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BITING: Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Biting is fairly common among young children.  But just because biting can be considered a “typical” behavior, we still need to stop it as soon as possible because biting poses obvious social and physical difficulties.

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6 COMMON REASONS WHY KIDS BITE:

  1. FRUSTRATION (e.g., to get a toy, with communication limitations, etc.)
  2. AGGRESSION (e.g., to control a situation, to rebel)
  3. RETALIATION (e.g., to defend oneself)
  4. POWERLESSNESS (often observed with younger or smaller kids)
  5. EXPERIMENTATION (often observed with infants)  
  6. AFFECTION (e.g., when over-excited while hugging or playing “rough”)

BITING:  Here’s  “A. T.I.P.” (Avoiding, Teaching, Ignoring, and/or Punishing):

Whatever the reason for biting, the behavior remains potentially dangerous and socially unacceptable.  Of course, it is important to be consistent, yet depending on situations and your personal/parenting preferences and style, you may use some combination of the following.  So here is “A. T.I.P.” for Biting.

Avoid:

  • Supervise your child as closely as possible during play with other children.
  • Provide frequent verbal reminders throughout play. 
  • Avoid or minimize possible triggers to whatever extent is reasonably possible.

Teach:

  • Say, “Biting hurts, we play nicely with our friends”, etc.
  • Encourage the child who bit to comfort the “victim” and show the “wound” to build empathy.
  • Give acknowledgement /praise for not biting
  • Redirect to a teething ring (especially for children who demonstrate experimental biting)

Ignore:

  • Ignoring may be an effective strategy for many behaviors (e.g., tantrums), but generally, ignoring is NOT a good option because biting poses significant physical and social difficulties.
  • You may choose to ignore playful attempts to bite, but be sure that your ignoring does not inadvertently encourage biting. 

Punish:

  • Use “Time-Out” (for important details, see the “Time-Out” section in the previous chapter).
  • Remove privileges.
  • For the most severe and persistent problems with biting, you may choose/need to use a more proactive approach of brief, humane containment.  Following the biting incident, immediately sit the “biter” down, support the upper back and rear of his head with one hand, use the thumb and index finger of your other hand to firmly hold your child’s face along the lower gum-line (in a safe, non-injurious manner), creating discomfort (not pain). Release after about 5 seconds.  You must make certain that your nails do not scratch your child’s face, and it is crucial that you do NOT apply pressure that results in discoloration or marking of your child’s skin.  While this approach would not be acceptable by a child-care provider, parents have greater latitude in disciplining their own children and may choose/need to use this approach.  Importantly, before implementing, check with your pediatrician and the Child Protective authorities to determine whether this approach is considered legal or appropriate in your State.
  • Again, for the most severe and persistent problems with biting, you may choose/need to use another, much more proactive approach.  Specifically, some parents put an aversive tasting food in their child’s mouth as a punishment for biting.  The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) encourages parents/caregivers to prevent biting (through examination of patterns and antecedents to biting behavior, such as hunger, emotional states, exhaustion, etc.), and the NAEYC is clear about what not to do when a child bites (e.g., They state, “Never hit or ‘bite back’ a child for biting. This communicates that violence is an appropriate way to handle emotion. The approach should be calm and educational. A child should not experience any reward for biting -- not even the ‘reward’ of negative attention”).  The NAEYC encourages use of “positive discipline techniques” and (generously) concedes, “parents are experts on their own children’s behavior.”  If you choose to put aversive tasting food in your child’s mouth as a consequence for biting, here are some important points.  First, check with your pediatrician and Child Protective authorities to determine whether this approach is considered legal or appropriate in your State. Second, if you use an aversive tasting food, make sure that the food will not result in injury (e.g., lemon juice or vinegar may be unpleasant tasting, but Chinese Mustard would be injurious).  Third, make sure that you do not physically injure your child while placing an aversive food in his mouth.  And finally, use this as an option of last resort, only when all other techniques have proven ineffective and when your child’s biting represents a threat of serious physical harm to himself or others. 

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