If your child bites, think of it as a big wave of tension that has suddenly flooded his brain. Most of the time it’s not a planned, willful behavior, but a build up of frustration inside him, which has no permissible outlet. His body does it for internal reasons, and he simply can’t control it. It will help you deal with it more constructively, if you think of it just like a cough, hiccup or a sneeze. Your child may feel afraid or frustrated because he’s not getting enough close, relaxed time with you or his caregivers or when his stress builds up, he is not able to express his fears or frustrations through typical outlets like crying and temper tantrums. You may want to explore why his environment may not be conducive to expressing his feelings. Biting may also be a substitute for not having the language skills to express himself or he may be the type of child that has an excessive need for oral stimulation. Occasionally you have a child who bites just to see what kind of reaction he gets from adults or kids around him. The good news is that you don’t need to know the reasons a child is biting to do something about it. Remember that biting does not release a child’s inner tension. A child actually feels much worse after he’s bitten someone and it just adds to his stress load and makes him more upset. If he looks like he doesn’t care he’s probably frightened. Your job is to make a swift, direct response as soon as it happens. Here’s how you can begin to help your child release tension in productive ways.
Handling the Biting
As a first step, focus on strengthening his ability to feel your attention and love. Special time together is an ideal tool to get started. Set a time for about 20 minutes (can use a Time Timer-purchase on line) get close to your child, offer warmth, make eye contact, show enthusiasm and actively engage in play with something your child chooses to do. Allow your child to select what he wants to do, and play the way your child wants you to play. If he chooses to play by himself, keep offering your gentle touch, maintain eye contact and try to make him laugh. Laughter releases tension, and helps children feel safe, understood, and it serves as a good distracter from tension. When the time is over, let him know how much fun you had playing with him and that you’ll set up more special time soon. Try to do this daily or at least several times a week. If your child cries when you have to stop just say, “I’m sorry you feel so upset, I’ll listen, you can come and talk to me anytime”. Listen until he’s done crying, relax him and tell him you’ll be listening and checking in on him. You want to encourage him to show his feelings as they arise and to seek you out when he needs reassurance. A high five, a hug, a positive comment about how hard he’s working on building something will all keep you connected with your child and give him the reassurance that you’re there for him.
If he bites you as you try to calm him you need to say, “I can’t let you bite me-use your words and tell me how you’re feeling”. Offer eye contact and stay very close to him. Your attention helps him focus on the feelings he needs to express and heal, and it provides the love that needs to be engraved in his heart. If you can catch him before he’s ready to bite, put your hand on his forehead, you’ll then be able to keep yourself safe and he’ll be able to notice the tension that drives him to bite. Your support helps him feel the fear that’s bothering him and builds his inner tension. When he bites, go over to him and tell him gently and quietly that you’re sorry you couldn’t get to him on time to help keep him safe. Then, make eye contact, and ask him to tell you how he feels. Reassure him how much you want to be with him at that moment. Instead of getting upset with his behavior, look at it as his attempt to connect with you or a caring adult. All he needs is your kindness, your warmth and reassurance.
The minute you see your child bite someone, say “no biting “or “biting hurts you see Mary is crying” (cause & effect connection), then focus your attention to the child that was bitten. Your child will learn that by misbehaving his thoughts to get your attention didn’t work.
Stopping Biting In a One-Year Old
Stopping a one year old from biting can be much more challenging. A child that age is not able to resist temptation and since it feels good to him when he bites you he is not able to stop himself. You may yell “ouch” and get upset with him, but because your child can’t empathize with you yet, he is not able to know what you’re feeling. Because of his age you have to use less words, put him down immediately after he bites, say “ouch” and walk away. Don’t bite back. Give him the silent treatment for thirty to fourty seconds. He will be shocked that you left him. Every time he bites, consistently withdraw your attention from him. At the same time remind yourself that every behavior has a cause and the biting may be an indication that your child is not feeling safe and need some positive physical contact and reassurance that you’re there to listen and care for him.
Ways Your Child Can Express Frustration
- Biting may be a substitute for not having the language skills to express himself. Try to put into words what you guess your child may be thinking. Over time encourage him to use his words to label his feelings and express himself freely, “I’m angry with you” or “That’s my toy” instead of biting.
- Hugging a stuffed animal or keeping a weighted pillow stuffed with rice on his lap can provide some needed physical stimulation.
- Shorten activities or give him a break to help prevent the rising frustration that results into biting.
- Plan and give your child enough one on one time throughout the day by reading or playing with him so he doesn’t bite as a means of connecting with you.
- Make every effort to make sure that all his needs including eating and nap time are taken care of before you go out to do outside errands or activities. Bring along a snack to soothe him if he gets cranky.
- Build physical activity to his daily routine such as 10 jumping jacks before lunch, riding his bike after school, stretching before bedtime.
- He may have an excessive need for oral stimulation. Provide crunchy but healthy snack at regular intervals across the day, or let him chew on a water bottle or on a clear tubing placed on the back of a pencil, for older kids.
- Your child my be overwhelmed and overly stimulated by light, sound, certain textures, smells. Manage and minimize his sensory input through close monitoring.
- When you sense your child is getting frustrated give him a bear hug to help him hold it together and give him the comfort he needs.
- Create a “cozy corner” or a “thinking chair” that he can go to when he’s stresses or overwhelmed over a particular situation.
Things to Avoid
- Shaming or harsh punishments do not reduce biting but do increase your child’s fear and worry, which in turn can increase biting incidents.
- Biting back is not a useful response or an appropriate response that you want to model or encourage.
- Wrong punishment. Make sure he doesn’t get punished for biting by losing recess time, as this will make the problem worse.
- You are not a bad parent. Remember that children who bite are children with good heart in need of a good cry in the arms of a caring and sensitive adult. It’s also not a result of bad parenting. So don’t go there!
- Sometimes a child may begin to laugh after he bites rather then cry. That’s actually considered a positive sign as laughter can serve as a tension releaser. Don’t interpreted as a child being defiant.
- Kids often come from activities or school in a bad mood or looking frustrated and angry. Try to think of it more positively, by saying, he must have had a rough day having to listen to instructions he had to follow, do things when asked, and keep it together so he didn’t get in trouble. I’m glad he can trust me to let go of his frustration and release it”. Make eye contact, stay close, validate his feelings, and what a hard day he must have had.
Always remind yourself that for a young child, tension builds. One little incident or disappointment at a time, even if you don’t consider these incidents, are a big deal. They accumulate with no opportunities for release of tension. He doesn’t know why he bites and he certainly didn’t plan on it. If a child doesn’t have the words yet, a good cry or a tantrum if he is not hurting himself or anyone else can serve as a good and natural release.
If the bite breaks the skin
While young children may go through a biting stage whether mom, dad, or other children in preschool, the bites very rarely break the skin that could place children at risk for infections, such as viral hepatitis B or C, HIV and other blood borne viruses.
If the skin is not broken, the wound needs to be cleaned with soap and water, apply a cold compress and the child should be gently soothed and comforted.
If the skin is broken:
- The wound should be left to bleed gently, without squeezing it or putting any pressure first, then cleaned with soap and water and apply and a mild antiseptic should be applied to the area.
- If it occurs in school or activity outside the home a written report should be filed.
- The parents of both children involved be notified within two hours of the incident and be asked to come to school for discussion of the incident.
- The wound should also be reported to your health department and the children’s pediatrician when possible, for further evaluation of risk infection and further intervention.
- The school should also closely monitor the affected area for several days in case any swelling develops and the parents must be notified.
- Most importantly the school needs to have a written policy on this type of “aggressive behavior” and what the procedures will be if it occurs. The written procedures must be presented to the parents when they sign up for an activity or enroll their child in school. When such behaviors occur it can be a highly emotional time for parents and children. Addressing it early and making it part of the safety measures for their children, it will be much more manageable for everyone.
Potential Stressors That Cause Biting
While tensions that can lead a child to biting can be caused by things that are situational.
- Birth of a sibling
- A change in school
- Moving to a new home
- Experiencing a loss of a loved one (even a pet)
- The absence of a parent due to business
- Witnessing violent movies, video games and TV shows
- Repeated, and stored tensions
Regardless the cause, it needs to be taken seriously. We have had to work with toddlers who have been expelled from several preschools and social activities, before direct and at times professional intervention occurred. It’s certainly not a good start for a young child’s interaction and exploration of his world around him.
We love to hear from you. Please share your ideas and experiences with this issue. We also welcome your comments!
Dr. Pat & Dr. Gina