Parenting Q&A: What to do when your toddler is biting

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My toddler has been biting at daycare. I don’t understand why this is happening or how to stop this behavior. I also understand kids can be kicked out of the program for biting. I’m both mortified and concerned!

Toddlers are passionate beings. They feel their emotions intensely and can show them in dramatic ways.

A toddler’s capacity for unrestrained and uninhibited joy and affection is enviable. Less enviable, but equally important to healthy development, is their capacity to feel and express “negative” emotions, such as sadness and anger, with intensity and without embarrassment.

Nothing gets parents and caregivers more worked up than biting. And with good reason. We worry about a child (or adult) who has been bitten, their pain and possible injury. We also worry about the child who bit. We don’t want playmates or other parents to reject our child. We may get quite ahead of ourselves and worry that biting is an early sign of bigger challenges to come.

Child-care providers often are challenged by the disruption that biting can cause, unsure of what to do if the behavior persists and worried that other parents will withdraw their children if the problem continues. Expulsion from early-childhood programs is, in fact, a national problem.

Although biting is common among young children, it’s not acceptable. One of the important tasks for toddlers is to begin to learn about the world of feelings — theirs and other people’s — and to manage them in ways that help them and do not push others away.

Adults need to support the development of those skills, which are not inborn and must be learned, and stay emotionally connected to children, even when they behave in ways that anger, frustrate, scare, embarrass or worry us.

Here are some ideas for responding to young children who bite.

At the time of the incident:

• Stay calm. You’re about to teach something important. An adult’s overreaction can scare or shame a child (a bad way to learn about the self), cause the child to smile nervously or laugh (not what we are trying to teach) and actually can result in an increase in biting. Upset is contagious. So is calm.

• Simply and firmly say, “No biting. Biting hurts!” You can point out the result: “Katie is crying because your bite hurt her arm.”

• Direct most of your attention to the child who was bitten — soothing, comforting, showing understanding. This care is an important model for empathy that both children can learn from. Resist the temptation to require the biter to apologize. The obligatory words “I’m sorry” have little emotional meaning to toddlers, are not always easy to secure (causing a battle of wills between adult and toddler) and aren’t as effective at this age for teaching genuine remorse.

• In a quiet moment, talk with the biter to help the child label his or her feelings: “I think it made you feel really, really mad when Katie took the ball you were playing with.” Then suggest alternatives behaviors: “Next time one of your friends takes your toy or makes you mad, you can say, ‘No, I’m playing with that ball!’ Let’s practice saying it now.”

• If biting persists, think like a detective and consider what the child is communicating. Young children bite for many reasons. They have limited language and often are unable to express big feelings with words. Some children bite when they get overstimulated (as in rough-and-tumble play), when they’re teething, when they’re coming down with an illness, when there are changes in their family (loss of a pet, new baby, separation from a parent) or when they’re overwhelmed by anger, frustration, jealousy, fatigue or hunger.

Try these strategies:

• Be a careful observer. Does the biting occur more often at particular times of the day? During particular activities? With some people but not others? What happens before a biting incident? What happens after the biting — such as big adult reactions  — that inadvertently may be keeping that behavior going ?

• Stay closer to the child, particularly during the times of day or activities when he or she is more likely to bite. Your physical presence may provide enough support and assurance to prevent the child from biting, and you’ll be in a better position to intervene if you see it coming!

• Match your intervention to what you think is causing the biting. If you think the child is biting because he isn’t getting enough sleep, adjust his sleep schedule. If you think the child bites when she’s frustrated while playing with other kids, emphasize better ways of saying no or getting an adult to help.

• Read a children’s book. There are a number of books for young children about biting, hitting and other difficult behaviors. They’re helpful at bedtime and other quiet times when adults can talk about other ways of showing big feelings.

• Be patient. Do not expect to transform biting or any challenging behavior overnight. It takes time and repetition for all of us to learn new ways.

It’s our job — as bigger, stronger, wiser and caring adults — to teach young children about their feelings, the feelings of others and the range of expression that is acceptable.

Birth to Five Helpline: 1-877-705-KIDS (5437)

Southwest Human Development provides this free resource for anyone who has questions or concerns about young children — parents, grandparents, caregivers and medical professionals. Bilingual and compassionate early-childhood specialists will answer your questions from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday. Common questions include: challenging behaviors, potty training, child development, sleep issues, colic or fussiness, feeding and nutrition and overall parenting concerns. Download the Birth to Five Helpline app in the iTunes App Store or get the Android app on Google Play, and you can one-click call, text or email a question to helpline professionals.

Readers: Send your parenting questions to kara@rakmagazine.com.

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