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When a Child Bites

Understanding Why and What to Do

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 by a child of any age must not be tolerated. It’s not safe, socially acceptable, or helpful in creating a positive environment for children. And most of all - biting hurts!

It is important to understanding why children bite in order to stop the problem. So what causes a child to bite?

Most biting occurs among toddlers 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. They 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, and events like a move, divorce, or new sibling can be a cause of frustration. When these situations arise, teach your child how to show her feelings appropriately and praise her when she communicates properly.

Children may also bite as a result of attention-seeking, aggression, and need for control, or feeling threatened. He may be trying to protect his space, toys, or himself from overwhelming surroundings. Giving him attention when he is not biting, and comforting him to let him know he is safe can be helpful ways of dealing with biting.

Preschoolers, too, may occasionally bite when they become so frustrated or overly tired that they lose control. Even intense play such as tickling or wrestling for an extended time can overwhelm a child and lead them to bite.

It can also occur while in the teething stage because a child’s gums are sore and swollen, and biting can feel good. In these instances, offer the child a teething biscuit, frozen bagel, or firm rubber teething ring.

There are several other preventative measures you can take to help discourage biting from the get-go. If you are a caregiver or host play dates, try a few of these helpful hints:

  • Evaluate the children’s environment to make sure there is ample space, equipment, and toys to keep all the children occupied and to minimize having to wait turns.
  • Avoid overstimulation for a child who becomes easily frustrated. Keep groups small and make play periods shorter with less 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.
  • Praise cooperative behavior.
  • Familiarize yourself with the child’s signals of rising frustration or anger.
  • 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? Evaluating what a child is experiencing helps in understanding what a child may need so that she does not resort to biting.
  • Never encourage a child to bite back and never bite a child to show that it hurts. Your message should always be clear and simple: biting is never acceptable for anyone.

When a child does bite, adults must intervene quickly, calmly, and firmly. Because a child often bites when feeling out of control and frightened, parents and caregivers can help children the most by staying in control themselves. Reassure both the child who bit and the victim. If possible, keep both children by your side as you inspect and wash the bitten area with warm, soapy water. This way, you are demonstrating the consequences and the seriousness of the behavior.

Encourage, but don’t force the child to comfort the victim with words, hugs, or pats. This demonstrates that gentleness and kindness are expected.

Assess what led to the biting and teach the children alternative actions. Give the children words they can use to ask to have a turn with a toy such as, “Can I have that next?” or “It is my turn now.” Suggest acceptable ways a child might express his anger or frustration such as pounding some clay or drawing a picture.

Young children may not understand that biting hurts. Make sure they understand that biting cannot be allowed and that you will stop it every time. A child who is out of control and frightened by his own behavior needs to know that adults will help take control until he is able to control himself.

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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