WHY TODDLERS BITE AND HOW TO CURB IT


TODDLER BITING

Many toddlers go through a “biting stage.” They bite their Mums and dads, or they bite other children. The parents of children who are bitten become fierce defenders of their children. Their “I’ve got to protect my child” response can easily come across as “Your child is bad,” and can set off emotional waves that parents of the biter and the bitten are poorly equipped to handle. But this commonplace behavior has nothing to do with how “good” a child is, or how well he is parented.

WHY TODDLERS BITE


Toddlers bite as part of exploring their world. 


Every infant experiments with biting. Babies bite their teething toys, their mommy’s breast, their pacifier, or the fingers or shoulders of their parents. Usually, the parent’s immediate flinch or cry of surprise communicates to the child that biting hurts, and after a few experiments, the child has learned enough about biting to move on. The experiments cease. There’s nothing bad or wrong with these biting experiments: the baby is doing what he or she must do to learn.

It helps the learning process if the adult responds with a loud “Ouch! Please don’t bite me,” but doesn’t blame, punish, or lecture the baby. The baby needs to experiment in order to learn so a few painful moments will be necessary before the learning process has taken its course.

Parents must guard their own safety with an infant who is exploring biting. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to put your finger in the mouth of a baby who is exploring biting, if he has teeth!

Toddlers bite when they feel afraid or frustrated


By the time a child has reached toddler age, he has learned that biting hurts. Seldom is a bite from a toddler an experiment. You might think, “Well, if he knows it hurts, why does he decide to do it?”

A toddler bites because a big wave of tension has suddenly flooded his brain. He doesn’t plan this, and he doesn’t know how to stop it. Toddlers’ biting is like a sneeze or a cough—his body does it for internal reasons that aren’t under his control.

One of the main reasons toddlers bite is because they are feeling afraid or frustrated. When they haven’t had their fill of close, relaxed time with their parents or caregivers, or when stress has risen in their lives, they may not express the fears or frustrations through natural outlets like crying and tantrums. To them, the situation doesn’t feel favorable for expressing lots of feelings. But the feelings rumble nevertheless, and when they become intolerable, biting can occur.

Toddlers need an outlet for their feelings


Toddlers need chances to express their frustrations, fears, and other upsets on a daily basis. They want to be close to Mommy and Daddy, but mommies and daddies have to work, shop, fix meals, talk on the phone, and take care of other children. Toddlers in childcare want to be treasured by their caregivers, but caregivers have many children to consider.

So tension builds one little disappointment or lonely moment at a time. A day’s ordinary events can easily leave a toddler feeling upset and alone, although nothing an adult would consider “difficult” has happened.

For instance, if a parent is gone for a night on business, a toddler doesn’t understand her absence. He feels afraid and tries to cry, hoping to heal his fears and sadness in the arms of someone who loves him and will listen. But the well-meaning caregiver believes that the toddler will feel better if he doesn’t cry, and gives him a bottle or puts him to sleep. The next day in childcare, he bites a child. He tried to release his tensions, but couldn’t. So the feelings he stuffed away jump out in the form of biting. He doesn’t know why, and he didn’t choose to bite. He was simply too full of tension to function well.

Both current tensions and stored tensions can cause a child to bite

The tensions that drive toddlers to bite can arise from things that have recently happened. The birth of a sibling, the absence of a parent, witnessing violence on TV, a change in caregivers, or moving from one apartment to another are the kinds of things that can cause a child to bite.

The fact that a toddler has feelings that are being expressed in biting isn’t the fault of the parent, or of the toddler. Biting is like a runny nose: it’s common, it’s not fun for the child or the parents, and it can affect other children adversely, but it’s not the sign that anyone is “bad.”

Sometimes, the most likely explanation for biting is that it’s driven by feelings that come from events at the beginning of a child’s life, rather than by current tensions.

Toddlers may also bite out of frustration. To be a toddler is to see a vast number of interesting things people do, and to think, “I want to do that!” The toddler doesn’t know that he doesn’t yet have the power or coordination to fully succeed. It is a hopeful and a frustrating time of life.

When a toddler’s tantrums—his natural, healthy, and tension-relieving response to frustration—aren’t allowed, a child’s frustration can build until he can’t stand to be close to other children. He bites or lashes out because the buildup of frustration inside him has had no permissible outlet.

Guessing why a child bites can be helpful in predicting when this behavior will arise so that you can be close at hand to intervene to help the child and protect other children. But to help a child, you don’t need to understand the source of the tensions. Whether you have thought of a likely cause or not, your helpful actions will be the same.

Help a child release tensions in productive ways


Biting doesn’t release a child’s inner tension. A child feels much worse after he’s bitten someone, even if he appears to be indifferent. Hurting someone adds to his load of upset, and the guilt he feels makes him look like he doesn’t care. But inside, he’s more frightened than before.

When a child has bitten someone, get close. Tell him gently that you’re sorry you didn’t get there in time to keep things safe. Then, move so that you can look into his eyes, and ask him if he can tell you how he feels. You won’t usually get words of explanation, but you will get a child who feels so badly that he can’t look at you, and can’t connect. He will usually begin to writhe and squirm.

If you keep gently trying to make eye contact, and tell him you want to be with him right now, a child will often be able to move into releasing feelings through crying or a tantrum. Sometimes a child will begin to laugh, rather than cry or storm, as he tries to wiggle away. That is a good sign. Laughter is often the first step in the tension release process.

All the child needs to keep releasing the tension that caused him to bite is your kindness, and your attempt to connect. You don’t need to be the child’s parent to be the one to help. Any nearby, caring, patient adult is a good person to intervene. A child over the top with tension needs a listener, any listener. If the listener isn’t his parent, he is likely to cry about wanting his parent. Those may be the feelings at the root of his biting behavior.
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