Helping Kids Who Bite

Helping Kids Who Bite

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Young children are in the oral stage of development

Eighteen-month-old Sophie is digging happily in the sandbox next to her friend Kate. Kate suddenly takes Sophie’s shovel. Sophie bites her arm.

Biting is a particularly hard behavior for parents to deal with. A bite can cause the spread of germs and lead to an infection. If a child bites frequently at the park or at play group, the child may become labeled “the biter” and other kids will steer clear of the child. There will be fewer invitations for play dates as well.

If your child tends to bite, keep in mind that young children are in the oral stage of development (birth to 18 months) and the primary way of experiencing and reacting to the world is through the mouth, including tasting, putting random objects in the mouth, sucking, and biting.

Here are some strategies that are helpful to move a child away from this behavior. (Many of these steps are helpful to a child who constantly hits, pushes, kicks, or spits as well.)

Set a limit firmly and explain why. Tell her, “We don’t bite (or hit) anyone. Biting hurts.” If it’s a family member, use this phrase, “We don’t hurt anyone in our family.”

Acknowledge the reason why, say,“You were angry at Kate because she took your shovel.”

Encourage verbalization

An important phrase to tell your child is,”Use your words,” and give her specific words to use. For instance, “Tell your friend, ‘I’m angry’ or ‘Mine.’” If she expresses herself in words she will begin to replace biting with speech.

Stay nearby

If you know your child is in a biting phase, stay close to her when she is playing with other children and be ready to step in quickly to prevent the behavior. Learn her trigger points. If your child tends to bite when she’s sitting close to another child, move her a few feet away from her friend, or sit in between them. If she usually bites or hits when she is hungry, always carry a snack with you. Watch for signs that generally appear before she bites, and move in quickly. Use a teething ring.

If the biting is frequent, you can give your child a teething ring and tell her, “If you need to bite, bite your ring.” (Similarly, if you need to spit, you have to go to the sink.) Help her to use words. If she tends to bite you when you are having an affectionate moment sitting on the floor together, tell her, “Say, love” or make nice to Mommy. If she won’t stop, distract her to another activity, or take her to another room to change her focus. Think developmentally. Always remember that your child cannot talk and is using her body to communicate. She is in a learning process about how to handle her emotions, wishes, and relationships with words.

Avoid labels such as “biter,” “hitter,” “naughty,” or “bad girl.” These words harm her self-esteem, evoke anger, and reinforce the behavior. She will think of herself in these terms and act accordingly. It also encourages everyone to expect this behavior and to treat her as a problem child. Parents will ask, “Shouldn’t she be punished?” In their mind they may hear the words, “Hit her hand or spank her,” thinking that that’s the proper way to respond (especially if their own parents spanked them.) Keep in mind that your child has no control over her impulses as yet. She will not understand if you put her in the crib and will keep biting.

Though it can seem urgent, you need to view this as a slow process. Change your expectations and set up situations carefully. It is really crucial to be your child’s ally. She is having a hard time with her impulses and needs you to be there by her side to help. Though it is difficult, you need to be patient and know that the behavior will stop with your help and her development.