Why Kids Bite and How to Help Them Stop

As strange as it may seem, biting actually is a normal response for young children that occurs in every culture among both boys and girls. Somewhere between the ages of 2 and 5, it’s not unusual to see children bite a playmate. However, understanding why children bite can help a parent deal with the behavior appropriately.

Young children are unable to verbally express themselves, so they use other means to communicate their frustrations. Much as we wish they could, we won’t hear children speak in adult terms: “I’m really frustrated by the recent change in our lives.” It just isn’t going to happen. Anytime a child acts out aggressively, parents can look to see what has changed – perhaps a move to a new house, or a new sibling in the home. Because kids do not know how to tell you they are upset, biting is one way to act out.

When you think about it, biting is fairly effective as a tool for self- expression. A child can generally count on a standard reaction from the person he or she bites. If you could hear a child’s thinking process, it might go something like this: “I’m mad at so-and-so. I want him to know I’m angry. I’ll bite him.” Generally, there is not a lot more thinking that precedes the action.

Observe Patterns
If you discover your child is biting a lot – maybe you hear about it from the school or friends, or see it occurring at home – the first step is to take on the role of an observational psychologist and chart your child’s behavior: when does the biting occur; who does it involve; what happens before biting. Over the period of a few days or a week, log any biting incidents and look for patterns of when, who or why he or she bites. Perhaps biting happens when your child wants something from someone, or maybe your child bites just one particular person.

Once you have discovered the pattern, it becomes easier to break the cycle and get the biting to stop. If the trigger involves a particular playmate, maybe your child needs a break from that playmate – maybe the personalities don’t mix. If the situation involves a specific toy your child wants, address that concern.

When a child bites, any disciplinary tactic you normally use is appropriate; for instance, time-out or the loss of a toy for a given period of time. If you have questions about how to best discipline your child, refer to reputable parenting books or online sources. The key is to help children understand the biting behavior is unacceptable.

Additionally, it is a good idea to try and talk to your child and help him find the words to express him feelings in the future rather than acting out via biting. Of course, this is not something that comes naturally to a child so it will require patience as you help guide your child into this new form of expression. As kids grow and mature, however, this learned skill becomes much easier to perform.

Regulate Routines
Along with identifying areas you can change, parents can ensure they are meeting kids’ basic needs, such as adequate sleep and a predictable schedule. Children like structure and want a set time for meals and bed. Another key is spending time with your children and giving them plenty of attention for the good things they do – not just pointing out their poor behavior.

Even parents who provide a supportive environment may have kids who bite; after all it is developmentally normal. If, however, the biting continues much beyond age 6 or 7, you may want to consult with your pediatrician or a child psychologist for additional help.

Although biting is normal behavior, it should never be tolerated or ignored. By taking the time to identify the frustrations and challenges in a child’s life, and appropriately disciplining children for poor behavior, parents are better able to take steps to help minimize and ultimately eliminate problem biting.

The Other Side of the Story
But what do you do if your child is the one who gets bitten? If your child is the victim of another child’s bad behavior, gently discuss the issue with the other parent with the intent of figuring out what led to the incident – as opposed to looking for an opportunity to blame or punish the other child. When handled in a non-confrontational manner, such discussions can teach parents a great deal about the things that make their child angry and how they respond to anger from others.

Nicolle Napier-Ionascu is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte.