By Hallie Bulkin
I am often asked, “How do I stop my child from biting?” If you follow me you know that I work with children who have speech-language delays & specialize in working with children that have autism spectrum disorder. This question usually comes from a parent of one of my kiddos (but sometimes comes from the teacher(s), too). That said, biting is common in about 25% of ALL children between 2-3 years of age and typically phases out by age 4.
So why do children bite?
It’s important to understand that children do not typically bite because they want to hurt others rather they bite as a form of communication. In fact, most children do not realize that biting can cause pain. So why are they using biting to communicate with you? And what are they trying to communicate? Well, there is typically a “trigger” that leads to the biting and/or a “reward” that comes as a result of the biting. Both triggers and rewards can lead to more biting if not addressed.
What are the “triggers” that lead to biting?
Triggers generally fall into one of two main categories. First, children may be trying to show their emotions or feelings. Children that bite do not typically have the language to explain intense feelings like overexcitement, love for a parent or caregiver, and/or frustration over a toy being taken away or not being able to get an adult’s attention. Your child may be communicating one of these emotions with you in the form of biting. Secondly, children may be protecting their territory and trying to control their surroundings. This is very common in children who do not have the language to say “my toy”, “my turn”, “give it back”, “don’t touch my tower”, etc. When someone gets bit they tend to move back and the child who bit them regains their territory and sense of control again.
What is the primary “reward” that leads to biting?
Well, it’s not a positive reward. In fact, it’s a reward that you as an adult should work on extinguishing (get rid of it!) since it’s the most common response to unwanted behaviors. What am I talking about? Negative attention. Note: this is also categorized as a trigger, but here, the parent is rewarding the negative behavior with negative attention.
Let’s look at this from start to finish. The child bites, the adult disciplines by spending a lot of time and attention on “not biting” and why it is wrong, the child bites again in the future to get more attention. The important thing to highlight here is that your child got what they wanted: your ATTENTION (and they don’t care how they got it)! It is often the case that the child does not understand the difference between negative and positive attention, they just know they got attention and they will repeat that behavior because it gave them more time with YOU focused on them (even if it was for something they did wrong)!
So…How do I stop the biting?
Here are a variety of strategies to stop the biting:
- Tell the child, “no biting, it hurts” or “we bite food, not people” and move on. Save the attention for positive rewards when they do good and only pay attention to behaviors you would like to see repeated.
- Give your child communication to use in place of biting. For example, teach them to hug if they want to share love or to use simple phrases like: “stop”, “mine”, “my toy” to regain control over their environment. If they are not yet using words to communicate, teach them simple signs. Resource: ASLpro.com
- Pay attention to body language – if your child clenches their teeth (this usually precedes biting) following a common trigger, jump in and direct their attention elsewhere. They may need to be taken to a quiet area to calm down before reentering the play space.
- Never discipline in front of other children. Always remove your child from the group and say, “No biting, biting hurts” or “we bite food, not people” and then when they are ready let them return to the group.
- And please, I beg you, whatever you do… DO NOT bite your child back so they can feel how much it hurts. All this does is teach that violence is okay and leads to more violence.
What can I do if I have tried everything you’ve recommended and the biting continues?
- Get the whole team on board: parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. Everyone needs to be consistent in the ‘no biting’ approach.
- Grab our series on getting rid of unwanted behaviors: http://littlesproutspeech.com/store/picture-guides-for-better-behavior-series-1/
- Talk about sharing and model it for your child at home. Model what happens if someone takes a toy away and the appropriate way to respond.
- Keep your language and approach simple and positive.
- Make a point of highlighting when your child is doing things right so they receive attention ONLY for positive behaviors.
- And if all else fails, state “no” after your child bites and turn your back to the child. This teaches that biting does NOT receive ANY attention!
If there is one thing you take away from this post, just remember to keep it positive! Only pay attention to behaviors you want repeated and reward those good behaviors with positive attention.
Here’s to you putting a stop to your child’s biting. YOU can do it!
PS – I have used these picture guides to stop biting (and other physical) behaviors in children preschool through high school age. Grab them today and end the biting NOW! http://littlesproutspeech.com/store/picture-guides-for-better-behavior-series-1/