Biting is an incredibly frustrating behavior, for parents, child care providers and the victims who get bit without warning. It is a common occurrence in one and two year old children who lack the skills to use words to express what they are thinking and feeling. If a one-year-old is upset by something someone has done, biting—and other forms of aggression—is the quickest and most efficient way for the child to get that message across.
Even though biting is effective at relaying this message, it isn’t something that is a viable option for kids to be able to use long-term (obviously!). Kids must learn how to express their emotions in other ways, besides using biting and other forms of aggression. While biting is a normal part of life at ages one and two, it’s important for adults to help manage this behavior to (1) protect others from getting hurt and (2) encourage development onto the next stage of life that no longer includes biting, which is an obvious benefit for everyone.
Here are a few tips for dealing with biting in a young child and ways to help keep others safe as well as teach more appropriate ways of behaving:
1. Feed the Biter!
One of the most common times for biting to occur is when a child is hungry. A hungry child may literally take a bite out of another child because she is hungry and wants anything nearby to be her food. Or, emotions can quickly take over the body and the child can lose control over her actions, resulting in a massive bite mark on another child who dared to be in her space.
Either way, a hungry child is at an increased risk for biting another child.
If you notice that biting is occurring just before meal or snack time, push the schedule up just a little bit to prevent children from becoming famished. If that isn’t an option, perhaps you can have a small snack in between a snack or a meal time, just to hold the child over until that next opportunity to eat.
And if feeding the children earlier or more often just isn’t an option because of your setting, then stick near the known biters during those pre-meal or pre-snack moments to ensure protection for the other children.
2. Notice the Victim
Some children may decide to bite not out of hunger, but simply out of anger or frustration over what someone else has done. Even a fully fed child may bite another child if he becomes angry enough over what the other child did.
Instead of giving attention to the child who bites, I often recommend that the teacher or parent offer attention and assistance to the victim of the biting crime. Run over to the incident and draw attention to the plight of the victim. Ask the child if she is ok and if she needs a Band-Aid. Give her hugs, kisses and plenty of attention. Once you’ve been assured that she is ok—and the biter is staring at you as you run about the room doing whatever the victim has asked for—then you can return to the biter to offer your consequence or discuss the issue.
3. Teach Empathy
Newsflash for you: toddlers DO NOT care about the feelings of others. They are selfish and they think that you live your whole life just to make them happy (or at least they think that you should live your whole life to make them happy!). They have no understanding of how their actions (i.e. biting) are affecting other people. In their minds, if they see a toy, the toy should belong to them, no matter how it makes others feel; if they are mad, they should be able to hit someone or break something, no matter how it makes others feel.
This is a phase that they will grow out of with practice, but you don’t have to just wait for them to grow out of it. The more you talk with them about how their actions affect others, the quicker they will learn about empathy and move on to caring (at least a little bit more) about how others feel about their actions.
After you’ve focused on the victim, talk empathy with the child. Say something like, “When you bit Samantha, you made her feel sad. Can you see the tears in her eyes and how sad her face looks?”
Link the conversation about empathy to the consequence that the child will receive. For example, “You will have to sit out for a few minutes because you made a choice that hurt my friend Samantha” versus “You will have to sit out for a few minutes because you were biting.”
The lesson that we want to teach is that biting another person is wrong because it hurts others, and if you make a choice to hurt others, you will have to sit out. This will help later if the children are using other aggressive behaviors like pinching, hitting or kicking.
4. Use Natural Consequences
When you select what kind of consequence to provide to someone who has chosen to bite, make sure that it is relevant and connected to the situation and that it reflects a consequence that the child would experience in the real world in the future.
Overly punitive consequences aren’t helpful, and consequences that require the child to wait more than a few minutes can tend to be ineffective since young kids have short attention spans that don’t allow them to link a later consequence to an earlier action.
Here is an example of how to provide a natural consequence to someone who bites:
Johnathon is playing with the truck when Erin tries to grab it from him. Johnathon refuses to let go so Erin grabs his arm and bites it.
A few possible consequences here include:
- Johnathon gets the truck and Erin misses out on her turn with the truck for the rest of free play (The Lesson: You don’t get what you want by biting).
- Erin has to take a 2-3 minute break from playing with any of the toys (The Lesson: When you hurt people, you have to take time away from them and the activities that you enjoy).
A few inappropriate consequences here include:
- Erin gets a spanking (The Lesson: It’s not ok for kids to hurt other kids, but adults can hurt kids whenever they want to).
- Erin has to stay inside for the next recess, which is still 45 minutes away (The Lesson: Who knows? When recess time comes, Erin won’t remember what she did 45 minutes ago).
- Erin does not get to have a morning snack (The Lesson: When you are mean to others, you lose out on the basic human rights that everyone deserves. That’s just not fair to a child; even prisoners get to eat! Also, Erin is more likely to bite if she is hungry, so you’ve just escalated the problem!).
So, the next time that there is a biter in your classroom, follow these 4 steps to protect the victims, teach the biter how her actions affect others and teach the biter what kinds of consequences are in store for her now and in the future if she chooses to bite (or in general, hurt others) again.