Do you remember the biting incident in the 2014 World Cup? In short, Uruguay’s Luis Suárez bit another player on the shoulder during a game. This alone is deplorable, but what is even more astonishing is the fact that this is the third time Suárez had bitten another player. Some of you may be outraged, wondering how a grown man could continually behave so poorly. But others may be fearful, worrying if this is the future of their little biting toddler. I assure you, it doesn’t have to be.
Biting is Common in Toddlers
Biting is a common, and normal, behavior for toddlers, and they usually grow out of it by the time they are three. However, you can’t just sit around and wait around for your child to grow out of it; you must teach your child that biting is an unacceptable behavior. Unfortunately, toddlers won’t magically stop biting just because you tell them once; it is going to take some patience, some time, and some consistency to alter their biting behavior. If you are bitten by your toddler, you must be calm but stern; no yelling. Say, “Ouch! That hurts me! NO BITING!” Make your message short and sweet; if you’re too wordy, your message will fly right over your toddler’s head. If you are consistent, she will eventually get the message that biting is not acceptable. By why do toddlers bite in the first place?
Controling Emotions is a Big Challenge
As adults, most of us are pretty in control of our emotions and actions. However, toddlers are just beginning to really feel complex emotions, and they are definitely not in control of them. If a toddler feels threatened, angry, frustrated, or jealous his first reaction may be to scream, hit, kick, cry or even bite. You have to help your toddler learn self-control when facing these emotions. Try coaching him through the situation with something like this: “If you feel like you’re going to bite, take a deep breath and slowly count to three. Then use your words to tell me what is wrong.” Give your toddler some key phrases he can use to help him convey his emotions. Phrases like: “I don’t like that,” “I need space,” “I was playing with that,” or “Can I have a turn,” are a good place to start. If you notice your toddler consistently biting in particular situations, try to intervene with emotional coaching before it escalates to biting.
Biting is No Laughing Matter
But what if your toddler bites you and then laughs at your pain? Don’t worry, she’s not evil; she has just learned that biting is a funny game. One time she bit you, or someone else, and the reaction was hysterical, and she wants to get that reaction again. Did you make a funny face? Did you say silly things while trying to stop yourself from cursing? Or did you eventually laugh because her sweet giggles made you forget that she just bit you? Well, I hate to say it, but any of those things could be considered positive reinforcement for biting. Toddlers love to be silly and see you be silly, so if they know that they can get you to act silly by biting you, they will keep biting. But if your reaction is boring, the biting will eventually stop. Just try to remember to be calm, stern, and consistent. And I think it goes without saying, but don’t play any pretend biting games (i.e. silly monster eats the little girl’s arm) if you have a biter because toddlers don’t know how to pretend bite.
It Could Be a Physical Reaction
So we have toddlers who bite because they are reacting to emotions, or because they think it’s funny, but there are also those who seem to bite for no reason. These unpredictable biters may be teething and need to soothe their little gums, or they may just have an oral fixation. This kind of biter is a bit trickier to deal with because the biting is filling a physical need rather than an emotional reaction. But your response should still be calm, stern, and consistent. Try to avoid the biting by using a pacifier strap to attach a teething ring to your toddler so he has a quick, on-hand (no pun intended) option for something to bite if he needs. You can also try giving your toddler some crunchy snacks to chomp into. Carrots, celery sticks, apple slices, or even frozen banana slices are perfect for crunching and soothing little gums.
If you have little biters at home, I’m sure you don’t want them to be all grown up, on a soccer field, in a boxing ring, or in a business meeting and biting someone because they are frustrated. You can stop the bad behavior before they take it with them into adulthood. Just remember that you are the one who needs to teach your toddler that biting is an unacceptable behavior. Try to identify why your child is biting, give him the tools to help him avoid biting, and when he does bite, be calm, be stern, and be consistent.