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What to Do When a Child Bites

How to stop this behavior permanently

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When your child bites someone else, it is easy to feel like the worst parent in the world. Common in the early preschool years, biting is very rarely intentional or premeditated, nor is it unusual -- most children will bite someone, whether it be a parent, caregiver, friend or sibling at least once. Small comfort, especially when your child is doing the chomping, but it is a behavior that can be corrected. Here's how.

Why Children Bite

For the majority of children, biting, or any aggressive behavior for that matter, occurs because they are simply overwhelmed by the situation as it is unfolding in front of them. Biting is the last, most aggressive option and it comes because the child doesn't know what else to do. They could be angry, they may not know what words to say to ask for help or they could be fearful. Other reasons for a child biting include:
  • Stress in a child's life, including a new baby, a death in the family, a new house or parents divorcing or separating
  • A way of showing love and emotion to a caregiver -- strange, but sometimes young children have difficulty dealing with the intensive love they feel for someone they care for
  • A speech delay that isn't allowing the child to adequately ask for what they need, causing them to become frustrated
  • The child is simply overstimulated and doesn't know how to behave
  • Searching for attention -- remember, any attention, even negative, is attention
  • Someone bit them first or they feel threatened in some way
  • Some children learn that biting is a way to take control of a situation and be in charge
Certainly any of these reasons doesn't make biting acceptable, but it may help you to understand why your child is acting this way. And that's a key to stopping a child from biting -- stopping the aggressive behavior by finding the root of the problem so you can help your little one curb it.

What To Do When a Child Bites

If you are on the scene when your child bites, your reaction needs to be quick -- and levelheaded. Try to stay calm. Make sure the child or person that has been bitten is OK. Care for them first, offering first-aid, a band aid, whatever the person needs. If your child is the biter, in the heat of the moment you might be tempted to bite your child back. Don't. That will make the situation much worse, because not only are you now modeling the very aggressive behavior you don't want your child to do, but you are also acting in anger and the lesson here is to teach your child that violence shouldn't beget violence. Instead, try these tactics.

Ask your child what happened. Once the dust has settled, if you didn't see the events leading up to the biting, ask your child to walk you through it. What was going through her head when she bit the other child. Does she remember what she was thinking? What should she have done differently?

Talk to your child about what he should do when he's upset. As a preschooler matures, they start to develop a whole host of emotions that they may not quite know what to do with. This is especially true for anger. Explain that when he is starting to feel mad or angry or frustrated that's the time he needs to ask a grown up for help. Some kids (especially older preschoolers) are reluctant to go to a grown up when they are being teased or having trouble with another child because they don't want to be labeled a tattletale. Keeping that in mind, the next time your child does come to you complaining about something someone has done to them, be sure to pay attention and take his concerns seriously. It could curb a biting incident in the future. For younger preschoolers, a book like Teeth Are Not For Biting (compare prices) may help you to explain the situation clearly, plus it is something you can go back to as needed in the future.

Figure out the triggers. If your child is a habitual biter, think about what it is that sets him off. It most likely is not a random occurrence. If you can figure out what it is that causes your child to bite, you can figure out how best to stop her from biting in the first place. Then, when you are at playgroup or on a playdate, keep a close watch on your child. If you think he is going to bite, intervene immediately and redirect him to a different activity.

Say no and leave. Seems simple but you need to spell it out. Tell your child that biting is wrong, end of story. Don't yell or scream. Stay as calm as you can and firmly say, "No. We don't bite. You hurt Sally. Now we have to leave," and remove your child from the situation.

Get help. If the biting is regular and your methods aren't working, it might be time to ask for help. Consult your pediatrician or your child's teacher for advice.

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