MD Mama

Got A Biting Toddler? What To Do.

fighting toddler.jpgSo many of us have been there: your sweet, adorable toddler is playing nicely with other children when suddenly, out of nowhere (or maybe when her toy gets taken by another child) she gets that look in her eye and bites the child next to her.

It's mortifying.

It's also really common. Toddlers bite--and hit and kick--when they get angry or frustrated (and sometimes when they get bored.). They don't have the communication skills to say something like, "I don't like that you took my toy. Please give it back to me." And they are nowhere near having the ability to recognize and handle difficult emotions like anger and frustration. So they just, well, react.

Which is exactly what you need to do:

React. Many parents I talk to don't do much of anything when their toddler bites or hits. They may say no, but they don't worry too much if it's not effective. They figure that the child is unlikely to do much damage, it's kind of funny, and hey, they will grow out of it.

It's true that little teeth, fists and feet do less damage than big ones, but it still hurts to be bit--and ignoring it is a quick way to make your child persona non grata at playgroup or the park. And there's no way it's going to be cute if they are still doing it in kindergarten (and if you laugh when they do it, that just encourages it). They might grow out of it, that's true too--but what if they don't? Do you really want to take that chance?

React quickly. If you don't react immediately, a toddler won't know what you are reacting to. They aren't going to think to themselves, "Oh, I am in trouble for biting that kid before." They are going to think: "What am I doing now? I'm just playing with my truck! What's wrong with that?"

React simply. Again, you have to understand where toddlers are developmentally. You can't so much explain things to toddlers. An immediate, very firm and stern "No!" (or "No biting!") along with a physical removal from the situation is most effective. The physical removal could just be a couple of feet away, but you want to underscore that it was the kind of physical contact that was the problem.

You can use Time Out with toddlers; the rule of thumb is a minute for each year of age, so we're talking a minute or two in a boring place. Here's the crucial part of Time-Out: you can't keep interacting with your child during it. The whole point is to take your attention away from the child. If the child keeps getting out of Time Out and running around, you could consider using a playpen or crib (although having the sleep space also be the punishment space doesn't always work out perfectly)--or you might have to wait until they are older to use that kind of discipline.

If your child is biting other children and can't pull it together to stop, you may just have to leave the situation. Which brings up another important aspect of this: know your child's triggers. If your child is going through a phase of being really possessive of toys, for example, and is likely to bite in reaction to one being taken away, supervise closely and jump in with distraction or another cool toy if you see a toy snatch about to happen. While your child is learning not to bite (or hit or kick or whatever), don't set her up by putting her smack dab in the exact situation that makes her react badly. Try smaller groups of people and situations that are easier to control. Be fair to your child--and to those who might get bitten.

React consistently. Let's face it, there's something really satisfying about giving a good bite or kick to someone who is annoying you (and it's even better if somebody laughs!). If you can get away with it sometimes, you're far more likely to give it a try than if you always get a negative reaction from the people you love most.

Like so much else in parenting, this is an elbow grease thing: you have to put in the hard, steady work to get results. But as is also true of so much else in parenting, it will pass. Soon, you'll be on to the next challenge. Like potty training. Or school refusal. Or lying. Or dating. Or drinking.

But if you get a good start now establishing ground rules about how to treat other people, and establishing that you are in charge, it will put you in good stead as you take on other challenges.

So take a deep breath, and react the way your child needs you to. Make sure you remember or jot down a couple of the better biting stories. It's good to have a stash of embarrassing stories on hand when your child gets to be a teenager. They are great for blackmail once they start dating.

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