Ask BBB: Parenting Advice from Betsy Brown Braun

Question:

A couple of moms in my two-year-old son’s play group told me that my child has bitten a couple of the other kids and they’re talking about kicking us out of the group if I can’t get him under control. What can I do to get him to stop biting?

BBB: Having a child who bites feels just terrible to both the parent of the victim and the parent of the aggressor.  In fact, I think that the parent of the biter feels worse than that of the bitee. Like a mama lion, the mother of the bitee is desperate to protect her young. And the parent of the biter feels awful, embarrassed, and helpless, as it is so hard to control what her child does.

Let me first say that biting is one of those behaviors that most children between the ages of 15 months and three years try out. Depending upon many factors, including the response the child gets from both the bitee and from the adult in charge, it will continue for a while or you will nip it ‘in the bud, if you’ll excuse the pun! Biting usually results from frustration and an inability to get what he wants. Perhaps the child doesn’t have the language to express his needs and has no better way to express himself. And often, with the acquisition of language and maturity, it will end as mysteriously as it began.

Biting is one of those things that needs to be addressed immediately and directly. It’s kind of like “shock and awe.” Yelling at a child is not useful, but biting does require the use of a very firm, direct, and “I mean business” voice each time it happens. No “Now, honey, please…” voice. The adult in charge gets down on her knees, with hand on the child, and says, “There is NO biting. We only bite food.” With a 15 month old, you may need to put a finger on the child’s mouth to help make the connection. After the intervention and without too many words, point to the bitee and say something like, “You hurt Steven. Look at his boo boo. Look at his face. His is so sad.” If you know what was going on, you can add, “If you want a turn, say ‘I want to play with that truck.’”

Sometimes the biting is an isolated incident, but not usually. It will return, and you will need to have the same firm reaction each time. You will need to shadow the child, monitoring his interactions and verbalizing what you see he wants, thereby heading off the brewing bite.

If the biting continues, the child should be removed from the action first, still in the room. Beyond that, the child gets removed from the room. And finally, he will need to be taken home, saying, “Children who bite may not go to school.” Then be sure to have no fun at home.

The next time you go to school, be sure to stop before you enter. Get down on the child’s level and clearly say, “If you need help, you ask Mommy or Teacher Susie. There is no biting.”(And please don’t put an “OK?” at the end of your sentence!)

For the sake of your feelings, it is a good idea to call the parent of the bitee to express an apology and asking for understanding as you help your child navigate this phase in his development. Believe me, one day the tables will be turned, and the victim’s mom will be calling you.

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals.  She is the award-winning author of the bestselling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show and Good Morning America and has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle and many more.  Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have five grandchildren, so far.

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