How Can I Stop My Child From Biting Others?
Parents are always shocked when they become aware of their child’s behaviour at school or crèche. It’s often because the child doesn’t behave the same way at home.
'Where did he learn that?' or 'How do I teach her to stop doing that?' are always questions that are asked time and again by parents.
One of our readers is in the same conundrum. Luckily senior clinical psychologist Dr Sara O’Byrne was ready with some tips on how to handle the situation.
My 21-month-old son is in a full time crèche – I’ve been really happy with the care he receives there. However, I was recently mortified to discover that he has been pushing and biting a couple of other children. The crèche workers have told me that he does it when he wants a toy or his own way. It’s been going on for a couple of months now and I’m at the end of my tether. He has never bitten me or his dad at home, so we’re at a loss as to why he’s doing this. What’s the best way to help a child who bites?
Many infants and toddlers will go through a biting phase. Understandably, this can be extremely emotional and stressful for parents. The behaviour typically resolves as children gain increased self-control and develop problem-solving skills, but there are steps you can take in the meantime to help reduce the frequency of the behaviours.
Young children will bite for a variety of reasons, including the following:
- Exploring the consequences of their actions (“I wonder what happens when I bite?”)
- Expressing intimacy or enjoyment.
- Experiencing oral feedback.
- Imitation of other children.
- Managing intense emotions (e.g. frustration, anger, confusion).
- Communicating other needs such as tiredness or hunger.
- Looking for a way out of a situation (e.g. “this environment is too noisy and I want to escape”).
Label The Behaviour Not The Child
What is important first of all is that the child is not inadvertently labelled as either a ‘biter’ or a ‘difficult’ child. Not only is this type of language punitive, it can also reinforce the behaviour. Toddlers and young children have not yet learned to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ attention so when adults in the child’s life have a strong reaction to the behaviour, the frequency of this might actually increase, even if the response is negative. What is more appropriate is that expectations are clear, and that your responses are measured and fair for non-preferred behaviour, with the balance of ‘attention’ much more in favour of preferred behaviour.
READ MORE: Should I Worry About My Child's Behaviour In Crèche?
Think of a scenario for instance, in which a parent might over-look the times in which the child is playing quietly and calmly with a sibling and then react strongly to the one occasion when the child throws a toy. Over time, the child might learn that he gets a dramatic response for throwing but little for playing nicely. So for adults, paying attention to what we give attention to is very important!
It is vital that the adults involved in your child’s life work together and adopt consistent approaches to managing the behaviour. The methods outlined here will help with common ground. What is also crucial is that your child is set up for success with the new approach and that alternative behaviours are rewarded and praised (e.g. “Well done for staying so calm!” or “Great playing with your buddies!”) The approaches can be broadly divided in to prevention and intervention strategies as follows:
READ MORE: 4 Things I Learned In The First Year Of Motherhood
- Arrange a meeting with your child’s crèche and let them know that you are taking the behaviour seriously and want to agree a plan of support. Having a communication diary might be useful in the initial phases, particularly if you are tracking the frequency of the behaviour.
- Ensure that your child is getting adequate sleep. For a child of this age, the rough guide is around 13 hours per night.
- Introduce 10-15 minutes of quality playtime every day, after collection from crèche, with one or both parents. Playtime should be child-led and does not get removed if your child has a bad day at crèche.
- Make sure your child’s schedule, routines, and transitions are predictable and consistent. At meals, naptimes, and bedtimes, try to do things in the same way and at the same times. Young children thrive when they know what will happen next. Try to drop your child off and pick him up from crèche at the same time each day.
- Use positive guidance strategies to help your child develop self-control. For example, offer gentle reminders, phrased in a way that tells him what behaviours are expected (“Remember to use your gentle hands”).
- Provide appropriate items to bite (e.g. crunchy vegetables) to help your child learn what he can bite safely, without hurting anyone.
- If there are patterns to your child’s behaviour (e.g. biting when tired at the end of the day), you will need to prevent occurrences as much as possible. This might mean crèche workers setting up an individual play activity for your child at the end of the day, rather than having him involved with the group.
- Manage your own stress, if needed. Calm your breathing and keep a level head before responding.
- If you see a biting incident, get down to your child’s level and make a clear, strong statement like, “No biting. Biting hurts”.
- Make sure there is a consequence for the action (such as saying sorry to the other child).
- Keep the reaction short and time-limited. You want to move on to rewarding the next positive behaviour the child displays in a much more dramatic way (“Well done for sharing your toys” with a hug or high-five)
- Give the child words that help him to understand what he is feeling (e.g. “You felt angry because Jack took your ball”). Over time, this will offer him an alternative way of expressing these feelings.
READ MORE: Are My Toddler's Struggles Just A Phase?
Remember it takes time for your child to acquire new skills. It is important to keep an eye on gradual changes and manage your expectations regarding the pace of change. With consistency, and by remembering that all-important ‘attention rule’ your child will get there.
Dr Sara O’Byrne (BA, MSc, D Clin Psych) is a Clinic Director and Senior Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and their families. Sara provides consultation, assessment and therapy services within a multidisciplinary team setting at the Treehouse Practice in the Beacon South Quarter. www.treehousepractice.ie