It happens in the blink of an eye. Your toddler is playing happily with another child until you hear a scream. The other child is crying “he bit me” and your child is holding a toy and looking triumphant. This scene happens in churches, day care centers and homes every day. Biting is a typical toddler behavior. As a parent, you can help your child learn to better express his feelings and move past this stage.
Look for Triggers
As distressing as it is for everyone involved, biting is a natural way for a toddler to communicate strong emotions before his verbal skills develop. The first step to correcting this undesirable behavior is to figure out what causes it. Toddlers sometimes bite when they are overwhelmed, tired, frustrated or sad. If your toddler bites his playmates, watch to see if there is a cause. Often toddlers bite out of frustration or when something happens that they do not like. If you see this happening, try to step in and diffuse the situation with your words and actions before your toddler boils over into aggression.
Model Appropriate Behavior
You already know that your toddler will mimic the words he hears you using. He will also mimic your actions. If you or your older children solve problems by hitting or yelling, your toddler will adopt this aggressive behavior as his own. Model peaceful ways of solving conflict and your toddler will begin to do the same, even if he does not have the words yet. When your smaller children fight over a toy, step in and say, “you can ask for the toy, wait until he is finished or I can set a timer for you to share.” Do not expect toddlers to be able to “work it out themselves” at this age.
If your child bites, quickly remove him from the situation. You can say, “Biting hurts and we don’t hurt people. Come sit by me.” Do not bite your child back, or he will continue to think that biting is acceptable. If you want to demonstrate to your child that biting hurts, press his forearm against his upper teeth and tell him that is what biting feels like. Do this firmly but not angrily. This immediate response helps him to connect his action of biting to the consequence of having to sit out during playtime.
When to Seek Help
Biting is a distressing but typical developmental stage. Most toddlers stop biting when their verbal abilities improve and they are able to express themselves. If your child’s speech is delayed, he may need to learn other ways of expressing himself so that he can curb the biting. If your child bites or displays aggression multiple times per week for months at a time, ask your pediatrician for more advice. Your doctor may refer you to a child psychologist or behavior specialist.
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