by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Excerpted from 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids
Do you have a biter on your hands? Biting is among the most bothersome and embarrassing kid behaviors. I remember the horror the first time I saw one of children in our playgroup chomping down on the arm of another three year old. I learned that biting is usually a temporary phase and far more common than I thought. In fact, it's the number one reason preschoolers are expelled from day care.
The other moms and I read up on biting behavior, and shared what we'd learned with one another. We learned that infants and toddlers often bite to relieve teething or gum soreness, or think it's just a game. Preschoolers typically bite because they haven't yet developed the coping skills to deal with stress appropriately or the verbal skills to express their needs. Whatever the reason, we knew that this behavior is clearly upsetting to all involved. And has been known to continue as kids get older if not dealt with. Our job was to nip this behavior before it becomes a habit.
Here are a few Mommy Secrets and steps you can take to help you handle this annoying (but common) behavior:
Step 1. Confront the Biter A.S.A.P.
Step in the very minute your child bites and call it what it is: "That's biting!" Then in a very stern voice say: "You may not bite people!" Firmly express your disapproval, and quickly remove your child from the situation. Remember Mom: No matter what you hear from other parents, do not bite your kid back! It is not helpful, and in fact, you’re only sending him the messages that kids can’t bite, but adults can.
If your kid has developed a history of biting, you'll need to take emergency action. Arrange a private meeting amongst your child and other caregivers (such as his teacher, coach, daycare worker, babysitter) with whom he's displaying the behavior. Create a consequence everyone understands: this could be the loss of a privilege, time out, or going home. You’ll want to all be on the same page and consistently enforced whatever consequence you all agreed upon. All the moms in our playground, for instance, decided to get on the same page together. Because we all responded the same way (yes, there was one mom who was a bit too laid-back, but we knew we couldn't change her behavior), we were more successful in stopping our four-year-old Vampire Wannabees.
Step 2. Comfort the Victim and Boost Empathy
Kids always need to know that biting hurts! So in the presence of your kid focus your concern on the victim. "I'm so sorry! That must hurt. What can I do to help?" Doing so shows your child not only that his action caused pain but also how to convey sympathy. If possible, find a way to help your child to make amends. He might offer the victim a Kleenex or band-aid, draw a picture to apologize, say he's sorry, or give the other child a toy. Do also apologize to the child's parents on the spot or with a phone call. (Word to the wise: I learned the hard way that it is far better that I make the call then having the parent hear the story from someone else).
Step 3. Teach a New Behavior to Replace the Biting
If your toddler is teething, she's probably biting because of sore gums. In that case, offer something appropriate to bite on: such as a frozen juice bar, a hard plastic teething ring, or toy to relieve the discomfort.
Kids often bite because they haven't developed the verbal skills to communicate their needs or frustrations. Identify what skill your child lacks, and then teach a more appropriate way to respond that will replace the urge to bite. Practice the new skill together, until he can successfully use it on his own. One youngster bit because he didn't know how to say he wanted a turn. Once his dad recognized the problem, he taught his son to say: "It's your turn, then it's my turn." The biting quickly stopped. If your child has trouble verbalizing feelings or needs, teach him to say: "I'm getting mad." Or: "I want to play." Remember to let him know how proud you are when he uses good control.
Step 4. Anticipate Biting Behavior as the Best Prevention
If your child has developed a pattern of biting, then supervise those play times closely. You can then immediately step in and stop your biter before it happens. Put your hand gently over his mouth firmly saying: "You may not bite. Use your words to tell what you need." Then show how: "I want a turn." Sometimes you can distract your child from the situation: "Would you like to play with the clay or blocks?" You may have step in a few times before the biting is stopped, so watch closely then intervene pronto.
The most important part of this Mommy Secret to learn is that kids usually bite because they lack the ability to handle their frustrations. It’s up to us to help find better ways to get their point across.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational psychologist, former teacher, and mom who is recognized for offering research-driven advice culled from a career of working with over one million parents, educators, and children. A frequent Today show contributor she also appears on Dr. Phil, The View, CNN American Morning, and The Early Show, Michele is the author of 22 books including her latest release, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Visit her daily blog on or follow her on twitter.
Copyright © Michele Borba. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.