Q. My eight-year-old child is biting other children at school. Where does this come from and what can be done to teach that little brain to stop biting?
A. Biting can occur for a variety of reasons. Mammals and other creatures tend to bite when they are fearful. In a similar way, children sometimes bite others when they are angry, fearful, frustrated, excited, over-stimulated, or to get attention. During periods of teething, children may bite to relieve pain unless an appropriate substitute has been provided. Since children put almost everything in their mouth to learn about it, they may be unaware of the difference between chewing on a toy and on a real person. Beyond that, some estimate that about 10% of children exhibit biting behaviors.
In my brain’s opinion, biting is unacceptable behavior. Biting children at school is completely unacceptable behavior. Children need to learn to use words to communicate what they are feeling.
- Children tend to copy behaviors they see exhibited. Be careful about your own role-modeling behaviors. If you yell, slap, kick, and throw things when you are upset, your child’s brain may decide that these types of behaviors are okay in specific situations.
- Never bite a child back. That just teaches the child’s brain (in which the principle of empathy isn’t yet well developed) that biting is okay. After all, adults do it.
- Pay careful attention to when biting occurs and be proactive. For example, if the child bites when overstimulated, have clear rule when playing and limit the number of children in the play group.
- If the child bites, calmly separate the child and say something like, “Teeth are for eating. Use words to tell me how you feel.” Teaching sign language to small children gives them a tool with which to communicate when language is not yet developed.
- Punishment may be unhelpful. A time-out to allow the child to calm down and break the cycle can be helpful, especially with older children. Sometimes the removal of a privilege can get their attention.
- Affirm the child whenever he or she uses words rather than actions to convey feelings.