Between the ages of one to three years, some children go through a stage of biting other children. Although this occurs most frequently in Child Care Centers, it can happen at other times, such as at birthday parties. Our initial adult reaction, to a child who bites another child, is that it is an act of aggression. Either the child is angry at the other child and wants to hurt him or her. But this quite natural assumption is not supported by what we know of child development. Young children are egocentric; they are unable to take another person’s point of view when it is different from their own. That is, a child who is biting another cannot appreciate what the other child is feeling until that child cries out. Once a child bites, he or she may discover that it serves a purpose, making the other child leave the scene, or getting a toy. In most cases, even a child, who continues to bite, does not do so to hurt the other child, but rather to attain some other goal.
Children bite other children for a variety of reasons. Some children may bite in order to get the attention of adult caregivers. Other children may bite because they have seen other children bite and are simply imitating them. Most often children bite other children because of stress or frustration. Young children have few means of expressing their feelings and biting is one of the few they have for venting their anger and resentment. In most cases the victim is not the cause of the child’s unhappiness, he or she just happens to be the available target. Nonetheless, biting is upsetting to the parents of the victim particularly if the bite breaks the skin, causes bleeding, and leaves bite marks.
In order to deal effectively with a child who bites, you must first try and determine the cause. Does the biting usually occur over the use of a toy? Or when the child is hungry and tired? Or only when a particular other child is present? Sometimes biting occurs with a change in the child’s life, the birth of a sibling, a move to a new house and neighborhood, a divorce, or simply attending a new Child Care Center. If biting occurs over a toy, making more toys available may solve the problem. When it is another child who seems to provoke biting, it is best just to keep them apart. For children who bite when they are tired and hungry, having desirable snacks ready at hand when out shopping or doing errands, may help solve the problem. When biting is in response to a change in life circumstances, extra care needs to be take to reassure the child of parental love and that he or she is not being abandoned or rejected.
If a biting incident occurs, it is important to remain calm and to remember that the situation is a frightening one for both children. The child who is bitten should be attended to first with whatever first aid is required. Then both children need to be given hugs and reassurance that everything is all right and no serious damage has been done. Parental feelings are more problematic. The parents of a child, who has been bitten, may be quite upset and need reassurance that the biting was not intentional and that every effort will be made so that it will not happen again.
In most cases, biting disappears as the child acquires better and more effective coping skills. You can help your child in this regard by rewarding and praising the child’s adaptive social skills such as politely asking for things and for saying “Please” and “Thank you.”
By Professor David Elkind