We’ve all seen some version of this scenario: Eighteen-month-old Julie is digging happily in the sandbox next to her friend Katie. Katie suddenly takes Julie’s shovel. Julie bites her arm. Chaos unfolds. Sadly, this is commonplace for most parents, as biting has become a horror-story situation for some families and is a particularly hard behavior for parents to deal with. For parents who find themselves out of sorts, we’ve sought some explanations to this behavior and some handy (super easy) tips on how to stop kids from biting once and for all.
Is it a normal part of development?
If your child tends to bite, keep in mind that young children are in the oral stage of development (birth to 18 months) and the primary way of experiencing and reacting to the world is through the mouth, including tasting, putting random objects in the mouth, sucking, and biting. However, any incidents of biting after this age can cause serious problems, and warrants a deeper observation from parents and teachers. For example, a bite can cause the spread of germs and lead to an infection. Meanwhile, if a child bites frequently at the park or at play group, the child may become labeled “the biter” and other kids will steer clear of the child. There will be fewer invitations for play dates as well.
How to deal with it?
Here are five expert strategies on how to stop kids from biting (some experts even suggest that some strategies are helpful to a child who constantly hits, pushes, kicks, or spits as well):
1. Set a limit firmly and explain why.
Tell her, “We don’t bite (or hit) anyone. Biting hurts.” If it’s a family member, use this phrase, “We don’t hurt anyone in our family.” At the same time, acknowledge the reason why it happened. For example, say, “You were angry at Katie because she took your shovel.”
2. Encourage verbalization.
An important phrase to tell your child is, ”Use your words,” and give her specific words to use. For instance, “Tell your friend, ‘I’m angry’ or ‘Mine.’” If your child expresses him or herself in words, he or she will begin to replace biting with speech.
3. Stay nearby.
If you know your child is in a biting phase, stay close to her when your child is playing with other children and be ready to step in quickly to prevent the behavior. Learn her trigger points. If your child tends to bite when she’s sitting close to another child, move her a few feet away from her friend, or sit in between them.
4. Replace the urge to bite with other stimuli.
If your child usually bites or hits when he or she is hungry, always carry a snack with you. Watch for signs that generally appear before the child bites, and move in quickly. Use a teething ring. If the biting is frequent, you can give your child a teething ring and tell her, “If you need to bite, bite your ring.” (Similarly, if you need to spit, you have to go to the sink.) Help her to use words. If he or she tends to bite you when you are having an affectionate moment sitting on the floor together, tell her, “Say, love” or make nice to Mommy. If your child won’t stop, distract him or her toward another activity, or take her into another room to change focus. Think developmentally. Always remember that your child cannot talk and is using his or her body to communicate. Your little one is in a learning process about how to handle her emotions, wishes, and relationships with words.
5. Avoid labels
Using names like “biter,” “hitter,” “naughty,” or “bad girl” is never a good idea. These words harm a child’s self-esteem, evoke anger, and reinforce the behavior. He or she will think of him or herself in these terms and act accordingly. It also encourages everyone to expect this behavior and to treat him or her as a problem child. Parents will ask, “Shouldn’t she be punished?” In their mind they may hear the words, “Hit her hand or spank her,” thinking that that’s the proper way to respond (especially if their own parents spanked them.) Keep in mind that your child has no control over impulses as yet. He or she will not understand if you put her in the crib, and the problem will continue.
Though it can seem urgent, you need to view this as a slow process. Change your expectations and set up situations carefully. It is really crucial to be your child’s ally. Your little one is having a hard time with his or her impulses and needs you to be there by her side to help. Though it is difficult, you need to be patient and know that the behavior will stop with your help and her development.