Nobody, but nobody, likes a toddler who bites

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 10, 2009 06:00 AM

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Barbara, I have a 13-month-old son, and he is rather wild, but my main question is when he gets mad about anything, he throws a crazy fit and starts biting you. He comes at you with his mouth wide open for whatever he can get to. He even gets so mad at diaper changes he tries to bite then. Please help me, I've tried everything!!

From: Sheena Neal, Milton

Hi Sheena Neal,

Biting is very common, often starting at about this age. Not all children bite, but sometimes biting happens seemingly out of the blue for the first time in an 18- or 24-month old. So you other parents out there -- just because your child is almost 2 and never bitten anyone, don't think you're out of the woods!

Biting almost always is about not having the words to express very strongly-held feelings, especially frustration. ("You want to change my diaper now?! When I'm having so much fun doing what I'm doing?! No way!"). It's also often got to do with this new equipment a child has -- teeth! -- and not being sure what, exactly, to do with them. Why not try biting anything that moves? And then there's teething, which hurts. Chomping down on something, including someone's skin, can be soothing. If you know pretty conclusively that teething is the impetus, have something for him to chomp down on, like a cold washcloth.

Those are the most common reasons why biting happens to begin with. The most likely reason it continues is because parents over-react, prompting the child to do it again and again, to see what will happen the next time, and the next. This coincides with two developmental milestones, the ability to notice cause-and-effect stage ("If I do this, what happens? Oh! What about if I do this? What about if I do it again? Does mom do the same thing again? Huh! What about now?!" ) and the need to feel some power in the world ("Wow! This sure gets a reaction from mom, doesn't it?!").

Understanding why it happens doesn't mean it's OK for your child to bite; biting cannot be ignored. But sometimes knowing what likely prompts it makes it easier to respond in an appropriate way. For instance, if you know he is likely to bite during diapering and you know you have to remove him from an activity he's enjoying, offer sympathy and words to identify his feelings ("You're having so much fun now, you don't want to have your diaper changed! You hate to have your diaper changed! Let's do it as quickly as we can so you can get right back to your play.")

Also, when you know your toddler is about to bite, divert him: "Biting is no! No biting!" Be firm and try to be ahead of the action.

If he bites you, the best response is to say, "Biting is no!" Immediately remove yourself from him. If he's on your lap, put him on the floor and stand up. If you were playing on the floor, stand up. Quickly, so he makes the connection: I can't be with you if you bite. Tell him that: "Biting is no. I can't be with you when you bite." If he does it again, it's because he doesn't believe you. Repeat the same response in the same calm, firm way, but don't -- repeat, don't -- go ballistic. That ends up being a negative reinforcement, but reinforcement just the same.

There are some good books on the subject, including "Teeth are not for biting," a board book for toddlers; "No Biting, Policy and practice for toddler programs, 2nd edition," which is meant for teachers but is also helpful for parents to know what to expect from their daycare when their child bites or gets bitten. In addition, Harvey Karp has a helpful section on biting in "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" and so do T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow in, "Mastering Anger & Aggression The Brazelton Way."

Anybody got some good anti-biting strategies to share?

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19 comments so far...
  1. Biting is always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate. The parent(s) here appear to be missing the preliminaries communicated by body language that allow frustration to build up to being expressed physically. The anger cited by the parent is another expression of this frustration.

    Some adults think that as soon as a child can walk and babble, that they are small adults and treat them as such. Children DO NOT fully communicate verbally until the age of 3 or 4. Adults MUST continue to communicate by touch and example. Children REQUIRE to be held and talked to, they need to FEEL the attention.

    This parent should pay attention to whether the outbursts happen after the parent has been on the cellphone for conversation after conversation. Has the child been tugging at the hand or leg of the talker? Have several gentle asks for attention been refused, and then the mood escalates?

    Another question is, has the child had an ear infection that has damaged the hearing? Such children absolutely know that something is wrong, they just can't pick up the cellphone and call the parent to tell them so.

    The communication of fear and frustration absolutely can't be ignored or mislabelled as "misbehaving". Children of 13 months old MUST communicate legitimate emotion as this child is doing, they don't have any other way. Give them credit for trying so hard and LISTEN to what is going on.

    Posted by Irene September 10, 09 08:38 AM
  1. I have 23 month old twins. One bites the other. It is NOT "always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate" as Irene says. There are times when biting just happens. It happens out of joy, out of frustration or any other emotion. It happens for no reason at all. My son bites when playing, when frustrated, when tired, teething or hungry. As Barbara says, the best way to handle the situation is calmly and consistently. We remove the biter, put him in time out for 2 minutes and then attend to the bitten child. At the end of his time out, we make the biter give the bitten child a hug and a sorry.

    The biting has been going on for about 5 months. We have seen his pediatrician, his dentist and early intervention specialists (who we see for the non-biting twin) to make sure there are no other issues that need to be addressed. The bites are getting to be fewer and farther between as we continue to use the same consequences.

    I think what I am trying to say is that a biting child isn't a bad child and the parents of a biting child aren't bad parents. It's a bad situation but it does get better!

    Posted by Mom of twins plus one September 10, 09 09:41 AM
  1. Way to blame the parents, Irene. Your ideas have no relation to the situation described.
    Maybe sometimes biting is an indication that the child feels ignored, but NOT always. For some children, biting is a fast reaction to a frustration and does not "build up" on any normal time scale. Such as with the diaper-changing described. Or when another toddler/preschooler takes a toy.
    Oh, and sometimes my child is not my first priority and can wait. And I expect her to wait reasonably, if not very patiently. Even if it's for a cellphone conversation.

    Posted by Lizzie September 10, 09 10:09 AM
  1. Bite the kid, hard! He/she won't do it again. After all, a dog would probably be put down for such behavior.

    Posted by A. Parent September 10, 09 10:26 AM
  1. Ireme is clearly uneducated about kids. Speak to any doctor or child expert and they will tell you that biting -- while distressing to parents -- is very normal behavior. I feel bad for Ireme's kids.

    Posted by Mom of two kids September 10, 09 10:29 AM
  1. Irene, I have to disagree with this extreme statement: "Biting is always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate."

    This may sometimes be the case, but the examples cited in the article are good ones - very young children are just as capable of feeling anger and frustration at having their desires thwarted as anyone else, and the necessary interruption of an activity could easily incite anger and frustration. This in no way implies negligence on the part of the parent. The same type of thing occurs when very young children are playing beside one another, and one 'takes' a toy that the other was playing with. This is a common scenario for a biting incident, and it certainly is unrelated to the attentiveness of caregivers.

    I think Barbara's suggestions for dealing with the biting are excellent - these approaches will help to discourage the biting behavior and will also help the child learn that there are words for the strong emotions he/she is feeling. The parent modeling the behavior of identifying the emotions through language, as well as validating the child's strong emotions, will set lifelong patterns of communication.

    Posted by Cathy September 10, 09 10:41 AM
  1. You are all missing the boat on this one, I'm afraid. The culprit, the ONLY culprit, is the animal shows on TV, which display animals biting other animals. The kids see this, and they go and bite. Kids want to be like the animals. Animals are cute, so the kids emulate them. I think all animals shows which show them biting each other should be banned from television. You watch (pardon the pun), once the animal shows are banned, kids will never bite again.

    Posted by prophetricardo September 10, 09 10:54 AM
  1. Sorry Irene, you are not totally on the ball. My 18 mo old is not ignored by any means. She bites because she has very limited language. Thank you Mrs. Meltz for YOUR advice. I tend to be angry when she bites and now I see that maybe that reaction isn't making the impact I'd hoped for!

    Posted by Elia September 10, 09 12:52 PM
  1. prophetricardo- Really. Interesting. My son went through a biting phase. He had NEVER, EVER watched television at that point.
    I think your idea might be almost as crazy as Irene's.

    Posted by bellyb September 10, 09 01:08 PM
  1. Kids have been biting others long before Buffy bit Muffy on TV. When a grandchild began biting her sister, playmates etc, she got timeouts and nos. Then she chomped down on Grandma. I said, "If you want to bite something, try this," and guided her arm to her mouth. She bit and looked surprised. The next time her little teeth were on my arm, she looked up at me and turned her bite into a kiss, which, of course, got a return kiss from Grandma.

    Posted by Grandma September 10, 09 01:40 PM
  1. oh yeah how about a 1st grader who bites. My daughter was bit by another kid the 2nd day of first grade!

    Posted by mom September 10, 09 01:40 PM
  1. I was, it seems, a crazy biter when I was about the age being discussed here- bit my mum randomly, with no rhyme or reason. She tried everything she could think of, or read about- to no avail. One day, in the supermarket, I bit her very hard. As almost a reflex, she bit me back- I was so surprised and taken aback, it seems, and it made such an immediate impression on me that I never bit again. Not recommending it as a course of action, just saying what worked for my mum!
    Oh- and Prophetricardo- I didn't watch tv at all when I was that age...

    Posted by toothsome September 10, 09 02:42 PM
  1. Wow, wow, wow... "...always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate"? "Animal shows"? I am reminded that the internet can be a dangerous thing. Folks with strong convictions but little knowledge of the topic can make what sound like authoritative statements. It's heartening that there is wisdom, here, to recognize the difference.

    Sheena, my 20+ years in Child Development (and a couple of degrees) say "go with Barbara and the posters who supported and added to her remarks." Also, teach your child alternative reactions to his anger. Tell him, "Say, 'no'!" "Say, I don't like that!"

    If putting him down and walking away doesn't work, you may need to GENTLY hold him so he can feel safe but also know, concretely, that there are limits. (Put him in your lap, facing away from you and wrap your arms around his arms and body.) Tell him, very calmly, "My job is to keep you safe. If you can't be safe, I'll have to keep you safe. Let me know when you're ready to be safe. Then I can let you go." Keep repeating this periodically until he calms down then say, "It looks like you're ready to be safe. You can play now." NEVER do this in anger. It's dangerous and it doesn't work. Anger does not translate to safety. He will soon connect this restriction of freedom with the act of biting and he will learn to control his own behavior to avoid the negative consequence.


    Posted by wg September 10, 09 02:49 PM
  1. Wow, have we got some experts in the house!

    Children bite for reasons or not, it is the parent's responsibility to teach their own children not to bite. If the children continue to bite, then it IS the lack of parenting and no one else's fault. If hte child is yours, then it's your accountability!!

    However, I do like toothsome's mom's approach though. Do unto others as they do unto you!!

    Posted by sick of cop out parents September 11, 09 03:12 AM
  1. FYI to those who think I don;t know about kids firsthand:

    The letter clearly states that anger is the start of the biting.

    Kids biting being OK must be a Boston thing. Where I grew up we knew the difference between gumming while teething, normal exploration using the mouth, and intentional hurting in anger or frustration.

    I know one neglected 2 year old bit another child in daycare, with so much force that the bitten child's parents insisted on an HIV test. ALL the mothers who heard about this from the biter's mother were extremely concerned regardless of where they grew up. ALL the mothers were sure that there was parental neglect.


    Posted by Irene September 11, 09 08:36 AM
  1. "That ends up being a negative reinforcement, but reinforcement just the same."

    I think it is positive reinforcement, but negative attention. Negative reinforcement is when you remove yourself (withdraw your attention) when he bites.

    Sorry to butt in, but I just got the quadrants straight myself.

    Posted by Susan September 11, 09 01:38 PM
  1. I hope no kid at that daycare ever scratches his privates or "ALL" the moms will go around telling everyone he "must" have been molested.

    Must every single thing a child does be pathologized, psychoanalyzed, and given some kind of deep meaning? The kids I've known, included my own, do a lot of things for no particular reason.

    Posted by di September 11, 09 07:08 PM
  1. A little dose of Yo Gabba Gabba would solve the whole thing: "Don't, don't, don't bite your friends!"

    Posted by AnswerMan September 15, 09 02:45 PM
  1. I put Frank's hot sauce on my boys tongues to stop biting. Just a little on the tip of my finger and they never bit again.

    Posted by Tricia January 7, 11 11:47 AM
 
19 comments so far...
  1. Biting is always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate. The parent(s) here appear to be missing the preliminaries communicated by body language that allow frustration to build up to being expressed physically. The anger cited by the parent is another expression of this frustration.

    Some adults think that as soon as a child can walk and babble, that they are small adults and treat them as such. Children DO NOT fully communicate verbally until the age of 3 or 4. Adults MUST continue to communicate by touch and example. Children REQUIRE to be held and talked to, they need to FEEL the attention.

    This parent should pay attention to whether the outbursts happen after the parent has been on the cellphone for conversation after conversation. Has the child been tugging at the hand or leg of the talker? Have several gentle asks for attention been refused, and then the mood escalates?

    Another question is, has the child had an ear infection that has damaged the hearing? Such children absolutely know that something is wrong, they just can't pick up the cellphone and call the parent to tell them so.

    The communication of fear and frustration absolutely can't be ignored or mislabelled as "misbehaving". Children of 13 months old MUST communicate legitimate emotion as this child is doing, they don't have any other way. Give them credit for trying so hard and LISTEN to what is going on.

    Posted by Irene September 10, 09 08:38 AM
  1. I have 23 month old twins. One bites the other. It is NOT "always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate" as Irene says. There are times when biting just happens. It happens out of joy, out of frustration or any other emotion. It happens for no reason at all. My son bites when playing, when frustrated, when tired, teething or hungry. As Barbara says, the best way to handle the situation is calmly and consistently. We remove the biter, put him in time out for 2 minutes and then attend to the bitten child. At the end of his time out, we make the biter give the bitten child a hug and a sorry.

    The biting has been going on for about 5 months. We have seen his pediatrician, his dentist and early intervention specialists (who we see for the non-biting twin) to make sure there are no other issues that need to be addressed. The bites are getting to be fewer and farther between as we continue to use the same consequences.

    I think what I am trying to say is that a biting child isn't a bad child and the parents of a biting child aren't bad parents. It's a bad situation but it does get better!

    Posted by Mom of twins plus one September 10, 09 09:41 AM
  1. Way to blame the parents, Irene. Your ideas have no relation to the situation described.
    Maybe sometimes biting is an indication that the child feels ignored, but NOT always. For some children, biting is a fast reaction to a frustration and does not "build up" on any normal time scale. Such as with the diaper-changing described. Or when another toddler/preschooler takes a toy.
    Oh, and sometimes my child is not my first priority and can wait. And I expect her to wait reasonably, if not very patiently. Even if it's for a cellphone conversation.

    Posted by Lizzie September 10, 09 10:09 AM
  1. Bite the kid, hard! He/she won't do it again. After all, a dog would probably be put down for such behavior.

    Posted by A. Parent September 10, 09 10:26 AM
  1. Ireme is clearly uneducated about kids. Speak to any doctor or child expert and they will tell you that biting -- while distressing to parents -- is very normal behavior. I feel bad for Ireme's kids.

    Posted by Mom of two kids September 10, 09 10:29 AM
  1. Irene, I have to disagree with this extreme statement: "Biting is always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate."

    This may sometimes be the case, but the examples cited in the article are good ones - very young children are just as capable of feeling anger and frustration at having their desires thwarted as anyone else, and the necessary interruption of an activity could easily incite anger and frustration. This in no way implies negligence on the part of the parent. The same type of thing occurs when very young children are playing beside one another, and one 'takes' a toy that the other was playing with. This is a common scenario for a biting incident, and it certainly is unrelated to the attentiveness of caregivers.

    I think Barbara's suggestions for dealing with the biting are excellent - these approaches will help to discourage the biting behavior and will also help the child learn that there are words for the strong emotions he/she is feeling. The parent modeling the behavior of identifying the emotions through language, as well as validating the child's strong emotions, will set lifelong patterns of communication.

    Posted by Cathy September 10, 09 10:41 AM
  1. You are all missing the boat on this one, I'm afraid. The culprit, the ONLY culprit, is the animal shows on TV, which display animals biting other animals. The kids see this, and they go and bite. Kids want to be like the animals. Animals are cute, so the kids emulate them. I think all animals shows which show them biting each other should be banned from television. You watch (pardon the pun), once the animal shows are banned, kids will never bite again.

    Posted by prophetricardo September 10, 09 10:54 AM
  1. Sorry Irene, you are not totally on the ball. My 18 mo old is not ignored by any means. She bites because she has very limited language. Thank you Mrs. Meltz for YOUR advice. I tend to be angry when she bites and now I see that maybe that reaction isn't making the impact I'd hoped for!

    Posted by Elia September 10, 09 12:52 PM
  1. prophetricardo- Really. Interesting. My son went through a biting phase. He had NEVER, EVER watched television at that point.
    I think your idea might be almost as crazy as Irene's.

    Posted by bellyb September 10, 09 01:08 PM
  1. Kids have been biting others long before Buffy bit Muffy on TV. When a grandchild began biting her sister, playmates etc, she got timeouts and nos. Then she chomped down on Grandma. I said, "If you want to bite something, try this," and guided her arm to her mouth. She bit and looked surprised. The next time her little teeth were on my arm, she looked up at me and turned her bite into a kiss, which, of course, got a return kiss from Grandma.

    Posted by Grandma September 10, 09 01:40 PM
  1. oh yeah how about a 1st grader who bites. My daughter was bit by another kid the 2nd day of first grade!

    Posted by mom September 10, 09 01:40 PM
  1. I was, it seems, a crazy biter when I was about the age being discussed here- bit my mum randomly, with no rhyme or reason. She tried everything she could think of, or read about- to no avail. One day, in the supermarket, I bit her very hard. As almost a reflex, she bit me back- I was so surprised and taken aback, it seems, and it made such an immediate impression on me that I never bit again. Not recommending it as a course of action, just saying what worked for my mum!
    Oh- and Prophetricardo- I didn't watch tv at all when I was that age...

    Posted by toothsome September 10, 09 02:42 PM
  1. Wow, wow, wow... "...always an indication that the child feels ignored and desperate"? "Animal shows"? I am reminded that the internet can be a dangerous thing. Folks with strong convictions but little knowledge of the topic can make what sound like authoritative statements. It's heartening that there is wisdom, here, to recognize the difference.

    Sheena, my 20+ years in Child Development (and a couple of degrees) say "go with Barbara and the posters who supported and added to her remarks." Also, teach your child alternative reactions to his anger. Tell him, "Say, 'no'!" "Say, I don't like that!"

    If putting him down and walking away doesn't work, you may need to GENTLY hold him so he can feel safe but also know, concretely, that there are limits. (Put him in your lap, facing away from you and wrap your arms around his arms and body.) Tell him, very calmly, "My job is to keep you safe. If you can't be safe, I'll have to keep you safe. Let me know when you're ready to be safe. Then I can let you go." Keep repeating this periodically until he calms down then say, "It looks like you're ready to be safe. You can play now." NEVER do this in anger. It's dangerous and it doesn't work. Anger does not translate to safety. He will soon connect this restriction of freedom with the act of biting and he will learn to control his own behavior to avoid the negative consequence.


    Posted by wg September 10, 09 02:49 PM
  1. Wow, have we got some experts in the house!

    Children bite for reasons or not, it is the parent's responsibility to teach their own children not to bite. If the children continue to bite, then it IS the lack of parenting and no one else's fault. If hte child is yours, then it's your accountability!!

    However, I do like toothsome's mom's approach though. Do unto others as they do unto you!!

    Posted by sick of cop out parents September 11, 09 03:12 AM
  1. FYI to those who think I don;t know about kids firsthand:

    The letter clearly states that anger is the start of the biting.

    Kids biting being OK must be a Boston thing. Where I grew up we knew the difference between gumming while teething, normal exploration using the mouth, and intentional hurting in anger or frustration.

    I know one neglected 2 year old bit another child in daycare, with so much force that the bitten child's parents insisted on an HIV test. ALL the mothers who heard about this from the biter's mother were extremely concerned regardless of where they grew up. ALL the mothers were sure that there was parental neglect.


    Posted by Irene September 11, 09 08:36 AM
  1. "That ends up being a negative reinforcement, but reinforcement just the same."

    I think it is positive reinforcement, but negative attention. Negative reinforcement is when you remove yourself (withdraw your attention) when he bites.

    Sorry to butt in, but I just got the quadrants straight myself.

    Posted by Susan September 11, 09 01:38 PM
  1. I hope no kid at that daycare ever scratches his privates or "ALL" the moms will go around telling everyone he "must" have been molested.

    Must every single thing a child does be pathologized, psychoanalyzed, and given some kind of deep meaning? The kids I've known, included my own, do a lot of things for no particular reason.

    Posted by di September 11, 09 07:08 PM
  1. A little dose of Yo Gabba Gabba would solve the whole thing: "Don't, don't, don't bite your friends!"

    Posted by AnswerMan September 15, 09 02:45 PM
  1. I put Frank's hot sauce on my boys tongues to stop biting. Just a little on the tip of my finger and they never bit again.

    Posted by Tricia January 7, 11 11:47 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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