Hi Dr Justin,
I have a 16-month-old who is generally very happy. He is full of energy and very gentle except for one thing. He has been biting.
He hasn’t bitten anyone other than my husband and I. Initially it was when he was teething so I offered him alternatives like rusks, and that helped. But now it is happening at other times. It is usually afternoon or evenings when he is tired or frustrated, or when he is rumbling with dad and is hyped up.
I don’t know how to deal with it as I don’t feel it is aggressive or malicious. It’s more reactive. We told him “No” firmly and he really cried, but he continues to do it. Any advice?
Dr Justin responds:
Not every child bites, but this kind of behaviour is entirely normal and relatively common in children around this age. Toddlers do not understand how much biting can hurt.
You have pretty much nailed the central reasons that children bite. They do it when they are tired and frustrated, or when they are excited. And the real issue for you, given that the behaviour is pretty normal, is to work out how to deal with it.
First, I must caution you against biting your child back. You don’t seem to be inclined to do that, but well-meaning friends and family will often say that a child needs to experience what they are doing to others so that they can understand. I reject this line of thinking entirely – particularly with a child so young.
My strong advice: do not bite your child. If you were to choose to bite your child, he would feel betrayed. He would be hurt. He would cry. A lot. But he would not learn to avoid biting. Instead, he might actually think that biting is normal. You would have modelled it for him perfectly. Even if he did not think that, he could begin to question his ability to trust you.
When we respond to a baby or toddler with unkindness, our child’s emotional circuitry in the brain is rewired, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase, and vagal tone suffers, which means that the major systems of the body become less resilient.
Though often well-meaning, strategies that turn parents away from their child’s emotional world, or that turn parents against their child with anger and unkindness, are detrimental to the child’s innate reservoir of resilience. They leave a child worried and anxious, unsure about whether he can trust the only people in the world he is wired to connect with.
Babies and young children learn to regulate their emotion and behaviour best through a coordinated interaction with a responsive mother, father, or caregiver. When our child feels that we are attuned, our child relaxes, and is more likely to be calm and contented. They regulate their stress and arousal more effectively. Their brain releases oxytocin and serotonin; chemicals that increase feelings of trust, safety, and contentment. They are more cooperative. Responsive parenting increases children’s vagal tone, diminishing psychological pain and enhancing happiness. It tells a child that we are there for him. It reminds him that everything is ok. Responsive parenting always has been, and remains, the rock on which resilience rests.
All of this means that we need to respond to our toddlers with much more compassion. I agree with Steve Biddulph when he says that we should give nothing but love to our children under around age two or three. Don’t worry about correction and direction at this age. Love is all.
Ultimately, a child biting is likely to be related to emotion and behaviour regulation. This means that when he is tired or excited, he does not manage his emotions and behaviours well, and so he bites. When we focus on the behaviour, we miss the emotion that is driving the behaviour. And it is the emotion that requires our attention.
So, my advice? It’s pretty simple. When your son bites, look at him and say “no” clearly. But more than anything, hug him and love him. Lots. He will grow out of it as he matures. And he will grow out of it faster with lots of love and patience.