Does your toddler leave a trail of teeth marks in his wake?
Although biting is mortifying for parents, it’s relatively normal in young kids. “It doesn’t mean your child is a monster who’ll grow up to have other behavioural problems,” says Jennifer Kolari, a child and parent therapist in Toronto and author of Connected Parenting. Here’s a look at why kids bite and how to help them stop.
Why it happens
Age is a big factor in biting. Teething infants sometimes chomp down on an unsuspecting adult to relieve pressure on their gums, in which case it’s easy to gently pry them off. But around age two, a child may begin biting when she’s overwhelmed by emotion.
Biting usually occurs when children are frustrated or distressed, and don’t know how to calm themselves,” says Carolyn Humphreys, a psychologist in Halifax. Kids this age are just as likely to bite a peer as a parent. “Whoever is closest is going to get it,” she says.
The best approach is to console the bitee and remove the biter, says Kolari. If your child is the biter, pick him up, calmly say, “No, we don’t do that,” and sit him down for a minute or two. “He’ll learn that every time he bites, he’ll be removed from something he enjoys.” It’s never a good idea to “bite back” in an attempt to show your child how it feels. “It doesn’t teach children anything and could make them think it’s OK to bite,” says Humphreys.
What you can do
Pre-emption is key. “If you can see it coming, try to stop the behaviour beforehand,” says Humphreys. “Biting can be self-reinforcing.” In other words, kids often find it a very gratifying outlet for their feelings and are likely to do it again the next time they need a release. Humphreys suggests helping your child label his feelings. “Teach him to say, ‘I’m mad,’ and give him something to do instead of biting, such as deep belly breathing.”
You can also avert a bite by giving your child other physical ways to get her frustration out (jumping up and down, squeezing a stress ball). “She will learn that she needs to self-soothe,” Humphreys says. Another strategy is to talk neutrally about biting, suggests Kolari, by saying things like “Oh no, we have to keep the angry bug away because he likes to bite.” This helps kids deal with the behaviour without making them feel ashamed, she explains. It’s also very important to acknowledge her when she’s able to stop herself from biting, she adds.
It’s a good idea to give caregivers and preschool teachers a heads-up if your child has a habit of biting, so they can help prevent future incidents. You may not want to do this, but it will be a big support to your child.
Biting usually peaks around 18 months, subsiding when kids start to talk, though sometimes it lasts until age four or five, especially with boys. “Boys tend to be a little more aggressive and interact with the world in a more physical way,” says Kolari. If biting persists, it may be time to get help from a family doctor or paediatrician.
This article was originally published in November 2009.