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How to Handle Young Children Who Bite

by Dr. Heather Wittenberg | January 10, 2011 | Child Development

By Dr. Heather

My two youngest kids were having fun together in the playroom, so I started the dishes. All of a sudden, my 4-year-old screamed in shock and pain, “Mom! Sasha bit me!” And sure enough, she had. Our otherwise adorable 14-month-old left bite marks, and she and her brother were crying. So much for the dishes.

My first three kids weren’t biters. I smugly — and prematurely — congratulated myself on dodging that particular bullet. But our fourth child is determined to make her feelings known to the rest of us — and biting is her chosen way of doing so.

As a parent, I’m mortified. But as a child psychologist, I know that biting is common among toddlers and preschoolers. And there’s some rhyme and reason to it. Although bites seem to happen out of nowhere, there are usually warning signs that one is coming. Triggers include frustration, overstimulation, exhaustion and hunger. Even strong positive feelings can trigger a bite. Parents say, “I love you so much I could just eat you up!” Children feel the same way — it’s just that they actually try it. Younger toddlers can bite when they’re teething or just feel like chewing on something (or someone).

Even well-adjusted kids can bite. Parents worry about the implications of having a child who bites. But your little biter isn’t a budding sociopath. He or she just doesn’t have better ways of expression yet. As a child’s speech develops, you can help him or her use words instead of teeth. This should be your mantra: MORE WORDS = LESS BITING.

Here are some tips to help you get there:

  • If you can spot the warning signs, you can usually prevent a bite. Think about your child’s bite triggers. For instance, if a struggle over toys usually ends with a bite, work hard to make the toys as equal as possible and stay within arm’s length of your biter to help him or her negotiate for toys (and protect his or her friends).
  • Talk about feelings on an ongoing basis. Help your child learn about different feelings and what causes them. Don’t wait for a bite — make feeling-talk part of your regular play together.
  • Role-play alternatives to biting by taking turns pretending you’re the biter and the “bite-ee.” Suggest assertive — but not aggressive — ways of dealing with tricky situations. “Next time Jack rips your paper, you can say, ‘Don’t rip my paper, Jack!’ Let’s try it now.”
  • Use lots of praise when your child negotiates a tricky situation without a bite — even if he or she cries or has a tantrum. Offer this encouragement without mentioning the word “bite,” which may give them the idea. For example, “You wanted that toy and you waited. Congratulations on solving that problem!”
  • When a bite does happen, your first reaction should be to soothe and take care of the child who was bitten. Then remove the biter from the action. Don’t overreact or scold — you run the risk of reinforcing the behavior. Simply state the rule: “No biting. Biting hurts.” Then help the biter make the situation better, perhaps by apologizing or by getting a cold cloth for the other child.
  • For diplomacy’s sake, always apologize to the parents of the “bite-ee.” Explain that you take it seriously and what steps you’re taking to prevent it from happening again.
  • In school, parents can work closely with the caregiver to identify the child’s biting triggers, create a prevention plan and give rewards for appropriate expression of feelings.

Keep in mind that this is usually a fairly short phase and that taking it all in stride helps. Until then, I’ll be on “Bite Patrol,” waiting for Sasha to learn to use her words and not her teeth.