Biting Your Buddies

I regularly attend a playgroup with my 2 ½ year old son. My son really enjoys himself, but at times can get a bit rambunctious. His most troubling behaviour is occasional biting. He started biting when he was around 1 1/2. We go through periods when he doesn’t bite, but then it starts again. I’ve seen him get frustrated and then almost “vibrate” before he lunges for the bite. It is usually when another child is “in his face.” Fatigue and hunger can play a factor, but we are more tuned into that now and try to minimize those effects. The most recent incident happened at playgroup- he bit an 18 month old. Her mother reacted really badly, saying, “I can’t believe he bit her. If my child bit, I wouldn’t bring him to playgroup!” My husband dealt with this and was shocked at the other mom’s reaction. But…thinking back, we realize that she is not at the stage when her child does shocking things to other kids (Wait until 24 months, lady!!)What can we do to curb the biting? We were considering rewards for not biting, but I don’t think that will work long term. We talk to him about how it hurts others, makes them sad etc. He knows that we leave places when it happens. Any other suggestions? We don’t want a 5 year old biter. And, any suggestions for dealing with other parents’ reactions?

I think you’re actually doing just the right things about the problem.

* You recognize that his behaviour is normal for his age, and a result of frustration and not knowing how to express his feelings. It doesn’t mean he is a bad child, and given the right handling of it he will grow out of this behaviour.
* You have identified things which make your son more vulnerable to stress, like fatigue and hunger, and have made sure he isn’t hungry or tired at playgroup.
* You talk to your son about how biting hurts other people – this is empathy training. If he isn’t getting it, you can add to this by picking up his arm and pretend to bite it, and ask him how it would feel if you did. He’s young enough to be quite egocentric and it takes something really concrete to get across what the other person might feel.
* You don’t punish him physically if you did, this would just teach him that bigger people have the right to hurt smaller people which is exactly what you don’t want him to learn!
* You leave the scene whenever it happens. This removes any reward he gets for biting someone, and lets him know that he’s only allowed to play with other children if he treats them kindly.

One other thing you can do is teach your son what to do when he gets mad. Teach him to run away instead of biting, and to use words if he has some words – even the word “No!” or “Don’t!” can work wonders. My guess is that he has difficulty finding the language for his feelings so resorts to the physical instead. It’s time to work on identifying his feelings (mad, sad, happy, hungry, etc.) and know how to express them in words, as well as to tell people when his boundaries are violated with words like “No” and “Don’t.” The library probably has some good children’s books on these topics.

With regard to the other parents, your comment “Wait until 24 months, lady!” was right on. Unfortunately you can’t say it to her; that would be your equivalent of biting. She needs you to express empathy to her when her little darling has been hurt, and let her know the ways in which you are working on the problem. Stress the fact that your son has to learn to socialize, and he won’t learn if you keep him away from other children. If she remains self-righteous, say “Just wait till your child’s a little older” silently in your head and keep your cool.

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