Tips For Addressing Biting Behaviors in Toddlers

Patrick Donnelly said…

Lindsay, our son Patrick Jr. is almost 2 years old, and like most 2 year olds he can get pretty wild. Recently he has been doing many things (like biting) that he knows he is not supposed to do because we have punished him for it before. What would be your advice as far as the best ways/punishments that will help us get our point across to Patrick that these are actions that are not allowed?

Thanks for your comment Patrick. Biting is a relatively common behavior for toddlers. They do not yet have the ability to articulate their thoughts and feelings yet and commonly can bite when they get excited, or when they want to “send a message” or get another person’s attention. Sometimes, toddlers who bite simply like to see the reaction sort of like an experiment they are trying out. It is relatively rare for a toddler to have premeditated biting and is more commonly related to being unable to manage overwhelming feelings combined with an inability to articulate their needs.

First things first, don’t automatically label your child’s behavior as planned or premeditated. Deciding as parents that the biting behavior is willful or evil, gets in the way of understanding the reasons behind the behavior, and furthermore addressing this behavior properly.

When the behavior occurs, don’t yell or scream. A child of this age is likely to become afraid of you and be stunned and lose sight of the message that you are trying to convey that biting is bad and that you will not tolerate it.

As an adult, you have skills that your child does not possess that will help him to not engage in these biting behaviors. One of those skills is to be able to anticipate his behavior. Many parents know “that look” accompanied with running towards the potential target. This is where you intervene. When you intervene, do not jerk your child away in an aggressive manner, rather redirect him using a distraction or offer a book or game or something of interest – even if you have only a few moments and you can say “Hey look at that little bird out the window!” – anything – just as long as it gently redirects your child away from the biting behavior you believe that they were about to engage in. Remember we want to respect our children.

If you are unable to get there before he bites, immediately following the bite, the first thing you want to do is almost overly console the child who has just been bitten. This will help to convey a clear message to your child that this behavior will not bring attention from mommy and daddy. Make clear statements that reflect your beliefs about that behavior. “We don’t bite people in this family” or “Biting hurts.” This is an opportunity to build conscience and empathy.

Have your child look at the other crying child and make comments such as “See how Katie is crying? She is hurting right now. Bites hurt! Tell Katie you love her and give her a hug, that will help her feel better.” This is also a moment where you can educate your child about “using their words” or coming to ask mommy or daddy for a toy next time and let them know you will help them. The biggest mistake a parent can make in this situation is letting your own feelings about the behavior overcome you and drive your reaction. Also, be consistent in your response every time this behavior occurs and use the same words each time – short responses such as “We don’t bite. Biting hurts.” This will likely take many attempts and will require you to be persistent and consistent over time.

Now, if you have tried this attempt a good ten times or so, and the behavior continues, respond with a little bit more intensity. Its important to remember that intensity does not translate to force. Again, control yourself and don’t let your feelings drive your response. If he engages in the behavior and you have already attempted the above recommendations, put your hand on his shoulder, and say “No biting. You need to take a break.” Or say “it’s time for a timeout.” A pretty general rule for this is a minute for each year of age. 2 minutes is a very long time to a 2 year old. Place him in a specific chair away from the play area. Expect protest and upset. You must be able to tolerate this and don’t engage him. If he gets up from where you have placed him, the first time he gets up, let him know that you are going to help him back to his place. If he gets up again, don’t speak to him and without aggressive force, return him to his place. Continue this until he remains in his place. You must be consistent and persistent. Even if he gets up 20 times, repeat this behavior. If you crack on the 19th time, he will learn that eventually you will break and this behavior will continue.

Again, if this behavior continues, you may want to supplement it with reading him books that address these behaviors. For this age, I recommend “The Berenstein Bears and The Bad Habit” by Stan and Jan Berenstein, “Teeth are Not for Biting” by Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen, “No Biting” by Karen Katz, “No Biting Louise” by Margie Palatini and Matthew Reinhart.

The worst situation for the parent of a biting child might be when your child bites another child on a playdate or birthday party or at school. When your child bites someone else in public, there is a feeling of immediate embarrassment, anger, and wanting to just disappear. Again, remind yourself, that this behavior is common for children around this age, and secondly regulate your own reaction. Repeat the above recommendations. You will find that having a consistent plan of action will reduce your anxiety, provide your child with a clear message about your family’s beliefs related to the biting behavior as well as console the child who has just been bitten.

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