5 Things to Teach When Your Child Bites
No one wants their child to get bitten. I think even more than that, no one wants their child to bite! But when it does happen, we want to be prepared so that our response is not only appropriate, but actually teaches both children something that will benefit their social and emotional development. Read on for five things we can teach when a child bites.
From early childhood consulting and clinical work to my own experiences as a parent, I can say with confidence that biting happens, it’s developmentally appropriate in MOST cases, and children do just fine when it happens to them (it doesn’t cause lasting harm!). With that in mind, there are a few things I recommend for adults to do when biting happens through a developmental and social-emotional lens.
My little guy has actually been bitten three times so far (just in the past few weeks! I think he just looks tasty to other children). So, it feels like a good time to share some information about biting and the non-verbal (or at least mostly non-verbal) child.
Like I’ve already said, biting is both common and developmentally appropriate (within certain parameters) and is typically a means of self expression.
The first time that Eli got bitten, his friend, who is the same age, was frustrated. She obviously can’t have the developmental skills yet to say, “Oh, excuse me, I want to stand where you are standing, could you please move over?” Or “I don’t like it when you get too close, please give me space.” Actually, that type of response would require tons of emotional regulation and impulse control (plus great manners) and we couldn’t really expect a child to master all of that until much, much later in their development. So instead, she bit. To me, this makes a lot of sense and, although it's scary to see a child bite and it's hard to watch a child get hurt, it's not a terribly traumatic situation. Unless the adults respond in a way that is very frightening or extreme in some way.
There are many things we can teach in our response to biting. I’ve created a guide for responding to biting that helps both children learn and grow in a way that supports optimal social-emotional development.
Teach Emotion Regulation Skills. Get into a calm state yourself. Check yourself as quickly as possible (practice makes perfect) and take a deep breath. Regulate your system and respond, don’t react. Everyone is ok. Even if there is a little blood, it’s going to be ok. This step shows both children first hand what emotion regulation looks like and helps them learn to calm themselves.
Validate Emotions - Teach That All Feelings are Valid. Focus on the child who is hurt. Teach both children that all emotions are ok, we don’t need to “shhh” away the hurt. Let the hurt child know that they can cry because what happened to them hurts and it was probably scary, too. You’re validating emotions and also modeling compassion. Children will understand that even if they cry, they are ok—they don’t need to “feel better” to be loved. This is a foundational reality that is the basis of developing a positive self-concept that will allow your child to thrive socially and emotionally.
Try: “ouch, you got hurt. It’s ok to cry. You’re safe. You’re safe.” Something like that. No need to hush or get the child to stop crying, just reassure them that they’re safe and it’s ok to cry when they’re hurt. They’ll learn to feel their emotions and cope with them appropriately while feeling loved and accepted.
Model Empathy While Teaching Cause and Effect. Align with the child who bit. If you’re alone, turn to the child who bit after the hurt child feels better. If you’re not alone, the other parent or adult can do this while the hurt child is being comforted. Try to stay calm and remember that this is a learning opportunity, not a time for punishment. If our goal is to help this child learn not to bite again, we have to align with them. Children learn best when they are in an open and receptive state so we need to avoid a reaction that shames, frightens, or belittles the child (they can’t learn when they feel that way, no one could). As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s most helpful to actually identify with this child. Why did they bite, how were they feeling? What skill can we help them learn? Respond compassionately.
Try: “ouch, it hurts when you bite. He didn’t like it, see? He’s crying.” “I understand that you didn’t like it when _____. I won’t let you bite again. It hurts when you bite.”
Teach Problem-Solving Skills. Give the child a solution. “You didn’t like when he put his hand on your arm. You felt mad. Next time say, ‘move please’”. The child who bit is able to learn what to do instead. We’re giving them the skills and the language to avoid aggressive behavior in the future, even though they can’t say it yet. And remember, because we reacting to them with compassion, they’re in a receptive state that allows them to learn in this moment instead of shut down.
Teach Coping Skills. Reunite and move forward. Once everyone feels a little better, move on with play. It’s ideal to get the two children to engage in cooperative play of some sort, maybe passing a toy back and forth or holding something together. Stay present and engaged to watch for any frustration mounting again so as to avoid any further upsets. We want the children to learn that they can play again after something went wrong. And we have to trust that they can.
Now I have to mention a few things I try to steer adults away from. No worries if you’ve found yourself doing these things already, I know it all comes from a good place! I'll just give a little explaination for why I caution against these three and recommend the steps above instead.
“Teeth are not for biting”. Well, actually, they are. This is an odd saying to me. Even though there is a very popular book series using this language, I’m not a huge fan. Teeth ARE for biting and it’s much more sincere and accurate to just say, “ouch, biting hurts!” When you add something like, “see? He didn’t like it” you’re also teaching your child about feelings, empathy, and cause-and-effect. There is so much more learning that can happen than when we simply repeat “no, no, teeth are not for biting!”
“Say you’re sorry!” I’ve also never been a big fan of forcing children to verbalize something they don’t feel. As an adult, I intensely dislike when I feel that someone is only saying something because they think they should, not because they actually feel it. Instead, YOU can say “I’m sorry you are hurt” to the other child. Your child is learning more by watching you than you making them say sorry.
“NO! NO BITING! Bad boy!” Not to long ago, I witnessed a biting situation. One adult swept right in to comfort the hurt child (great!) and another adult swept right in to forcefully grab the child who bit and took their little body and say “NO!!! DON’T BITE!” right into the child’s face. I struggle so much with this. It’s serious when a child hurts another child but when adults respond this way, with so much force and aggression, it doesn’t teach the child what we want it to. I assume we all want children to learn from these interactions and learn that hurting another person is never ok. Sadly, children don’t learn to be kind, empathic, or regulated when adults treat them with aggressive, dyregulation, and force. They actually learn the to treat others like that while simultaneously learning that they themselves must be unloveable, unworthy, and incapable.
All in all, we must learn to think long term. We need to employ our adult ability to see cause and effect. If we take developmentally appropriate behaviors and treat them as learning opportunities, we can shift our reactions to support the characteristics we want our children to develop. As soon as we see these behaviors as something we need to punish and treat the child in such a way, we’ve sabotaged ourselves. We end up creating power struggles and a dynamic of aggression and defiance in our children when instead, we could be supporting a kind, loving, and compassionate relationship where our child is primed to learn important lessons from us. We are their greatest teachers who can teach not only how they must treat others, but also how they deserve others to treat them. A generation who is parented in this way will make the world a better place for everyone.
Remember, with all of this “advice” we must remember two important things:
There is no such thing as perfect parenting.
We must care for ourselves to be able to care for others.