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Fighting the Biting

Carol and Pete took three-year-old Annie to the amusement park for the day. At 9:00 p.m., Annie was up way past her bedtime, but the family lingered at the park so that she could see the fireworks display. Pete held little Annie in his arms, waiting for the show to begin. Suddenly there was a thunderous boom, as the first fireworks were set off. At the same moment, Annie let out an ear-piercing scream. Then, Pete felt a searing pain in his shoulder as Annie sunk her teeth into it.

The next day, Pete's shoulder was red and sore. But he and Carol were more concerned about Annie's behavior and what it meant.

According to D'Arcy Lyness, PhD, a child psychologist, "In that situation, the biting was a reaction to extreme stress. She was frightened. The child's coping strategies couldn't meet her needs. Her 'circuits were blown.' That's an isolated incident and is not a cause for concern."

But biting that occurs repeatedly or as a means of aggression might be cause for concern and may require intervention.

Babies Who Bite
All children bite at some point in their early years. Biting usually begins accidentally during the teething phase. "The baby uses her mouth to get what she needs - comfort for her sore gums. Also, biting is part of the normal experimentation for a baby," Dr. Lyness says. It's one of the ways babies explore their environment. Some infants also may bite when they are excited or while playing. This, too, is part of normal development - what Freud would describe as the "oral phase."

Even though biting in an infant is not a concern, it is still a good idea to redirect the behavior early on. Instead of allowing your infant to bite you, give her a teething ring or soft toy to chew.

Toothsome Toddlers
Biting may continue or escalate between the ages of two and three years old, especially in the day-care setting. "You have a group of toddlers together in the same age range who have a limited repertoire of behaviors to express themselves," says Dr. Lyness. "They bite out of frustration to get what they want, such as a toy from another kid." In fact, one study has found that 50 percent of toddlers in day care are bitten three times every year.

When biting occurs in day care, a difficult situation is compounded. "If your daughter bites you or a sibling at home, you can quickly react and deal with the situation. But in the day-care setting, there are repercussions, because other people become involved and may become excited about what has happened," Dr. Lyness says. The parent of the biter may be concerned that the child will be expelled from the day-care center and may also be concerned about what the parent of the child who was bitten may be thinking or feeling. The day-care provider feels accountable for what happened and has the unpleasant duty of telling the parents of the child who was bitten.

Most biting occurs between the ages of 13 and 30 months and should stop around age three. "After age three, if the biting continues to happen, it may be a more serious situation that requires professional help," says Lyness. Also, at this age, biting often accompanies other aggressive behaviors, like hitting.

Fighting the Biting
Just because your child is biting does not mean that she is turning into a vampire. However, it's still unacceptable behavior, and there are steps you can take to curb it.

  • Establish the idea that all biting is forbidden. Whenever your child bites, even if it is playfully, look her firmly in the eye and, in an unfriendly voice, say something like, "No biting," or "Stop biting. That hurts." Toddlers may not realize that their bites cause pain. Keep your redirection short and simple. Avoid lengthy explanations or reasoning; this extra attention may actually reinforce the behavior, making it more likely that your child will bite again.
  • Make sure your child knows that biting is not a game. Never laugh when your child bites, even if it is done playfully. Also, you should avoid giving playful "love" bites to your child, since she is unable to understand why these bites are OK but her bites are not.
  • Deal with biting as you would any other aggressive behavior. Quickly pull the biter away from the "bitee." After saying "No biting," immediately give the child a brief time out. If the time out does not work, take away a favorite toy or activity. Make sure the biting does not get rewarded. Do not punish biting with other aggressive behavior, such as hitting the child. Most important, Lyness adds, "Never, never bite the child back!" This suggests to the child that biting is OK if you are an adult.
  • Often biting continues because it allows a child to get what she wants. Offer your child alternative ways of making her desires known. If she wants the blocks another child has, tell her to point to them and ask for them nicely, or to ask you to help her ask for them.
  • Model appropriate behaviors at home. Make sure you do not display aggressive behavior toward your spouse, your children, or others. Your child may be picking up her aggressive behavior from you.
  • Praise your child and offer positive reinforcement when she uses the appropriate behavior, i.e., asking for a toy instead of biting the child holding it.
  • If attempts to intervene are unsuccessful and biting persists, a professional evaluation is in order. Discuss the behavior with your child's doctor or the developmental specialist at your child's day-care center.

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