July 24, 2011

Families Today: Response to toddler who bites should be clear, low-key

By DR. T. BERRY BRAZELTON and DR. JOSHUA SPARROW

Q: How can we help our 22-month-old granddaughter stop biting other children at day care? I know she is frustrated and needs help dealing with anger, as her daddy and aunts and uncles have.  -- Via email

A: Biting is a common and usually normal behavior in 22-month-olds. You compare the child to her father, aunts and uncles. At that age, did they bite? Presumably they also have trouble managing their anger as adults. Herein lies part of the problem.

As far as we know, biting in a 2-year-old doesn't predict anger control problems later in life. Yet to many adults, biting is a serious problem and an ominous sign for the future.

Parents and teachers who do see biting that way may tend to overreact, unintentionally reinforcing the biting.

The child, who can't understand what all the fuss is about, is bound to bite again -- to see if the same thing happens again, and to explore what the frantic responses could mean.

The child may discover that biting confers a great deal of power: One little nip and a whole classroom can be catapulted into pandemonium. How exciting! Let's try that again.

Harsh, repeated punishments may lead the child to conclude she is "bad." This feeling can become another reason for more biting. A child who loses hope in her ability to change will not be motivated to try to get herself under control. She'll continue what everyone now expects her to do -- keep on biting.

A clear but low-key response will help. Calmly separate the children. The bitten child may need adult comfort, but so does the child who has bitten. She may be frightened by her own out-of-control feelings and by the other child's screams.

Reassure her you will stop her every time until she has learned to stop herself. Be sure she understands you know she'll learn with time.

Why do young children bite? A pediatrician we know says that for children this age, "a bite is just the flip side of a kiss." In the first year, babies will sometimes bite their mothers' shoulders as if to say, "I love you so much I want to eat you up!"

In the second year, when toddlers are interested in other toddlers but don't yet know how to show it, they may bite as a bid to engage another child.

Sometimes young children bite when they are overstimulated. And sometimes they may bite out of anger. But at this age they don't understand that a bite really hurts. Some adults think the best disciplinary approach is gently to bite back. We can't agree. Such a response throws a child's understanding of adult caregivers' roles into confusion.

Perhaps you're worried that this child needs help because she has been exposed to the behavior of adults in the family who continue to struggle with their anger.

If that's the case, then the child's biting may have a different meaning. Very young children are vulnerable to being traumatized by violent behavior of adults around them. They need help from mental health professionals trained to work with infants and toddlers. Check zerotothree.org and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) for more information, and ask the child's pediatrician for a referral.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

nytsyn-families@nytimes.com

 

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