On the street
No, children’s lives are structured enough as it is.
Biting seems like such a primitive form of aggression — a natural reaction from a cat or dog or bear.
But when it’s your kid digging his teeth into another child’s arm, something so natural can seem downright embarrassingly wrong.
“I think people tend to, in general, whenever there is a behavior that involves aggression, they get very concerned,” says Barbara Thompson, Kansas University professor of early childhood education. “Even though it’s just as developmental as a nonaggressive behavior.”
Yes, parents of young children can relax — biting is natural and developmental, and many kids go through a biting phase between the ages of 1 and 3. Biting is no reflection on a parent’s skills or a child’s nature, says Pam Shanks, a special education teacher in Lawrence. Rather, she says it’s a reflection on human nature and the need to communicate.
“Biting is kind of a mammal-reflex thing. We’re mammals, and in order to guard territory, mammals bite,” says Shanks, who has twins who used to bite each other. “Some kids definitely do go through that stage, and it tends to be the youngest ones because they’re the ones who are the least capable of communicating their frustrations.”
Experts say that although biting is developmental, it is possible to discourage the behavior. Here are a few tips:
• Prevent it. Don’t set children up to be in a frustrating situation that may cause them to bite. This can be done by working on communication, so that a frustrated child can learn to ask for what he or she might want, or otherwise be able to talk through a problem. Also, make sure that there are enough toys, crafts, games, etc., for each child, so that a biting situation will be less likely to occur over possession of an object.
“Get to them as clearly as you can before the bite happens and help them talk through their frustration with the situation,” Shanks says. “Giving them communication (skills) is going to be the best means of preventing that biting. And that’s really what you want to do, is to get there before the bite happens rather than deal with the bite after it happens.”
• Don’t overreact. If a biting situation does occur, it is important not to give the biter too much attention for what he or she has done, as doing so could backfire.
“They should be careful not to communicate to the child that they’re a bad child or get very negative with their child,” Thompson says. “I think it’s best to be kind of calm and make it clear what’s allowed and not allowed but not ever to physically punish a child or scream at a child — all of those things worry me.”
Instead, first calm the child who has been bitten rather than putting all your attention on the biter.
“(If the) actual attention goes to the child who was bit, so that (the biters) learn, ‘Hey wait a minute, I didn’t get what I was wanting out of that situation. I didn’t get any attention out of that,’” says Lia Handy, a toddler teacher at Hilltop Child Development Center.
• Emphasize words. Next, deal with the biter by urging the child to communicate. Because biting is a behavior that manifests when a child can’t communicate, encourage the child to use his or her words to express what he or she hoped to get out of biting the other child. Eventually, the child will chose words first over biting without being prodded to talk through his or her feelings.
“Say, ‘Our mouths are for talking and for eating’ and then say, ‘If someone takes your toy, you need to use your words. You can say ‘my toy,’” Handy explains.
• Reinforce positive behavior. If a child has used his or her words in situation that would have previously caused him or her to bite, praise the child for using his or her words, not for not biting.
“It’s much better to give attention to a positive behavior like talking, rather than a negative behavior like biting,” Shanks says. “I think many adults make the mistake of focusing on punishment when really your focus should be on teaching communication skills instead.”
When should a parent worry about biting? If a child is old enough to communicate clearly, biting might be something that is being done for attention, and parents may have to work harder to curb the behavior.
“If it is continuing, you want to make sure that you’re not giving a lot of attention to the biting,” Shanks says. “You want to compliment them for what they did do and not necessarily say, ‘you didn’t bite’ because then you’re bringing up that negative behavior again. You want to compliment them for good talking.”