Biting is common among a third or more of toddlers and younger children. It is much less frequent as children grow older because they have learned alternative ways to manage distress.
Biting is an expression of anger or frustration that often occurs in stressful situations for that child such as trying to grab a toy or favorite possession at the same time as another child. Day care is a frequent setting for biting episodes, not only because children are in groups, which are often active and noisy, but also because transitions from one activity to another are frequent.
What to Do
Before biting occurs it is best to try to prevent the behavior by showing in role plays ways to manage difficult group situations.
A parent could use a doll house with action figures to make up possible stressful situations for the child and then role play positive ways to handle frustration and anger.
Once the child picks one or several ways of coping that suit him or her, then the parent can help the child practice it and encourage its use in day care and group settings. From that point on, the parent and child can modify the skill as necessary to cope with new stress.
If prevention has not worked then, a plan of action can include the following steps:
- Immediately, after a biting incident occurs, separate the biting child from the other children. With as few words as possible, tell the child emphatically and calmly that “biting is wrong,” and it must not be repeated.
- Once the child appears to have understood this message, then the adult should ask the child what happened to start the biting.This will almost always be about a struggle or immediate payback to another child for taking a toy or a possession or for pushing or shoving. Sometimes, it is the adult who gets bitten, because of trying to stop the struggle.Once the trigger for the biting is known, then the adult needs to tell the child that he/she needs another way to manage this frustration that is not hurtful. The child and adult can look at alternative coping strategies and select at least one. Once one is chosen by the child, it should be practiced multiple times during the next several days at the day care center and at home, using either direct role play with the staff, kids, parents, or doll house figures.The child should also apologize to the one he/she bit, whether it be another child or an adult. The day care or group setting should also be aware of the triggers that set off the biting and try to minimize those situations for the child. For example, if fighting over toys brought about the biting episode, then the day care should have a different way for that child to choose his/her toys.
- Pay attention to the child who was bitten. The adult should talk to the child who was bitten to get his/her understanding what happened.After the adult acknowledges to the child that “biting” is wrong, then the child and adult should find ways to help the child manage his/her feelings about it. Then the adult should help transition the child to activities when he/she seems ready.It takes skill to know how much processing a child needs, but it is clear that too much runs the risk of having a child be afraid of group or day care activities, and too little, ignores the importance that being bitten means to a child. Each child is different, and so the adult who best knows the child is most likely to find the right balance between support and moving on.
- Inform and work with the parents of both the children. The interventions discussed above are likely to be ineffective, if not supported and contributed to, by the parents.For the parents of the child who has bitten another child, the day care needs to review the incident and the facilities actions, and the plan of prevention. Parent input and follow up should be part of the prevention plan.Also the day care needs to review the biting incident in terms of how the facility responded, how the child was supported, and how future episodes are to be prevented. Parent input and follow up are essential to help the child who was bitten continue successfully in day care and in his/her own development.
When these measures are not sufficient, it is usually advisable to consult with professional child therapists or counselors for further investigation and management.
What Not to Do
An Adult Should Never Bite a Child to “show how much it hurts.”
Children respond much more to what is done to them, than what is said to them. Biting a child in response to a child biting someone is a way of suggesting to the child that adults bite people when they are upset, leaving the child to believe that he should also.