The Misunderstood Biter
“Monica walked into the room with a scowl on her face. Her hair was messed up, her face was contorted and her eyes still had the tell-tale signs of sleep in them. She looked fatigued and I was afraid. I recognized that look, the look of a toddler who would bite.”
While biting, especially among toddlers, is age-appropriate in group settings, it remains a major frustration for educators and parents of toddlers. Why do toddlers bite and how can we prevent it?
It is useful to understand why toddlers bite before trying to change the behavior. Unfortunately, since toddlers (approximately one to three year years of age) have limited language and few of us can read minds, we can only make an educated guess as to why they bite.
Toddlers have different reasons biting and not all will respond to the same intervention to stop the behavior. We must first identify why the child is biting; only then can we find a way to help redirect him.
Frustration, Fatigue and Stresses
Young children experience a lot of frustration. Growing up is a real struggle. Drinking from a cup is great, yet nursing or sucking from a bottle is also wonderful. Sometimes it would be nice to remain a baby. Toddlers don’t have good control over their bodies yet. A loving pat sometimes turns into a push. Toddlers cannot talk well. They have trouble asking for things or requesting help. They haven’t learned yet how to play with others. At times, when they can’t find words to express their feelings, they resort to hitting, pushing, or biting.
Some children bite when they are tired and hungry. Sometimes toddlers bite when they feel rushed or when Mom is out of town or when Dad worked late last night. Adults need to be aware of what is happening in the life of a biting child and take action to prevent other children from being physically hurt.
Biting is an extremely contagious behavior. Modeling or copying the actions of others is an important and powerful way for toddlers to learn. Unfortunately, sometimes the toddlers learn the negative behavior like biting through experiences with other toddlers. Any adult who has spent much time with a group of toddlers can testify to the fact that being bit is more contagious than the common cold.
Cutting teeth hurts! Chewing on something relieves the pain. Toddlers are egocentric and cannot yet put themselves in the place of others. They do not know they are hurting another child. This may explain the disconnected look they give us, the lack of concern, that we sometimes see on a toddler's face when their victim is screaming from the pain of being bitten.
Cause and Effect
After about 8 months old, babies and toddlers begin to play mentally with the connection that their actions have on the world around them. “If I bite Meredith, I hear a high pitch scream and my special adults come running to my side. I wonder if it will happen again.” seems to be in the mind of some biting toddlers. Toddlers are learning to have an impact on their world and biting definitely has an impact.
Anyone who has spent much time with babies and toddlers knows that they put everything in their mouths. This includes other children and adults. Biting is sometimes a way of learning about another child. This is more likely with babies but it is not unusual for toddlers.
The incident report given to the parent by an educator at the end of a day reads, “Child was bitten during a struggle over a toy.” Toddlers have very limited language skills. Consequently, biting is a way to register a complaint.
Toddlers are trying so hard to be independent. “Mine” and “Me do it” are favorite words. Learning to do things independently, making choices, and needing control over a situation are part of growing up. Biting is a powerful way to control others. If you want a toy or want a playmate to leave you alone or move out of your way, it is a quick way to get what you want.
Adults should never, ever hit or bite back the child biting. This “punishment” or “see-how-you-like-it demonstration” actually shows the child that violence is an appropriate way to handle problems. The response to biting should always be educational and calm. Parents and guides must work as a team to respond accordingly and help stop the biting behavior.
Teaching the children how to control themselves and their emotions encourages them to develop confidence and self-esteem. We can guide children towards self-control and away from the biting. The key is understanding – for adults and children alike.