When a toddler bites, how do you handle the biter, the victim — and both sets of parents?

Bridget Murray Law

February 2011, Vol 42, No. 2
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By Bridget Murray Law
It’s an uncomfortable reality of life with toddlers: Some of them bite other children. And it happens quite often.

Between a third and a half of all toddlers in day care are bitten by another child, studies indicate; in fact, epidemiological studies peg that number at closer to half of all children in day care.

Though not socially acceptable, biting is a normal behavior among children under 3 years old, developmental research shows. It’s a way young children express anger, frustration and a need for control and attention before they have the words to do so, says clinical psychologist Stanley Goldstein, PhD, author of the book, “Troubled Children/Troubled Parents” (Atheneum, 1979). But for parents and day-care staff, it’s a big problem with potentially high-stakes consequences. Parents of a biter get embarrassed and worry that their toddlers will be kicked out of school. Child-care workers fear legal action, parental anger and blame. And parents of bitten children get upset and worry about their children’s safety.

Clinical psychologists can find themselves on the receiving end of these concerns, and look to their colleagues for answers. There’s scant research on toddler biting because it’s not easy to study in a lab, but child psychologists have found that some techniques work well with biting. The short version? Turn down the anger, shame and embarrassment, and tune into toddlers on their own developmental level.

“There’s a stigma attached to biting — an attitude among adults that ‘Kids who bite will grow up to rob banks,’” says Goldstein, an independent practitioner in Middletown, N.Y. “But many parents do not realize that biting behavior is developmentally normal. Long ago, Piaget said that children do not think like adults. Adults need to use interventions targeted to the toddler.” These include reacting swiftly and educating children on other techniques that keep them from using their teeth as weapons, Goldstein and other psychologists say.

Work with the biter

When one child bites another, adults often find themselves paralyzed with shock and horror. But, says Goldstein, they need to unfreeze and act quickly and helpfully. He advises supervising adults to:

  • Separate the biter from the bitten child. Quickly defuse the situation that’s prompting the biting — being jostled in a loud, crowded room, for example. Removing the biter from the source of frustration is calming and also helps the victim feel safe.
  • Help the biter understand what emotions prompted the bite and how to handle them. Toddlers need adults’ help labeling their feelings and reacting appropriately to them, says Jana Martin, PhD, a member of APA’s Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice who consulted to child-care centers for almost 30 years. “An adult might say, ‘You look mad. It’s not okay to bite when you’re mad. It is OK to ask your teacher for help,’” says Martin. She recommends using the word “OK” instead of “wrong” or “bad” because it makes the message informative, instead of punitive.

“These are small children with limited language who are usually just as frightened as the bitee,” says Martin. “Adults need to use telegraphic speech — short and clear sentences — to help them make sense of the incident.”

Martin also recommends that child-care settings provide a cool-down or quiet place, where an adult takes the child to get settled. The child should remain there for one to three minutes (one minute for each year of age). Then, says Martin, the adult can keep the teachable moment going.

“Give the child a minor command like, ‘Put the book back,’ and if they do, say, ‘That’s an OK thing to do. Way to go!’ This way, the child gets positive reinforcement and feels good going back into the play situation.”

Console the victim

It’s easy to get caught up in work with biters, but don’t let them hog the post-bite spotlight, warns child psychologist Robert Walrath, PsyD, an associate professor of counseling at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H. Instead, lavish attention on victims, not only to console them, but also to assure them that they didn’t do anything wrong — and to send a message.

“When the biter sees that the bitee is getting all the attention, hopefully this will help to extinguish the biting behavior,” explains Walrath.

This is also a good time to talk about feelings and reactions with the victim and witnesses — a frank discussion of what can be done instead of biting helps to cut the probability that the victim will retaliate, adds Martin.

If the biter is older than 2, you might also advise the child to help comfort the victim, adds Goldstein. This helps teach empathy and also focuses attention on the victim, but should only be done if the victim and biter are open to it, and if an adult is present to ensure the victim’s safety.

Victims aren’t the only ones who need soothing: Parents of the bitee need reassurance that the biting is being taken seriously and dealt with, says Walrath. It also helps to educate parents about biting — that it’s part of a normal developmental phase before 3 years old and that it usually can be reduced through thoughtful intervention, says Goldstein.

However, he notes, if a child doesn’t respond to adults’ efforts and continues biting others after 3 years old, it’s time to seek help from a child psychologist or other professional specializing in children’s behavior.

Prevent the problem

Adults should also strive to move beyond reaction mode; ultimately, you want to stop biting before it starts, says Goldstein. He suggests, for example, that adults pay close attention to biting circumstances to pinpoint what specifically seems to trigger bites — other children grabbing toys, perhaps, or the chaos and noise of lunch time. Once you know what prompts the biting, you can step in to ease the tension before it occurs, Goldstein says.

Another trusty preventive technique is distraction: Small children will often forget they’re angry or frustrated if you just redirect them — and praise them for participating in new activities, says child psychologist John Marr, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Arkansas.

One intervention to absolutely avoid is biting children back, a technique some adults did in the past, child psychology experts agree. Some thought that you could discourage biting by showing kids just how much it hurts. “But, really, what biting back does is model the very behavior you’re trying to extinguish,” says Marr. “Kids this age are sponges for various types of social learning, and they don’t yet have the problem-solving and social skills to avoid biting. It’s up to adults to show them the right ones.”

Bridget Murray Law is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.

Further reading

  • Claffey, A.E., Kucharski, L.J., Gratz, R.R. (1994). Managing the biting child. Early Child Development and Care, 99, 93–101.
  • Garrard, J., Leland, N., Smith, D.K. (1988). Epidemiology of human bites to children in a day-care center. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 142, 643–50.
  • Reguero de Atiles, J.T., Stegelin, D.A., Long, J.K. (1997). Biting behaviors among preschoolers: A review of the literature and a survey of practitioners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 25, 101–105.
  • Solomons, H.C, Elardo, R. (1989). Biting injuries at a day care center. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 4, 89–96.
  • Strauman Raymond, K., Lie. L., Kempf Berkseth, J. (1993). Creating a safe environment for children in day care.Journal of School Health, 63, 254–7.