Two toddlers were at the playground, smiling as they ran about. As they came across the steering wheel at the car structure, the smiles turned into frowns as they pushed and nudged against each other. In that instance, “Wahhh!!” One of the toddlers burst into tears, with her right hand clutching her left arm. “What happened?” her mom asked. As she removed her hand, she noticed the teeth marks on the arm.

Why Do Children Bite

Understanding the ‘Why?’

Is it normal that my child is biting?

Yes, and no.

Biting is common in young toddlers up to twenty-four months, and for younger preschool age children who are not very verbal yet, which includes second language learners whose home language may not be that spoken within the environment they are in. With these, if biting persists beyond the age of five, it can become a concern.

According to developmental theories, toddlers and preschool age children learn very much through their senses, and especially for toddlers who learn through putting things into their mouths. Hence biting could be a result of being curious and only knowing the strategy of learning through putting things into their mouths.

Biting also results from several factors, including feelings of frustrations, irritations, helplessness, overstimulation, and even teething. At times, it is also the result of not having basic needs met, such as being hungry or simply too tired. Very often, a toddler also bites because he or she lacks the proficiency to put emotions and needs into words, or when lacking a strategy to overcome a situation.

Related Read: Stop Child From Biting Other Children

9 Strategies and Tips For Parents

Having a child that bites can certainly be frustrating for parents, especially if the child is a serial biter. Very often, parents may also be trapped in a sense of guilt as well, when their child bites another child. So what can you do?

1. Breathe. Breathe and remain calm.

Both you and your child need to be calm to prevent the situation from escalating with negative emotions.

2. Consider the when(s) and why(s).

Consider any pattern in the occurrences of biting. What happens around your child, or that your child is doing when biting happens? Was he/she trying to get a toy? Were there too many other children around and suddenly biting happens? Does it happen every Monday or when a routine or schedule is disrupted? These are results of lacking verbal strategies, being over stimulated or overly excited and feelings of insecurities.

Upon identifying the reasons, address them accordingly, and as suited to your toddler or child’s age. Whenever possible, avoid such instances where you’ve noticed that biting is frequent.

3. Be practical

Even adults can get grouchy when we are tired and hungry, and certainly for children too! Younger toddlers may not be able to verbalise these needs. So check through the needs- is your toddler hungry, unwell or tired, and address these basic needs.

4. Stay away from stimulation

If you know that your child is easily overwhelmed by too many bright colors, loud noises or uncomfortable textures, remove your child from such over-stimulating (visually, auditory and/or sensory) situations, or avoid being in places where it may be too much for your child to handle, such as a crowded playground.

5. Teaching empathy

Point out to a child the result of his or her biting. Help your child understand the emotions and take part in solving the situation.

“Look, Mary’s arm is red, painful, and she is crying, Look at how sad she is now. You have made her very, very sad. Now you have to help her with a tissue, help her to clean her tears away, and say ‘sorry’.”

6. Empowering them with words

Instead of jumping in to reprimand the child immediately, come in with a firm voice and stern face, acknowledging the emotion and asking, ‘what happened?’ If the child is unable to explain, attempt to describe the situation for your child, then provide better verbal or physical alternative(s).

“I know you are angry that Tommy took your toy, but that is not a good way to solve the problem. You can tell him ‘please stop’, while using your palm to show ‘stop’, or you can ask mummy/daddy to ‘help’.

7. Knowing the consequences

Older toddlers and young preschool children are also capable of needing to know the consequences of repeated incidents. It could be having a privilege removed or having an adult intervene for them. Note that consequences have to be given at first occurrence then implemented at the next occurrence.

“I’m sorry, remember what we spoke about biting while playing? Because you hurt your brother again by biting, you cannot continue to play with them at the playground until you have calmed down.”

“I’m sorry, remember I said that if you cannot control yourself again, I will need to help you? Because you have shown me that you are too upset and cannot control yourself just now, I will need to help you to take charge by holding your hands to stay with me for five minutes, until you calm down, then we will talk about this.”

8. Giving praises

Give positive attention when you notice your child making attempts to use words. If you can catch your child before biting occurs, intervene by reminding him to use words such as “please stop” and “help me”, and praise when the attempt is made – “Great job! I like how you used your words instead of hurting,” For older toddlers and preschoolers, encourage them to be part of the problem solving process, and praise them when they provide positive alternatives.

9. Never…

Respond by biting your child back or using aggression as a way to change the behavior.

These actions, on contrary, teach a child that it is okay to hurt when you are bigger or stronger.

What’s next?

Consistency needs to be maintained between both parents, and as much as possible, with the school. So parents need to work together with their child’s caregivers in ensuring consistency in strategies used, and in sending a clear message that biting is not an acceptable behavior. Focus on preventing negative emotions and work on empowering the child with words to express feelings, and teaching new skills to overcome problems. In most cases, biting will decrease, and eventually stop, when the focus is placed on equipping the child with appropriate coping strategies. However, if biting continues regularly and child has yet to develop verbal skills by age five to cope with situations, professional screening and intervention may be required.

Reference to the book “So This Is Normal Too?: Teachers and Parents Working Out Developmental Issues In Young Children” by Deborah Hewitt, has been made in parts of this article.

By Melisa Neo.

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