My son has started biting people when he cannot get his way. What should I do?
Let me start by saying that biting is a normal behavior of early childhood. However it also happens to be the least socially acceptable of the so-called “normal” behaviors of early childhood, and one that understandably seems to plague toddlers, parents, childcare providers, and pediatricians alike!
As for your question about what to do when your child bites, I routinely start out my answer with what I firmly believe you shouldn’t do—and that is bite him back. I simply cannot find any way to justify this as an appropriate way of teaching children not to bite. I have real concerns that this oft-recommended method actually serves to send the conflicting message that if you are bigger and in charge, you can bite.
With that out of the way, my two cents on biting is that really young children (under a year or so) typically bite because they are experimenting with new teeth (without the intent to do harm) or they just want to see what happens. For example, a 9-month-old who suddenly bites her mother’s shoulder while being held, or bites Mom’s breast while being nursed, should be given a decisive show of disapproval or a reprimand—both of which are quite “intuitive” responses. A definitive signal that this is not okay typically involves immediately putting them down while saying “no” in a stern voice.
As kids enter toddlerhood, they may still bite because of teething, or because they’ve seen their friends do it and want to try it out as well. But biting at this age becomes a matter of impulse control. However, the problem is that developmentally, toddlers simply don’t have any impulse control. In the situation where a toddler wants something that they don’t or can’t have, some may have the impulse to shriek. Others may cry, hit, or lie down on the floor and throw a fit. Some choose to hit their friends, and then there are those who, without any thought as to the social unacceptability of their actions, vent their frustrations by biting.
In this case, let me once again remind you that one cannot and should not expect a toddler to have impulse control. Telling a 2-year-old “biter” not to bite and then leaving him next to his target-of-choice is like leaving him alone on the street corner after telling him not to go out into the street.
Instead, it’s important to actively teach biters on an on-going and repeated basis that biting leads to undesirable consequences. This can be done by such tried-and-true methods such as:
- separating them from the person they bit
- showing displeasure (which I find is much more effective in an exaggerated show of hurt or sadness than anger)
- directing your attention and sympathy towards the target and away from them (since all toddlers crave attention)
- looking for creative strategies to help identify their reasons for biting
For many kids, biting is a transient phase that is most common between the ages of about 9 months and 3 years. While it is admittedly disconcerting, it is fortunately relatively short-lived with most toddlers outgrowing it within a few months. Sure, there will be an occasional 3-year-old who just can’t seem to let go of this scorned impulse, but by the time kids reach preschool even the impulsive biters can and should be expected to learn how to curb their impulses (for the most part) as they settle in to the important task of figuring out friendships and engaging in social play.