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Once Bitten: How to help a child that bites

Children bite for different reasons. It can be caused by anything from anger or frustration to boredom, jealousy or sadness. Children bite for different reasons. It can be caused by anything from anger or frustration to boredom, jealousy or sadness. By Anne Goldsmith - Positive Behaviour Consultant & Parenting Coach. Being a parent isn’t easy for anyone, but having a child who bites makes it all the more challenging.  It’s embarrassing and can lead to you and your child being excluded from playdates and parties. It will probably feel like your child will never change their behaviour.  But it can be done. Child behaviour expert Anne Goldsmith explains how… I first encountered childhood biting when my son was about 2½ years old. We were at a toddler group where the mums were chatting happily and the children playing nicely. Suddenly, the peace was shattered by loud screaming.  A child came running to his mum saying that one of the girls had bitten him. He showed us his arm – with definite teeth marks, bright red and already with a bruise forming. At the time, I remember being shocked and horrified. “How could a child do that?” I thought, “How could their mum let them do that?” Typical responses, looking back now. But it was another couple of years before I realised that it really wasn’t that simple… When our second child was just over a year old, she started to bite.  The first time it happened, we were on holiday and we were coming to the end of a fun day having enjoyed some real, quality family time.

I was getting both of our children changed on the bed after swimming.  They were lying side by side very happily.  Then, quite suddenly, my daughter bit her brother.  It was awful.  I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. Why, after such a lovely time, had our daughter bitten her big brother? After dealing with the immediate situation, we decided that we needed to take a step back and remove our emotions from the situation (as difficult as that was). We wanted to observe our daughter so that we could try to understand the reason for our daughter’s behaviour. We looked for patterns in her behaviour and considered what had happened prior to the biting incident. As we came to know our daughter and understand her ‘ways,’ we soon discovered that biting was her quick and easy way of expressing herself.  She was young and unable to articulate how she felt, which made her feel frustrated, so she used the quickest and most effective response she knew how – to bite!

They Don’t Have the Words

Children bite for different reasons. It can be caused by anything from anger or frustration to boredom, jealousy or sadness. They may be desperate for attention, unfamiliar with how to interact with their peers, or it may be a learned response to get what they want. If they have been doing it for a while, it may have simply become a habit. But the most common reason is frustration. If a child doesn’t have the language to express how they are feeling in a given situation – say, when another child picks up a toy that they wanted to play with - they will feel frustrated. Biting is a quick way to express themselves without words.  It typically provokes a big reaction, which reinforces how effective it is. Working out why your child resorts to biting in certain situations must come before any attempt to change your child’s behaviour.  This takes priority over the act of biting itself.  It may not seem that way as the parent or, indeed, as the parent of the victim. However, until the cause is established, changing the behaviour is virtually impossible.

What to Do If Your Child Bites

This is the difficult part – as parents, we must remain completely calm and take the emotion out of the situation.  I know that’s incredibly difficult when you are faced with such an emotionally charged situation, but it’s crucial. Staying calm will help to de-escalate the situation and will calm things down. It would be easy to respond to your child’s biting by yelling or getting angry with them, but remember - you are your child’s role model. They look to you when trying to figure out how to behave in certain situations. In short, they copy your behaviour and responses. Which brings us neatly on to…

“Bite Your Child Back”

The key is to keep things simple, clear, have consequences and most importantly be calm and consistent. The key is to keep things simple, clear, have consequences and most importantly be calm and consistent. When their child bites, many parents will receive the advice to bite their child back - so “They know how it feels.” Of course, we do want to teach our children how to empathise and see things from other people’s point of view. But consider this… If you are trying to stop your child from biting other children, yet bite them to teach them a lesson, then isn’t that simply reinforcing that biting people is acceptable? As parents, we must show self-control – despite the feelings of guilt and embarrassment that will threaten to swamp us in this situation. If it helps, remember that your child is trying to make sense of their world, and for some children this can be an extremely challenging time. As parents, it’s our job to teach and guide them. Lowering your voice, instead of raising it, is an effective way to handle this situation. It also helps to make looking after the victim your priority, thereby giving less attention to your own child – it lets your child know that they won’t get your attention when they bite.  You could say, “I’m looking after Billy – I need you to wait calmly.  I’m helping Billy first to make sure he is OK.  When I have finished making sure Billy is OK, I expect you to have stopped crying.”  Once your child has calmed down and you return to him/her, you can say, “We don’t bite.  It hurt Billy and Billy is feeling sad.  We don’t bite.  Biting hurts.” If your child finds it difficult to calm down, walk away (to a distance that is age-appropriate) and ignore your child and their tantrum.  This will usually stop the tantrum, because your child doesn’t have your attention or an audience. When your child has settled, that’s a good time to talk to them about their biting.  It’s OK to praise them and say, “Thank you for calming yourself down.”  This is good positive reinforcement. Keeping your voice calm and steady, you should then explain that biting is wrong. Tell them you know they wouldn’t like it if someone was to bite them – it hurts – a lot.  Also, let them know there are consequences when they bite.  It might be sending them to a place where they sit for time out (if they are a younger child) or, if you are out, removal from the fun and missing out. You will have to repeat this rule and consequence frequently to reinforce its importance. The key is to keep things simple, clear, have consequences and most importantly be calm and consistent.  Always remember, the best example of acceptable behaviour is you and your child takes their lead from the way you respond and how you behave.

Anne GoldsmithAnne Goldsmith is a Positive Behaviour Consultant & Parenting Coach. She runs Behaviour First Consultancy, offering 1 to 1 coaching for children aged 3 – 16 and their parents in private and school settings. “Behaviour first – learning, achievement and success follows.”  For more information on this topic, visit www.behaviourfirstconsultancy.co.uk to watch Anne’s video on ‘What to do If Your Child Bites’