Ask a Therapist
Q. Help! How Do I Get My Child to Stop Biting?
A. By Phyllis Tronrud, CMHC: It’s important to look at the patterns that lead to the biting to identify what’s behind the behavior and which type of approach will be most helpful.
Understand the Why
Possible driving factors:
- Attention seeking
- Sensory related issues
If underlying factors include anger and frustration, seek to understand where the anger and frustration are coming from. Acknowledging and validating your child’s emotions will help lower their defenses and increase their ability to communicate with you. Validating emotions can be effective even with toddlers. They may not have the verbal skills to communicate their emotions effectively, but they understand a lot.
If you notice the biting behavior is due to attention seeking, it is important to evaluate the type of attention you give your child. Negative attention is better than no attention in the eyes of a child. Making efforts to set aside time for healthy connection with children will help reduce the amount of negative attention-seeking behavior. Avoid showing an extreme reaction to the biting behavior, because this is also a form of attention to your child that will reinforce the behavior.
It’s important to discuss that the behavior is not acceptable, and do your best to communicate at the child’s level as to why. Biting back is not effective and only teaches your child it is okay to bite. We as adults are primary models for our children. They observe our behaviors and responses and learn from us how to behave or respond in similar situations.
If your child tends to chew on objects regardless of situation, it’s possible the biting behavior is caused by a sensory issue. If you think this is the case, consult your medical provider for confirmation. If sensory conditions are driving the biting behavior, you can find replacements that are appropriate for your child to chew on. There are specific “chew toys” created for those with sensory struggles. Occupational therapists are also very helpful when addressing sensory issues of all kinds.
Again, it is helpful to gain awareness of your child’s biting behavior and work on intervening when you notice the behavior pattern that leads to the biting. This insight will help in reducing and ultimately extinguishing the behavior. In addition, it is crucial to reinforce appropriate behavior when your child refrains from biting to encourage more positive behavior.
If your child bites another child, remember that consequences are always good to have, especially when children are old enough to communicate well. Remove the child from outside stimulus in order to de-escalate the situation. When the child is calm, talk with them about why biting is not okay.
For specific behaviors such as biting, parents should consistently use the same consequence. This helps the child become conditioned to the consequence, which helps deter the child from repeating the behavior.
A simple consequence is to have a “timeout” or “take a break” space/chair/location that is the same each time. The timeout period should be appropriate for the child’s age and developmental level. A good rule of thumb is 1 minute of timeout per year of the child’s age. After the timeout is an appropriate time to communicate about the behavior and why it is not okay.