Witnessing the milestones in your baby’s life – from their first birthday to their first teeth – evokes feelings of wonder and awe. You can’t wait to see what they do next, and look forward to plastering the corresponding photos across social media.
That is, until you realize those precious, pearly whites can wreak some serious havoc on everyone around them. There’s no point in being in denial or thinking it was an accident: you have a biter on your hands. Suddenly, you become a referee in playgroups and at the playground in an attempt to keep your toddler from biting someone else’s kid. The stress mounts, and before long you feel frustrated and rendered completely helpless by those tiny weapons of destruction.
Rest easy knowing that a biting issue is pretty common, and kids outgrow it quickly. According to reporting from the American Psychological Association, between one third and one half of all toddlers in daycare are bitten by another child. Biting is also totally normal developmental behavior among children under three. But despite how totally normal it is, the stigma still stings. No one wants to be that mom whose kid turns into a vampire at the sight of another kid taking his toy.
Fortunately, there’s more you can do besides just waiting it out and becoming a shut-in who never leaves the confines of their backyard. There are plenty of ways you can curb and stop the biting behavior for good, and put your toddler on the path to appropriate behavior. Stay in control by focusing on these 6 tactics to stop your toddler from biting others.
1. Show Some Empathy
It’s unlikely that your toddler is biting simply because they are feeling naughty and malicious with hopes of hurting those around them. Your sweet little one isn’t a lost cause, and you aren’t responsible for the developmental behavior rearing its ugly head.
Instead, it’s far more likely that your toddler is frustrated or even trying to show love. Toddlers have pretty intense emotions. Maybe that expression “I could just eat you up” is onto something. Your toddler may take a little nip when playing with siblings and friends to forge a connection and show their undying love.
Show your toddler you understand what they’re feeling and respect it, but that it’s not appropriate to bite. Try saying something like, “I know how frustrated you must feel that someone took your ball, but we don’t bite,” or “It’s nice you love your brother so much, but we don’t bite.” After addressing the issue, try to immediately redirect the behavior to something more appropriate.
2. Immediately Intervene
There’s no point in disciplining your toddler a few hours after the biting incident occurred. They won’t make the connection to the bad behavior, and it could just make the whole thing worse. And don’t try to save face on the playground or with friends by saying you’ll address it later, or deciding to deal with it in private. Immediately intervene and tell your toddler it’s not okay to bite. Remember to express some empathy to the wounded child and their parent.
Tell the other child, “It’s not okay that he bit you, and I’m so sorry that happened.” Apologize to the parent of the child who was bitten, express how awful you feel, and tell them it’s something you’re actively working on. And if it was one of your other children who was the recipient of a bite, go ahead and apologize to yourself. Grab another cup of coffee or look forward to that glass of evening wine to unwind, and put the vision of bared teeth behind you.
3. Stay Consistent with Consequences
Toddlers are experts at testing boundaries and experimenting with behavior to see what will happen. Their world seems enormous, and they want to know how it all works. Toddlers also want to know exactly what’s going to happen, and they want a reaction from their parents. Give them what they want by staying consistent with your consequences without reacting emotionally.
After all, your child could be intrigued by your shocked expression and anger, and just keep up the behavior on a regular basis. It’s also likely your toddler will scream and cry at the firm consequence you set, but that’s also part of how they’re testing the boundaries. Don’t give in.
Choose exactly what you’re going to do in advance, and how you’ll react when your toddler tries to bite someone else. Make an unbreakable plan to intervene, apologize to the bitten child, and tell your biter, “You bit your friend and hurt his arm and his feelings. That’s not okay. We don’t get to play after you bite someone, so we have to go home now.” If it’s not doable to go home, then decide on a time-out and choose a location for the reprieve, whether that’s a park bench, or a cozy corner of a friend’s house.
4. Avoid Triggers
Chances are high your toddler has at least one biting trigger that sets off a domino effect to their bad behavior. Pay attention to what’s going on around you when the biting seems to occur, and stop the bad behavior before it starts. For example, roughhousing with a sibling after school might result in being overtired and escalate into a meltdown, all combined with the desire to express love. Redirect the roughhousing into a quieter game or reading books as a family, and encourage hugs and cuddles instead.
Your toddler may also bite because they’re frustrated that other kids are taking their turn at the playground, or picking up their most sacred toy and refusing to give it back. Put away off-limit toys before playgroups, and monitor frustrations. Intervene and ensure your toddler gets a turn on the slide, and keep reminding them there’s no biting when a situation starts to escalate.
5. Teach Alternatives
Your toddler doesn’t have the capacity to think thoughtfully about their biting behavior, how it affects others, and what they should do instead. Toddlers will just keep biting if they have no other coping mechanisms, or if they keep getting the desired result like a big reaction from Mom and Dad. Staying consistent with consequences is just one way to coax toddlers to explore alternative behaviors. But you can also teach your little ones how to handle their emotions beyond biting someone else.
But can toddlers really understand your instructions about not biting? They sure can. According to an article in Parents, toddlers can understand complex conversation before most parents think they can. Your toddler may not understand every word coming out of your mouth, but they clearly understand the overall meaning and nuances over time.
Tell your toddler, “We don’t bite. You can hug your brother instead to show you love him.” If your toddler bites when he’s frustrated, try saying, “Remember we don’t bite when we’re angry. Grab mommy’s hand and bring me to the slide if you’re not getting a turn.” Keep repeating your instructions, especially in groups where kids are present and biting triggers are likely to spark the bad behavior.
6. Reward Positive Behavior
It’s easy to focus on all the horrible things our kids are doing, especially when biting strange kids is involved. And you should still follow through with setting firm consequences and teaching alternatives. But it’s crucial to focus on positive behavior and reward it accordingly to break the biting habit for good.
After a successful, non-biting playdate, tell your toddler, “Thank you for playing so nicely. I really liked how you said ‘no’ when you were frustrated. You’re such a big boy.” You can also try something like, “That makes me so happy when you hug your brother. Thank you so much.” The more you focus on what your toddler has done right, the more likely they are to repeat it in order to get the praise and attention they’re looking for.
Keep reminding yourself that your toddler is just exploring the big world around them and trying to connect with others. If your child is a biter, the behavior will pass, and the tactics you’ve learned here should help to dramatically reduce such incidents. You should also speak to your pediatrician for advice and input.
But we promise that one day soon, your family will no longer be the playground pariahs that the entire neighborhood avoids. You can look forward to passing down your own “Been there, done that” understanding and words of wisdom to the new wave of horrified moms dealing with biting toddlers of their own.
How do you keep your toddler from biting? Let us know what works for your family by leaving a comment below: