One of the first questions I received came from a frustrated mother. She wrote, "My 3-year-old randomly bites other children. Mostly little boys. I'm at wits end and have quit taking her out in public."
Initially, the email produced a half-smile, only because I'd "been there, done that." My middle child had a brief phase of chomping on others. Now nearing 18, she's obviously outgrown the behavior, but at the time, it was frustrating and confusing; it seemed to be such a vicious act — not something my sweet, little girl would do.
So why do children bite? What is required to stop the behavior? And what doesn't work as a discipline technique? Reasoning why children bite falls into three categories:
Developmental: Young children are bombarded daily with the acquisition of new skills. They are spreading their wings with new physical abilities, and often when overwhelmed, can bite. Developmental teething pain or oral motor exploration may also cause young children to bite.
Expression of feelings: Small children may bite as a means of expressing themselves when frustrated, angry or anxious about uncomfortable/unfamiliar situations. Small children who become over-stimulated or excited — even happy — may bite.
Environmental: Small children may bite when they are in environments not meeting their physical and emotional needs. A crowded room or one with too much stimuli, for instance. Having to wait for long periods of time may also cause a child to bite.
The best response to biting behavior includes:
The child who was bitten needs:
Comfort and care: This includes first aid for broken skin bites and tender affection. Special bandages work wonders for crocodile tears. When the skin isn't broken, offer an ice pack.
Reassurance and recognition: The child needs to hear that it wasn't right that he was bitten. A proper reply might sound like, "Somebody bit you. It wasn't right. It hurts and no one should ever bite you."
Guidance and support: If the child is able to talk, help the child learn to say, "No," or "Stop it!" when he feels he may be bitten again.
The child who bites needs:
A clear message of disapproval: No matter the reason for the bite, biting is never acceptable behavior. Use a serious tone of voice and specific words so the child knows exactly what she did was wrong. Never yell. Keep it brief.
An age-appropriate understanding of how the biting affected the other child: The child needs to know that his choice to bite another child is not acceptable. He needs to hear that biting hurts. And hurting people is never OK.
Guidance on what to do in place of biting: Teach the child to redirect the behavior by asking or showing you what she needs/wants. Teach the child how to express feelings through body language, facial expressions, sign language or specific words rather than biting. This may take time. Be consistent.
A consequence that relates to the reason for the bite: For example, if the child bit to get a toy, then the toy should be taken away from the biter.
An overview of the environment: Consider the reasons the child bit and possible changes needing to be implemented.
Finally, what doesn't work for disciplining biting behavior?
Never bite the child back, never force something into the child's mouth and refrain from sending the child to time-out. These responses are ineffective because they don't address the reasons for the biting and don't look for ways to change the behavior or environment. The only thing small children realize when an adult bites them back or stuffs something in their mouth is, "The adult I trust just hurt me." Time-out isn't effective for small children because they don't necessarily understand what they did wrong. The chances of a young child logically thinking, "Why did I bite Suzy?" while in time-out are slim.
Ultimately, you want the small child to realize the behavior is wrong, hurtful and unacceptable. Be consistent with the plan of action you choose. Beautifully illustrated read aloud books are also fabulous for teaching appropriate alternative behaviors. Two great suggestions include "Teeth are Not for Biting" by Elizabeth Verdick and "No Biting Louise" by Margie Palatini. For further reading on the topic, try "A New Bit on Biting: The Influence of Food, Oral Motor Development and Sensory Activities" by Pamela Ramming.