It can be shocking to hear that your two year old has bitten another child – or to feel her teeth sinking into you. But the behaviour isn’t at all unusual. Most children have bitten someone at least once, as well as been on the receiving end of an unfriendly chomp. Sometimes small children bite when they can’t cope with a situation – when they’re overcome by fear, anger or frustration. They may bite because someone bit them. Or they may bite simply because they’re still teething (in which case you should give them something suitable to bite down on, such as a soother).
A major change, such as a new baby in the family or a new home, can also cause emotional upset that results in aggressive behaviour. And sometimes two year olds bite simply to gauge the effect it will have, because they’re excited or over-stimulated, or as a misplaced expression of love.
Still, knowing that biting is common doesn’t make it any easier when your two year old has bitten another child, or when your child has been bitten. Not only may you be upset to find out that she’s been biting, but other parents may be up in arms about the incident, and your child may no longer be welcome at nursery school or playgroup.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that children don’t want to attack others – they’d much rather play, explore and enjoy their friends. Understanding what’s behind biting is the first step to getting your child to stop.
What to do when your two year old bites another child
- Make sure both children are safe
First, separate the children and make sure they’re out of biting distance of each other.
- Stay calm, and don’t blame or punish
Though you may be tempted to impress upon your child the seriousness of her actions, harsh punishment can actually make young children more likely to lash out. Let her know the consequences of her actions: “Look, William’s crying because he’s hurt”.
- Help the victim
The child who’s been bitten needs your help. First you’ll need to check the damage, and maybe provide some medical attention along with plenty of warmth and caring.
- Talk about what happened
Once you’ve both calmed down, pick a quiet moment to ask your child, “What do you do when you want to play with Sophie’s doll?”, for example. Suggest an acceptable way to get what she wants, like asking an adult for help. Many two year olds bite once, get help with it, and never do it again.
How to prevent further biting
- Think about when and why your child bites
Is it at nursery school, when another child snatches away something she wants to play with? When other children are crowding her? Does she try to bite you when you’ve been feeding the new baby? Your child’s nursery school teacher may also have clues about what sets her off. After a while you’ll probably be able to predict when your child’s likely to lash out, and be ready to intervene.
- Watch your child closely
Warning signs such as crying, yelling, foot-stamping, and lunging often precede biting. If she’s been biting, watch her closely and step in before she does it again.
- Stop her before she bites again
If signs are pointing to a new round of biting, get physically close to your child and quickly and calmly stop her from sinking her teeth into her target. You might say something like, “I can’t let you hurt Lewis,” or “No, I don’t think I want those teeth any closer,” while you gently but firmly hold her forehead a few inches from your shoulder.
- Never bite your child back
Some parents think this drives home the point that biting is painful. But what it really does is show your child the wrong way to deal with aggression – that is, by becoming aggressive in return. Even a gentle bite from you can contribute to your child’s biting – so never bite your child, even in fun.
- Demystify biting
Talk about biting – but don’t preach – or play a simple game. Ask your child to tell you some foods she likes to bite. Or name everyday objects (a cake, a table, a dog, a banana) and ask her whether they’re OK to bite. You can get progressively sillier (a car, the vacuum cleaner, Daddy’s shoes) and both of you can laugh about it.
- Encourage your child to come to you when she’s upset
You may not always be able to be with her during her hardest times – when she’s at nursery school for example – but she needs to learn that she can ask you or another adult for help. Suggest that she come to you when she’s unhappy about something, and then give her your full attention when she does.
- Talk to your child’s teacher or childcare provider
First, try to find out more about the environment you’re leaving your child in. Does the teacher make an effort to intervene in aggressive behaviour, whether it’s biting, punching or constant teasing? You want to make sure you’re not leaving your child in the middle of a free-for-all where children must fend for themselves. If you’re satisfied that the teacher has the situation under control, ask how she deals with biting – veteran teachers and childcare providers often have a bag of inventive tricks for dealing with common behaviour problems that are worth trying out at home, too. This is also a chance to find out whether their responses to biting incidents are doing more harm than good.