When a Child Bites

Understanding Why and What To Do

When your child bites, or has been bitten by another child, there is a high emotional response. The feelings of anger, frustration and guilt are overwhelming. Biting by a child of any age cannot be tolerated. It is not safe, socially acceptable or conducive to a positive setting for children. Most of all, it hurts!

Why Do Children Bite?

Most biting occurs in toddlers who have limited language skills. Children under 2-1/2 years bite for a variety of reasons:

  • Teething. Gums are sore and swollen, and biting can feel good to the child. Offer the child a soft toy, teething ring, or frozen juice bar as an alternative to biting.
  • Trying to establish social contact.
  • Low frustration levels. Unable to express his or her frustration effectively, the child bites.
  • Preschool-age children bite less frequently than toddlers. A preschooler usually bites out of total frustration in a situation and because of a lack of skill in verbal expression. Sometimes biting is a play behavior.
  • Territorial. The child is protecting his play space.
  • Defensive. A child grabs for another’s toy. That child bites because he does not have the verbal skills to say no.
  • Aggressive. One child bites another because he wants his toy.
  • Stress. Occasionally a child responds to stress by biting. Causes of stress may be a move, divorce or a new sibling.

Action To Be Taken

  • When a child has bitten, it is important to react in a calm but firm manner and attend to both the biter and victim. If possible, keep both by your side as you inspect and wash the bitten area with warm, soapy water. By doing this, you are showing the biter the consequences of his/her actions. This will help illustrate the seriousness of biting.
  • Encourage, but do not force the child to comfort the victim with words, hugs, or pats. This will teach him that gentleness and kindness are expected.
  • After the bitten child is comforted, tell the biter that biting is not acceptable, it hurts, and to be gentle. Teach the child to verbalize his feelings by giving him words to use, such as, “Can I have that when you’re done” or “It is my turn now.”

Ways to Discourage Biting

  • Teach the child alternate ways to deal with others.
  • Teach the child words to make him feel in control, such as “mine”, “no”, and “that hurts.”
  • Talk to the child about rules for sharing. Constantly praise cooperative behavior.
  • Avoid over-stimulation for a child who becomes easily frustrated when tired. This may mean playing with fewer children, shorter play periods, or less challenging play situations.
  • Increase supervision so that you can prevent frustration that leads to biting.
  • Make certain there are an adequate number of toys and ample space for the number of children.

Biting is a temporary behavior that is expressed when the child is in a social situation too difficult for him/her to handle. By teaching the child who bites alternative behavior in a calm, supportive manner, you are giving him the coping skills he needs. Adults are never to bite a child to show that it hurts or encourage the victim to bite back. This gives children the message that violence is acceptable.