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How to handle toddler biting without punitive consequences

Stop Toddler Biting
Stop Toddler Biting

Have you received that dreaded phone call from your child's preschool?

"Good morning Mrs. Johnson, this is the Happy Kids Preschool calling to let you know that Amelia was bit by a classmate today..." or worse "Amelia bit another child..."

Your first experience with toddler biting may come as a complete shock - you've always had such a sweet, well-mannered child - or it may be just another day battling your intense, spirited toddler and her many emotions.

Most parents are undoubtedly alarmed by either call. Seeing your child hurt or hurt another - gives parents the ultimate challenge in responsibility, that is, the ability to respond.

Biting is aggressive, scary and alarming for children and parents but it is also absolutely normal. Most children will go through some sort of biting phase and usually bite-ees are turned quickly into biters as children learn behavioral strategies through their relationships - not with just their parents but also with their peers.

Children are emotional creatures and while biting may seem like an unfathomable way to react to a "friend not sharing" or a "toy being taken," it might be, in the child's reality, quite an effective tool for getting what she wants - at least initially.

Yes, you must enforce the limit for safety that biting is absolutely NOT OKAY. But you can't do that with a stressed-out or fearful child. You will end up frustrated - using force, control or emotional manipulation - and reacting from fear which only leads to disconnection.

How do you diminish the behavior without sacrificing your relationship with your kids?

First, understand why toddler biting happens.

Conscious parenting operates from the premise that all behavior is communication and a strategy to meet a need. Children are learning how to interact in social situations. A three-year-old does not yet have the cognitive skill to stop and think logically about what might be the next best action to take, especially when she is overwhelmed by strong emotions.

It is only through the repetition of modeling, nurturing and compassion that children will learn socially appropriate behaviors and more successful techniques for getting their needs met. Scolding young children because "they were warned once" or criticizing them teaches nothing.

It is developmentally appropriate for a toddler's immediate reaction to an upsetting event - to be hostile. They are impulsive, emotional and can get physical, fast, because their level of brain maturity leaves them no other choice.

It may be hard to see your child as scared when you are angry yourself but toddler biting is always an unconscious response to a stressful event where a child is without the resources to make better choices.

An aggressive child is a scared child.

Seeing things from your child's perspective is crucial to understanding her actions. This is the way to diminish unwanted negative behaviors - by acknowledging the need or fear that caused the behavior in the first place.

Traditional parenting asks us to focus on the behavior and implies that if you get emotional with your kids, then you are somehow coddling them. This could not be further from the truth.

So what CAN you do to stop toddler biting?

1. Remain Calm

Take steps to calm any triggered emotions so that you can respond to your child with compassion. Step out of the room and BREATHE deeply if necessary before returning to address your child.

2. Approach with Curiosity

When you approach your child, do so in the spirit of cooperation and curiosity and with a willingness to help. Leave the blame, shame and judgment out of the equation.

3. Acknowledge Feelings & Needs

What was your child trying to accomplish? Needs for choice, independence, play, attention, connection? Investigate your child's feelings which are linked to her needs, which led to the behavior.

4. Empathize With Your Child's Situation

You may be able to meet the child's need or you may not, but you can always provide empathy to your child for her experience.

"Your friend took your toy. I imagine it felt really bad when he took it from your hand."

5. Provide Helpful Support

Instead of using punitive measures, be willing to "help" your child by connecting with her emotionally so she can reflect on her behavior. You may need to remove the child from the situation to help her regulate strong emotions. Provide sensory tools, hugs or a place to offload the tensions with physical activity.

6. Track It

Biting is often linked to scheduling or sensory issues... small children who are hungry or who are holding a lot of tension may use biting to relieve tension. If it happens often - keep a tracking chart and look for patterns or clues to help you prevent the biting before it happens.

I have used the TEACH tool successfully with thousands of children for all sorts of conflicts and you can too! Click here to read more about how to stop toddler biting by responding with curiosity and love and discover why empathy is your most powerful parenting tool!

Lori Petro is a Mom, Children's Advocate and Speaker. She is passionate about transforming our world through conscious parenting compassionate communication, and peaceful conflict resolution.

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Twitter: @TEACHthruLove