Biting is a common phase many toddlers go through. It does not mean that your toddler is going to have behavioural problems in the future or that you, as a parent, are doing something wrong. However, it is an important behaviour to address immediately when it starts to happen.
Understand the ‘why’?
First, it is important to understand the why. Understanding why your child is biting others will help inform the strategies that you use to address the biting.
You can start to figure out the ‘why’ by observing your child and taking note of what happened right before they bit. This is called the antecedent. You can even start to write down what happened right before the biting to see if you can try and find a common pattern.
In infants and babies, biting often stems from teething. In this situation, you might say “Ouch! Please don’t bite me!” As well as offer a tool to help relieve some of the pain associated with teething such as a teether.
Toddlers, however, often bite others when they become overwhelmed with emotion. Because toddlers are still learning to express themselves with language, acts of aggression such as biting can become the ‘go to’ when they are having difficulty using words to express their frustration or anger.
For example, they might use biting as a way to get something they want or in protest for being denied something they had requested. Perhaps they see another child playing with a toy they would like to use, and use biting as a means to get it. Or, perhaps your toddler bit you because they were not given the snack they had hoped for. In this situation, your response will be very different from the response given when the biting is associated with teething.
How to Respond
If your child has bitten you, another adult, or child it is important to give a consequence immediately. That way your child will connect their behaviour with the consequence.
- Start by removing your child from the wherever they are. As you are doing this you might say “We do not bite others” or “I cannot let you bite others.”
- Take your child to a quiet place away from where they were playing and away from other children. You might say “I can see you need some help staying in control of your body. We need to take a break here until you are ready to play with others without hurting them.”
- Keep language to a minimum. Short and simple is best! Your child may be very upset for having to leave a fun environment so overwhelming them with explanations and language will not be useful.
- Two or three minutes of time away from playing is usually sufficient as long as your child is calm and ready to join their peers again.
- As you prepare your child to rejoin their peers, remind them that they cannot bite or hurt others otherwise they will be removed again.
- Of course you also want to ensure that the person who was bitten is ok!
- Consistency is key!! Respond in this way each and every time your child bites another child.
In addition to teaching your child that biting is not ok, it is also important to teach a ‘replacement behaviour’ for the biting. Perhaps your child tends to bite others when they see a toy they want. Teaching them to say “my turn?” will provide another way for them to express themselves. Giving your child the language they need to communicate their feelings will help provide them with an alternative to aggressive behaviour.
Speaking with your child about how their biting hurts others is a great way to teach how their actions impact others. However, two year olds have a very difficult time with perspective taking. They don’t understand how their behaviour affects others very well. Therefore, consequences should be focused on them, as the biter. They will certainly be able to understand how their behaviour impacts them and what they want to do!
As the parent, don’t “bite back” as a way to try and teach them how it feels. It can be confusing for children to separate that they cannot bite but adults can. And it doesn’t provide any meaningful strategies for the child to use.
Implementing all of these strategies will help you toddler learn that acts of aggression towards others are unacceptable behaviours. As the parent, consistency is key! Don’t expect a change the first time you enforce a consequence. Stick with it and your child will begin to learn appropriate behaviours to express their frustration. If you continue to struggle, speaking with your pediatrician or a child psychologist are great places to access added support.
This post was authored by Lisa Curial, B.A., M.Ed., R. Psych. Lisa Curial is a Registered Psychologist living in Edmonton, Alberta. She has worked all over the province supporting school aged children. She is currently on maternity leave from her position with the Edmonton Public School Board where she works to support children in the school system.
Find her at [email protected] or @yegchildpsychologist
O’Donnell, L.M. (2018, June). Biting. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stop-biting.html
Loney, S. (2016, April 15). How to stop toddlers from biting. Retrieved from https://