptive.
  • Stay calm, firm and clear. Biting can scare adults, even more than it does children. Children readily pick up on our panic, allowing situations to escalate, if adults are yelling, hurting or scaring children. Working to stay calm can help children relax enough to learn from the situation.
  • Give it time and get help if necessary. Despite our best efforts, biting doesn't always disappear immediately. Some children bite one or two times and never try it again. Others may bite on and off for a few months. If you feel like your child's biting is not just developmental in nature, but is connected to some other emotional issue he is dealing with, it might be useful to get some counseling. Sometimes counseling directly with children is helpful, but often, counseling for parents can help them work through issues and offer tools for them to help their child. Outside resource people can also support the child care staff can be effective in helping them come up with problem-solving strategies.
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