A biting child needs a consistent response

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 7, 2011 06:00 AM

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Our 16-month-old son is terrible with biting. We also have a soon to be 3-year-old daughter who went through the typical biting phase for a couple months earlier this year. Our son on the other hand resorts to that for both any perceived wrong-doing (his sister takes his toy) or just for the heck of it, though usually only with me when we start to rough-house (i.e. using me as a jungle gym). When you tell him no (nicely or sternly), he thinks it's funny! I put him in "time out" in his crib just to get him out of the situation and then again tell him "no biting" when I take him out. When this started months ago, I got to the point of being so frustrated by his lack of understanding that I tried the biting back stance - once. He thought that was funny too! It seemed to have died down a bit over the summer, but he is getting terrible again and he is starting to bite other (older) kids at daycare. When this happens, they sit him down and then have him hug whoever he hurt. Help! What can I do to make him see that it is not funny and not nice? For the record, he is verbal (his pediatrician said he is right on target for quantity of words) and he understands most directions that you give to him - put your lovey in your crib, get your shoes, its time for a bath, etc.


From: T, Hubbardston, MA

Dear T,

You need to respond to biting sternly and firmly and consistently. If you're rough-housing with him, if he's sitting in your lap, if he's anywhere in close proximity, (1) tell him in firm voice, "No. No biting." (2) At the same time, stop the action. You need to do this quickly, so there's a connection between the words and the actions. If he's in your lap, put him on the floor and stand up. If you're on the floor together and he's climbing on top of you, remove him from your body and stand up yourself so that it's clear, you're finished with this activity. The message you want to send is: "I can't be with you when you bite." In fact, I'd use those words. Repeatedly. (BTW, forget putting him in time-out; he's way too young.) Then, the next time you start to play, remind him: "Remember, no biting! I can't play with you if you bite."

He may continue to think this is funny. He may also get angry. Either way, you need to remain firm and consistent. It's the consistency, along with the removal of your approval and attention, that will eventually help him to realize biting isn't getting him anything fun.

In a previous answer to a question about biting, I explained that biting typically happens because: a child doesn't have the words to express himself, or because the words don't come as quickly or easily as the impulse to bite; because he or she is teething and 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.); and because parents over-react in their reaction, prompting a child to wonder, "Hmm, if I do this again, what will mom do this time?" Which is why the consistency of your response is so critical. Oh -- and I think you realize this -- biting back is never a good idea. It just teaches that the bigger person, in this case, the adult, has more power which is one way kids learn how to be a bully.

In day care when there is a biter, the staff typically hovers like a hawk to prevent the biter from biting again. For instance, they might try to prevent the biting if they see the child getting frustrated by saying, "I can tell you're getting upset. What words can you use?" The idea of having the biting child and the bitten child hug is an effort to teach about empathy.

There are some good books on biting: "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.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Teeth *are* for biting. This very much makes me not want to buy a book called "Teeth are not for biting," I don't care how good it is.

    Posted by geocool October 7, 11 09:57 AM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. Teeth *are* for biting. This very much makes me not want to buy a book called "Teeth are not for biting," I don't care how good it is.

    Posted by geocool October 7, 11 09:57 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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