It’s a familiar scenario: Young Johnny and Susie are playing and having a wonderful time together until Johnny decides he wants Susie’s toy. He, of course, tries to take it from her and without hesitation she responds by biting him. Survival of the fittest? Perhaps, but developmentally inappropriate behavior for all but the youngest of infants. So, our questions become why does biting occur, particularly with toddlers? And, what can be done to keep it from continuing? To understand, let’s begin by addressing the question of why biting occurs among young children. We’ll start by looking at what is developmentally appropriate behavior among toddlers…and adults.
While we as people grow we develop more refined, and socially acceptable ways of dealing with conflict. In adulthood, we find the most successful and socially, well-adjusted people are those that have a gift of getting what they want or need through words. This is developmentally appropriate and socially acceptable for adults.
For infants, the first instincts are that of suckling. It is in this manner that infants are able to have their most basic needs met. As they mature they explore their environment through the most developed muscles in their young bodies — those that make up the mouth. However, while biting is appropriate for infants who are teething and exploring their environment with the one part of their bodies that they have most physical control over, children who have begun walking are at another stage of development. By this point children are developing the gross motor skills necessary to interact on a different level.
This corresponds to the onset of verbal language, which is necessary to engage other people on a social basis. For a toddler this can be a time to state one’s independence with the familiar word, “No!” It can also be a time of much frustration as a child’s greater needs for socialization and exploration meet with the limited needs to verbally express himself. This is where biting comes in to play. Biting, then, is a primitive reaction to a more complex social situation.
So how can we stop biting? Well, to answer this question let’s look at how to handle when biting initially occurs. First, the biter should be addressed, firmly but not harshly, with the words “No biting.” Then the biter should be separated from the rest of the group. After this, calmly and as a matter-of-fact address the needs of the bitten child. The less fuss made over the bite the calmer the reaction will be, even though the bitten area may still hurt. Finally, allow the biter to rejoin the group when appropriate. You may also want to offer an object the child can bite during the day, particularly at times when the child is prone to get tired and frustrated.
Now that we know how to address biting after it occurs let’s look at how to prevent it from happening again. The first recommendation is to always have interesting, developmentally appropriate activities for children to do. This not only provides them with something on which to focus their attention but also helps to develop their concentration and lowers their frustration level. Second, when a child does bite another child it is a clear signal to increase supervision and awareness of the child’s social interactions. In other words, watch who he is playing with and be prepared to jump in when necessary.
If a child is persistent in his biting habits a change of environment may also be necessary. As with adults, children develop routines. Biting other children in similar situations day-in and day-out can become the expected and accepted behavior. By changing the environment a child is put into a new or different situation where the rules and routines can be more easily re-established.
Another recommendation is to provide the child with the words to express himself. By doing so, we are providing him with the tools with which he can state his desires or concerns. By enabling a child to express himself he is then able to handle frustrating situations by communicating what is wanted rather than by physically hurting others to get his way. And, finally, remember that consistency is vital. When a child knows what the limits and expectations are he is able to spend less time exploring the boundaries and has more time to concentrate on the activities that are available to him.