Understanding and responding to biting

Biting can be a very stressful thing for families to deal with regardless of whether their child is the ‘biter ‘or the ‘bitee’! 

Experiencing biting amongst young children is not unusual. Although there is a lot of research about it, no one has a magic solution or explanation, however no need to despair. Many options can be trialled to teach children to use different strategies to prevent biting others. It is also important to teach a child who regularly falls victim to being bitten with effective strategies also.

Why do toddlers bite?

Toddlers can bite for several reasons such as:

  • Teething
  • Oral muscle development
  • Developing independence
  • Language and communication
  • Learning cause and effect
  • Excitement and overstimulation
  • Under-stimulation and boredom
  • Frustration
  • Seeking attention
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Exploration
  • Social interaction
  • Anxiety
  • Imitation
  • Hunger

How to positively manage biting

It’s important to identify the reasons why your child might be biting to successfully implement positive ways to manage it. Consider employing the following tactics to manage a biting child:

  • Encourage the use of words: teach children to practice saying ‘no’ in conjunction with using a stop sign gesture with their hand when another child is trying to take their toy or when they are frustrated by something.
  • Provide alternative suggestions: if possible follow them around for a day and provide suggestions for how to manage situations where the child might bite for example ‘Why don’t you play with this toy while Melissa is playing with that one’.
  • Take note and say ‘no’: observe who the biter usually bites, whether at home, in a group play environment in a playground, at a birthday party, or in child care. When the biter approaches this child, step in to make sure the situation is kept under control and teach the victim to be assertive and say ‘No biting!’
  • Personal space: make sure the biter has enough personal space and help them find a peaceful corner to do something quiet if you spot any behaviour which might lead to biting.
  • Motivation and rewards: use rewards to motivate children who are old enough to understand cause and effect.

What to do when children bite

No matter how proactive you are about preventing biting there is still a good chance that your child might bite or be bitten when she/he is in a group environment with other youngsters. When this does happen you can follow this course of action:

  • Act calmly, maintain a quiet and controlled voice, remove the biting child from the situation and say very firmly ‘No biting! Biting hurts’.
  • Take care of the child who has been bitten first, calm the child with cuddles and kind words and clean the bite area.
  • Once the victim is feeling better approach the child who did the biting and explain the effect of the biting. Encourage the biter to apologise to the victim and comfort them with cuddling and/or gentle strokes.
  • If the biter is old enough ask them to suggest ways they could avoid biting in the future and give them strategies for dealing with stressful or frustrating situations.

Remember, while biting is extremely stressful for everyone involved it is an almost inevitable part of life for young children in group situations. As a parent, the best you can do is consistently work at preventing biting and then work to manage the situation when it does occur. If your child is in a childcare centre you should work with the educators to ensure a consistent approach is taken to tackle the problem.

This article was contributed by Yuping, talented painter, experienced educator and grandma to Eliana.

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