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Why do children bite?

Surveys show that about one quarter of all children exhibit biting behaviors at some point. Parents agree that it is just about the worst behavior a child can do, and it can contribute to alienating child and parent. offers some information and advice on why children bite and how to stop it.

Children bite to express emotion.

Not all children bite to hurt another child or adult, or out of anger. Most young children do not realize the amount of pain a bite causes. They have no way to know that the jaw muscles are the body’s most powerful muscles, and the ones they first used I life to suck.

Biting is a child’s way of communicating, although a negative one. The cause behind the action must be identified to develop a behavior change. Here are some reasons children bite.

Expressing emotion: Oddly enough, young toddlers can bite as a way of showing love. “Toddlers have really intense feelings but don’t know how to show them,” says Dirk Flower, psychologist. “Biting can be a way of expressing their feelings. Mothers often don’t understand why it’s just them who get bitten.”

Experimenting: Toddlers are learning how their body works – they put things in their mouths, and sometimes nip. It’s impulsive and they don’t mean to hurt. Often, a baby chomps on someone when they’re teething. Sometimes toddlers nip when they’re over-excited.

Defending: Young children learn to bite as a defense, especially if they can’t talk. Sometimes changes or upsets at home can bring on this type of biting. “These children are trying to establish a safety zone,” explains Mr. Flower. “When you bite, your victim moves away – it’s a great defense.”

Controlling: Some children know biting is a way of getting other children – or their parents – to do what they want. They don’t always do this consciously. It may happen when a group of children are jostling to be leader. Sometimes the youngest child in the family bites to gain power. And as any child who’s ever tried it has learnt, biting is a fantastic way of getting attention – and so what if it’s negative?

Frustrated or irritated: Your child wants a toy back. Or they want a cookie or adult attention, or can’t cope with a situation. They may not understand turn-taking and sharing. Or things may have changed at home or the child feels under stress. The child doesn’t necessarily mean to cause harm, but just can’t find the words to express himself.

To stop biting behaviors, the adult must stay cool and in control. Retaliation is never the way to correct a negative behavior. Here are ways that usually work.

Intervene: Chart how frequent bites are and what the triggers are. One of the best ways is to act before your child has a chance to sink their teeth into anyone. Plan in advance for their behavior. Watch for signs that the child is getting ready to bite and remove him from the intended victim immediately. Don’t put them into large groups if that’s where it happens. Children often clench their teeth before they bite – an unmistakable sign. Take the child somewhere quiet to calm down. If a teething child is trying out his or her teeth, find toys to chew and chomp on.

Teach them it’s wrong: When your child bites, use simple but firm words. Try, “that’s biting, that’s wrong” or a firm “no”. If you’re in a group, remove them from the situation. Explain that it hurts others and why you don’t like them doing it.

Teach them to express themselves: When things have calmed down, try to help your child find a less painful way to express their feelings. This works well with children who are biting to try to show their affection, says Mr. Flower. “If your child’s expressing love, teach them to hug rather than bite whenever they feel strong emotions.” Likewise, if your child bites out of defense, show them how to tell somebody they don’t want him or her too close – to make the “stop” sign (a hand held up) – or even gently to push the other child’s shoulder – which won’t hurt but gives a clear message. Or teach them to come and find you instead if they’re angry.

Reduce the effectiveness: When children bite to gain attention, dealing with it is trickier. After the first big talking to, don’t try to continue to reason or explain. Give a firm “no”. “Put your body between victim and biter and turn your back on the biter,” says Mr. Flower.

Praise positive changes in behavior. Tell the child you are proud of his using words or hugging or olding up a “stop” hand.

When nothing seems to work:

Stick with it: Keeping to a plan of action is more difficult than it seems. “You need attention, energy, consistency and support,” says family therapist David Spellman. “These methods aren’t rocket science, but need planning and determination.” Make sure all your family and care givers are on the same page – young children find it hard when they receive mixed messages.

Give clear commands and be positive: Young children can’t understand negatives, so avoid “don’ts”. Try “we keep our mouths to ourselves” instead. Try not to raise your voice and speak in a firm voice. Don’t overdo explanations: “The first bite may be impulsive, but a child soon learns they get an enormous amount of attention,” says Ms. Fry.

When to ask for help: Don’t rush to a therapist; seek help or advice first from friends and other parents, or teachers and nurseries and health visitors, who can also point you in the right direction if you want to take it further.

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