I couldn’t resist it. Nip. Biting. Bud. But toddler biting is no joke. According to one of my clients, a child can be asked to leave preschool or daycare if they are a repeat offender. The problems that lead to biting are easy to see, the solutions are not. Here are my explanations for why toddlers bite, and what you can do to turn this around before your child is asked to leave preschool or shunned from play dates.
I categorize toddler biting into two distinct behaviors: biting with aggression, and biting as communication. The first will happen with adults and peers, the second happens almost exclusively with caregivers. Your reactions are almost the same with both, so let’s deal with the most common variation first: biting with aggression.
Children become frustrated, don’t get what they want or can’t say what they want, and they bite. The long answer: address their ability to manage frustration with language and build their patience. Not easy, not immediate, but totally possible. Use Dr. Karp’s Patience Stretching and Toddler-Ese style of communication to build these skills. My posts on both subjects will give you some tools you can use right away.
Adults have to be present when the majority of biting episodes happening order to manage them, and willing to intercede with both limits (“No biting. Biting hurts” ) and consequences for the biter. The victim needs to get the majority of the attention, no matter how upset the adult is with the attacker. If the biter is old enough, it is a time-out. If not, it is a junior time out. At the very least, it is removal from whatever activity they were engaged in. You put them down off your lap after they bite you. You are sending the clear message that this is big, really big. We don’t want this to happen. Ever.
The greatest mistake that a caregiver can make when dealing directly with biting? Quickly comforting the biter after they start to cry in realization that they did something wrong. They are so little, and they are not in full control of their behavior. But they do have some control! Even a seven-month-old that nips on your breast during nursing can learn that they will be taken off the breast if they continue to do that, so why would you assume that a toddler has no control at all? Because they are better at wailing with emotion, and tug at your heartstrings. If you scoop up the biter and comfort them right away, they do not get to have the very emotion that you want them to develop: regret and remorse.
It is hard for loving parents to see their child sad. I appreciate that. But their child has committed a behavioral felony, and for a few moments a toddler needs to experience a negative consequence in order to understand that biting is not OK. They are concrete, literal thinkers at this age. If all you do is tell them, in a sweet tone, not to bite, then they will do it again. And again. Developing the ability to use their words is going to take some time, maybe months. Developing impulse control is going to take even longer. There are four year-olds that struggle with impulse control, but they don’t bite even when they are upset. They have learned that this is simply not done.
It is also hard not to be angry with the biter. That takes some self-control as well. Yelling, threatening, and spanking really don’t change this behavior as much as you would think. Showing your displeasure but keeping your cool is hard for some parents. Truthfully, one mom said she is just so tired at the end of the day that she knows she is yelling and can’t stop herself. I get it. But this is the reason to take care of yourself every day, and dig deep into your inner strength for these moments. This is “showtime” as a parent.
The moment when you can warmly talk with your child is after the time-out is completely done. For young toddlers, it is only a minute or two, but it was the most important minute of their day. It can be less. I watched a mom put down her 18 month-old after he nipped at her neck for attention. She didn’t yell, she just said “no biting” firmly and put him on the floor. He cried, and then recovered in about 15 seconds. He walked upstairs quietly to see what Daddy was doing. He got the message and wasn’t scarred for life. He already knows that biting is not OK, he just didn’t know that he couldn’t bite HER. Until that moment. All she did was stop holding him, but he got it. To get biting-as-communication to end, develop a toddler’s skills at positive interactions. These biting behaviors usually happen when a child sees no difference between the consequences for positive and negative attention. It is all attention to them. Make them reconsider their choices by creating negative consequences for negative behaviors, and teach them how you’d like them to get your attention. Words, laughter, and positive play.
Good luck with this one. The magic is in the swift and firm reaction, and managing your own emotions in order to teach toddlers how to deal with theirs!