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Two Year Old Biting

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Dear Susan:

I have a 2 and a half year old boy that is a biter. I know that it is normal that some kids bite but it is effecting my home daycare and family. We try talking to him, removing him from the situation, time-outs. It seems to us that he's defending himself because it is only one child that he is biting, and when he doesn't get his own way. We don't know what to do. Any suggestions?

Rose

Dear Rose,

Thank you for visiting our site and for writing.  Biting is like talking, only more sensual and tactile.  "Biters" are usually verbal, and use a lot of words, but if the words don't get the attention that children crave, they do sensual things at once: they talk, hit, and bite.  Aren't kids clever?  They do as many things simultaneously as possible to create a situation which is impossible to ignore.  you can't ignore biting.  You can ignore the child, by name and you should not give the child eye contact.  Just state your case: "No biting - I will not let you bite."  Do this while taking the child to a nearby spot (don't use time out for  2 1/2 year olds) and talk in private, no eye contact.  Place your hands and arms around your child while he is sitting down, so that he is in front of you, and you are just talking without looking at him.  The value in this is that he is not getting attention, he is getting a very firm message. 

Do not spank because he will get a different message, which is that any time a big person wants to, he or she can hit you.  You know that a two-year old will try to hit another person, as well as bite them next time.  Now you have two problems.

Children who are two are trying to communicate their frustration, anger, and possessiveness through biting, hitting, screaming, etc.  Here are a few comments I gave a day care teacher about biting back in June.  These words should give you some ideas:

Generally, older-age biters have gotten a great deal of punitive and harsh treatment for this behavior at school and at home, and do not mind that the attention they get is more negative (punishment for biting) and less positive (praise and good rewards for not biting.)

Kids who are not exposed early to general rules like "we do not hit or bite in this school, and we will show you why" find it easy to cause trouble when they bite or hit, so they quickly learn that they can get the attention they need, because they crave caretaking and looking after.  Lots of children have personalities that are dependent upon adult interaction.  Some children are not so dependent, but an older biter is generally a dependent learner.

The child is getting attention for the wrong reasons, but it works for kids who do not have rules, responsibilities and meaningful tasks to do at home or at school that makes them feel helpful, and earns them praise, encouragement and positive attention.  Even biting makes a child feel attended to, and valuable enough to take the punishment (what's not to like about being able to stay home and cause a big fuss?), then be accepted back into the school's good graces. 

It's a bad habit, but a useful weapon, if a child feels isolated and, even in the extreme, neglected.  You need to show the parent and child the opposite of biting.  Biting is an unacceptable absolutely never-never no-no, so what's the alternative?  Well, obviously, it's "Not biting" and it's getting what you want without biting and it's getting a lot of praise for doing something other than biting. 

Teach the parent and the child what "not biting-alternatives" are, and practice them, as if you were putting on a play or a puppet show.  Practice walking away when someone bothers you, staying calm, counting to 5, asking a teacher or parent to come help you because you are mad and feel like biting, finding a bean bag chair to hide in when you feeling mad.  Have a class or family meeting about the problem.  Don't personalize the problem.  Say there is a rule here which is no biting.  The rule belongs to everyone in this building or house.  We will practice exactly what to do "instead of biting."  Establishing good habits takes time and will take more time if the bad habit has been going for a while.  If it hasn't been long, then there could be plenty of reasons why the child bites - a recent move, a death, divorce or family trauma.  In any case, give clear group messages about what happens if someone makes a hitting or biting mistake. 

Since I don't know the child,  his previous experiences in a school setting, his temperament, his family life style and rules, etc., I am putting the burden of correction and demonstration of good habits and good behavior in the hands of caring adults who are competent to teach him or her the exact behaviors which reward good actions, ignores mild infractions, and reteaches and corrects inappropriate ones immediately and in close proximity to the problem situation.

Never remove a child from the scene of the crime, so to speak, and never let a child feel his parent and teacher are rejecting him or her.  You are not allowing a behavior to occur, but you are not withholding love or care from the child.  Teachers and parents need to talk, talk, talk together and give children constant verbal and non-verbal cues and prompts and reminders of how great the child is when he is NOT BITING, and catch children being good little non-biters, instead of rewarding biting with negative but valuable attention.

Dr. Susan

 

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