Last week I was on Studio 10 talking about ways we can make our family happier – and talking up my new book, 21 Days to a Happier Family. (It’s been #1 in its genre on the Dymocks list since its release 4 weeks ago.)
Denise Drysdale was the one of the guest panellists, and during the break she asked me about how to respond to children biting other children. Her view was that the best way to teach them not to bite was to bite them. That way, they get to feel how awful it is and they’ll never do it to another person.
“One of my children saw his child bite another kid. My child bit him and it taught him a lesson. He never did it again!”
So is biting a child the best way to teach kids not to bite?
Why do children bite?
Biting is common between ages 1 and 2, and we usually see boys as the biters rather than girls (although girls can and do bite).
As children become toddlers, they begin to have preferences and ideas about how they would like the world to be. Sometimes they struggle to express those preferences. They begin to tantrum, scream, kick, scratch, and occasionally some children bite.
It is not always because they are upset either. Sometimes they are simply experimenting with cause-and-effect. Essentially they are learning that “if I do this then that happens.” For one child, the behaviour might be biting, while for another, it might be hitting people with a stick, or holding her breath until she passes out or gets what she wants. Sometimes, biting may be about nothing more than “hey, notice me! I’m feeling mad/frustrated/upset and don’t know how else to get your attention!”
For most children biting is just a phase, but knowing that doesn’t help when your child is ‘the biter’, and is ostracised from playing because of his aggressive tooth-related tendencies.
We can help children who are behaving in challenging ways best by understanding why they are behaving like that, and seeking to help them, rather than punishing them. Here are some tips on how to help your child not to bite, as well as an idea or two about what not to do.
- Whatever you do, don’t bite him back. He may learn several things by being bitten, but ‘don’t bite’ will not be one of them. He may learn that you can hurt him, and that you do not understand him.
In some cases it might “work”, but for every story I hear where someone swears it really did work, there are dozens of parents who tried this method unsuccessfully and only ended up making their little one cry.
- My suggestion is that in most cases (though not all) your child will almost certainly not learn not to bite others. He will not link you biting him with his prior behaviour. He is too young to make that association.
Don’t punish him. Once again, punishment will not teach him. Nor will it show that you have any desire to understand him or help him. It will simply teach him that his parents are not looking out for him except to hurt him. And he will learn to behave aggressively towards others over whom he has power.
- Offer to help the victim. Unless a child is remaining aggressive and dangerous (which is unusual) this should be your first action any time a child hurts others. Comfort and help the person who has been hurt.
- Remove the offending child – kindly. Take the child somewhere private and offer them comfort. Yes, I know this sounds weird. Why comfort a child who just did something horrid? Two reasons.
First, when children are frightened or upset they don’t learn from us very well. We want him to be calm and feel safe.
Second, at this age, he is probably a little scared about what he just did, how it led to such a horrible outcome for his playmate, and what it all means. This is all new. By taking him out of the room and offering him some private comfort, you can help him be prepared to learn.
- Explain and teach, firmly but kindly. Let your little boy know that biting hurts. Tell him not to bite, but to be gentle instead. Depending on the age of the child you might also ask questions to help him think through alternative ways of getting attention or dealing with conflict with a playmate.
Sometimes it is better to wait at least ten or fifteen minutes (or more) so everyone calms down before you spend time teaching. Children don’t learn very well when their emotions are big.
- Finally, offer alternative activities that don’t require competition or conflict. Get them active, provide additional toys, play music, or re-direct their focus in other ways.
Biting is pretty standard up until the age of 2, and can sometimes continue until age 3. If it happens, remember, don’t punish. Teach. If the problem persists past the age of around 3, or if it is pervasive and ongoing, and happening in lots of relationships, chat with your GP about seeing someone who can offer specific, personalised guidance.
What have you seen work best to help your toddler stop biting other kids?