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When a Child Bites

When a child bites or is bitten, a strong emotional response is sure to follow. Children and adults alike may experience overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, frustration, and guilt. Biting behavior affects the health and safety of children, and can lead to children feeling unsafe. Understanding why children bite, and learning how to handle and prevent biting behaviors, will create a healthy and positive environment for children.

Biting is a normal part of a young child’s development. Most of the time biting occurs among toddlers and preschoolers who have limited language skills or ways to express their feelings. Pressures to keep pace with a hurried adult world can be very stressful for young children and may cause them to react physically when they feel overwhelmed. Children often need more time than adults allow to move from one activity or setting to another, such as going from home to child care, or dinnertime to bedtime. Also, intense play such as tickling or wrestling for an extended time can overwhelm children. In order to prevent biting, it is necessary to identify the reason it is happening. This allows adults to prepare for situations that might lead to biting, and support children in learning how to express themselves in healthy ways.

Biting often occurs when children are teething because a child’s gums are sore and swollen, and biting can feel good and provide relief. In these instances, offer the child a teething biscuit, frozen bagel, or firm rubber teething ring.

Children may also bite as a way to gain attention- or get something they want. Respond promptly to children and offer them time with you to read a book or play. Children may also bite to protect themselves, their toy, or the space they are playing in if they feel threatened. Make sure there are enough toys for all children and give them plenty of space to play, eat, and sleep. Although biting behavior is more common among toddlers, preschoolers may also bite if they become intensely frustrated or are extremely tired.

There are several  measures you can take to help prevent biting incidents from happening.

  • Evaluate the children’s environment to make sure there is ample space, equipment, and toys to keep all the children occupied and to minimize the need to wait for turns or share.
  • Avoid overstimulation when children show signs of stress or frustration. If possible, move play activities outside, or keep groups small and plan fewer challenging activities.
  • Increase adult supervision to intervene before frustration levels rise.
  • Teach cooperation throughout the day, demonstrating words and phrases children can use to express their desires and feelings.
  • Familiarize yourself with the child’s signals for indicating a need or a strong emotion.
  • Be aware of the child’s current situation. Does a parent have a new job or exams at school? Is there a loss or an addition to the family? This communication between parents and caregivers can help support children who are working through challenging situations and strong emotions.

When a child bites, adults need to intervene quickly, calmly, and firmly. Using a calm tone of voice and minimal body movement encourages children to calm themselves. Reassure both children that you are there to help. If possible, keep both children with you as you inspect and wash the bitten area with warm, soapy water. This helps children understand the cause and effect of biting. Talk with both children about what happened. Label their emotions, ask them to name things that are acceptable to bite, and remind them that they can always ask an adult for help.

Demonstrate that gentleness and kindness are expected. Stroke your own arm to demonstrate gentle touching and invite children to practice gentle touches on their own arms or on stuffed animals. Assess the situation that led to the biting incident to see if changing something in the environment or daily schedule can prevent future occurrences. Teach children alternative methods for expressing themselves with language or body signals. Model words and phrases they can use to ask for a turn with a toy such as, “Can I have that next?” Suggest acceptable ways to express strong emotions such as stomping feet, pounding clay, or drawing a picture.

Provide activities that involve physical movement daily so that children have an outlet for their energy. This can include playing with playdough, kicking balls outside, running, jumping, dancing, etc. Teach children how to use deep breathing to feel calm. They can pretend to smell a bowl of soup, and then blow on the soup. This teaches them how to breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth. Using these strategies will support children in learning how to control and express emotions positively.

You can download our brochure, “When a Child Bites,” as well as other helpful resources on Children’s Home Society of California’s website at www.chs-­‐ca.org.

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