Ask Dr. Missy, Ph.D., Child Counselor & Feelings Helper
Dear Dr. Missy: My 3 year-old son won’t stop biting his older brother and sister and others kids he plays with. Other parents asked me not to bring him to play dates and I understand. I wouldn’t want other kids biting my kid. He bites his cousins at family gatherings. When he’s really angry, he bites himself. My other kids did not bite. The entire family is frustrated. We’ve tried time-out in a chair and in his room and not letting him watch his favorite cartoon, but it’s not working. I won’t take him to daycare until he stops biting others.
Dear Frustrated Family:
I can empathize with your family’s frustration over chaos and confusion caused by choppers. I’ve helped other parents that had kids with a biting issue. There are other things you can try. Read on.
Your child is no longer invited to play dates, birthday parties, or social gatherings because he bites. And he bites. And he bites. You feel frustrated, sad, confused, angry, embarrassed and like a failed parent. It’s time to wave the SOS flag!
Why do children bite? Biting is a phase of child development. Babies bite when they are teething to relieve gum pain. Toddlers use their mouths to explore the world.
What do children bite others? It may be due to frustration, anger or to get instant attention. Biting a person gets an intense reaction. Parents need to discourage biting at an early age by saying, “Please use your words to tell me when you feel mad. Teeth are not for biting.” Parents can tell the biting child, “Ouch that hurts me.”
I recommend the children’s picture books, Teeth Are Not for Biting, by Elizabeth Verdick and No Biting! by Karen Katz. Read these books to your child. Again. Again. And again.
Do not bite your child back or tell another child to bite him back. You are teaching him that retaliation is acceptable. This negative tactic encourages biting as a way to solve problems. Do not smack his mouth as this reinforces physical force as suitable.
But, what does a parent do when their child continues to bite others? Be proactive instead of reactive. Sharing toys can be a trigger for biting, especially if there’s only one of the favorite toy. Talk about sharing and biting before a play activity with others. Use puppets to act out scenarios about a biting child. The parent can say, “We bite food not people.” Teach empathy for the puppet who is bitten. Biting is frustrating for both the bitee and the biter.
Provide constant supervision for a biting child when she is playing with others. Be ready to intervene. Parents can use a firm voice, “No biting. It hurts.” Remove him immediately and leave the area. Express empathy for the child who was bitten. Whether you’re at home or a friend’s house the play activity needs to be ended. The child learns that if he bites he does not play with others. Work on discouraging biting before the next play date, but without yelling or shaming.
Learn your child’s biting triggers so you can prevent and intervene. Does he only bite a certain child? Does he have a favorite toy that can be put away around other children? Yes, we need to teach children to share, but if a child attaches strong meaning to a specific toy then it’s okay to put it away during play with others.
My child is biting at daycare. What can I do? Cooperate with the staff and apologize to parents. Tell your child firmly, “Biting hurts. No biting. I don’t like it when you bite other kids.” But, do not label any child as “the biter.” Explore the purpose of his biting behavior. Is he biting when another child grabs the toy from him? Teach him to be assertive by saying, “I am playing with the truck now.” Teach him to walk away and talk to the caretaker instead of biting. Create a chart and reward him with stickers for not biting when you pick him up from daycare. Extrinsic rewards combined with intrinsic rewards are suggested. Praise him for the desired behavior. “I like it when you don’t bite your friends. I liked it when you found another toy to play with and managed your big feelings.”
What if a child is biting himself? A parent can say, “Ouch, biting yourself hurts. Tell me when you feel mad. I’ll help you.” Observe your child when he is not biting himself, “I like it when you don’t bite yourself. Teeth are for biting carrots and apples.” Children want their parent’s approval. You may say, “I feel sad when you bite yourself. I don’t like it.” Screaming at a toddler or child is not appropriate. He learns that adults can scream but he cannot scream back. As a result, he may begin to scream at younger children or the family pet.
Resources for parents and helping professionals are the books, No Biting: Policy and Practice for Toddler Programs, second edition, by Gretchen Kinnell and The Biting Solution: The Expert’s No-Biting Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Early Childhood Educators by Lisa Poelle.
When a child continues to bite despite your ongoing interventions or habitually bites others past age 3 ½ – 4, a visit to your pediatrician, a child therapist or a child psychologist is suggested to assess for a more serious emotional problem.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, Registered Play Therapist, and Behavioral Health Consultant. Email your questions to the Scioto County Candor at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Dr. Missy” in the subject line.
Ask Dr. Missy is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.