Children are still developing language and coping skills so often they use physical gestures to get their point across. There can be a variety of messages they are trying to send. Finding the message behind the behaviour is the key to understanding what motivated them to behave that way. A bite is a knee-jerk reaction, not a calculated plan of revenge. Try to keep that in mind when helping your child cope with aggressive behaviours, such as biting.
If your child bites and then laughs at you, this can trigger feelings of anger, but try to take a minute to step back. The reaction actually tells us the message. Your child wants to play, they want your attention. Say “that hurts when you bite me. If you want to play with me give me a toy.” Biting, especially for young children, is often playful and a natural extension of all the oral stimulation they are regularly seeking (pacifier, nursing, teething toys, thumb/hand sucking). Teething can also often lead to playful biting.
Toddlers and preschoolers bite sometimes out of frustration or fear. They may have the language to say “I’m mad” but in the heat of the moment it can be hard to find those words (happens to the best of us). Fight, flight or freeze are the three automatic responses to stressful situations. Usually people will react with fight when the threat they perceive seems manageable, as in I can handle this. When stress starts to overcome the child’s brain they are less able to use the very little executive functioning they have to reason through the scenario. They react with whatever feels right in that moment.
Adults often do this too, as we have the same stress response in our brains, it’s just biting is not our go-to because we do not have the same oral stimulation needs that a child has, rather we usually use words to hurt others. People who are able to stay relatively calm during a disagreement are often able to say more helpful, relevant and meaningful things. They can empathize more with the other person, while still maintaining their own perspective. People who become overwhelmed with emotion often do not express themselves well. Some are defensive and say hurtful things and others freeze or flee, unable to engage in the disagreement, never getting their thoughts or point across. This is the time for children to start developing those skills, but it will take years. Just as walking, talking and reading takes time to learn, so does self-regulation and problem solving skills.
So the unthinkable happens, your child bites another child. What do you do? First, take a deep breath, because you will likely feel a rush of emotions, and same as your child, this rush of emotions can make it hard to process information rationally. Try not to just react, think about how you want to respond. Empathize with the other child; “are you ok? I’m so sorry she bit you! Is there anything I can do to help?” Then try to help your child recognize the feelings of the other child. This teachable moment can easily go from learning empathy to inducing shame, so be careful. Say “look your friend is crying! She looks hurt! Do you think there is anything we can do to help her?” Now we all hope our child will miraculously say “I’m sorry! Can I give you a hug?” But many children when they start to feel guilt, begin to act shameful. Sometimes this looks like running away, pouting, folded arms, refusal to speak or acknowledge their caregiver (that’s why trying not to shame the child in the process is important, it will take longer to regulate and the lesson of empathy may be lost). Try talking to your child later about the incident if you find they shut down in the moment. Discuss strategies for next time they feel frustrated and empathize that you know they did not mean to hurt their friend.
So what do you do now that you know your child is in a biting phase? You must shadow them and block their bites. This is true of any aggressive behaviour that children start doing for a time, but biting, when it pierces the skin especially, can be a medical concern, so it then becomes your responsibility to block the bites until the attempts stop. You will begin to see a look on your child’s face that tells you, “she might bite” that’s when you act. Try redirection first but in the end putting your arm up to block the bite might be necessary a few times. You may receive a few bites yourself, but if you were not the intended target, your child will still feel unsuccessful and eventually stop. They can also go through a few biting stages so they may stop while they are two and then start again when they are three for a bit. I find the second round doesn’t usually last as long, but that is just my experience. It was one of my main jobs in child care to be the shadower of the biter. I loved it because it meant I got to play with the children all day and not have to do any cleaning.
One common reaction is to bite the child back. I never understood this until one time my child bit me really hard and I felt like biting him back. I did not, but I was shocked that I felt this way. Having said that, NEVER BITE THEM BACK, EVER. Quite simply it is ridiculous to think that biting a child back would teach them not to bite. If it was a playful bite, you are sending the message that the game should continue. If it is an aggressive bite you are demonstrating this is a good way to deal with your anger since I am doing it back to you. This is confusing for a child and impedes on your ability to build trust since they also know it hurts. Sending the message that people who love me also hurt me can make children vulnerable when developing relationships outside of the home.
Something else that can influence aggressive behaviour, overall, is if a child is exposed to media that contains violence. My husband and I were very lax when it came to censorship. We didn’t believe in it actually, before having children. Then I noticed when my son became interested in superheroes, his behaviour became more aggressive. Some of this is typical for young children, but when we replaced superhero movies with Max & Ruby and The Wiggles, I noticed a major improvement in his aggressive behaviour. Now we are much more conscious about how the shows he watches may effect his behaviour and even emotional stability. Children are still making sense of the world. They are mostly influenced by their parents and friends but they do tend to copy movies and television as well. It is only logical that shows that demonstrate prosocial behaviours can positively impact a child’s behaviour and outlook on the world.
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