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The Early Years: Why do kids bite?

If you have ever had your child bite either you or another child, you have undoubtedly asked yourself why.  Not all children go through a phase of biting, however, it is not uncommon either.  There are many reasons why children bite.  It is your job as a parent or caregiver to figure out which of these reasons best describes why your child is biting.  Once you have identified why they are biting you can better deal with the problem.

Biting can occur due to anger, frustration, or as a means of communicating a message. Young children often struggle to communicate verbally due to limited vocabulary.  Teething pain, having some type of physical need (hunger or fatigue), or simply exploring what it feels like to bite can be reasons.  Often children will experiment with biting after they have seen another child bite. Biting can even happen by accident.  A young child may be intending to give a kiss, yet decide to use his or her teeth. He or she may also want to try biting to see what kind of reaction results.  Believe it or not, the big reaction we as adults often have can actually encourage them to bite more!  The child may be thinking: "Wow, that really got mom's attention, I'll have to try that again next time I need her attention!"  A toddler may try biting to get your or another child's attention in order to initiate play.  He or she will need to learn that biting is not an acceptable way to play with friends.  

A parent or grandparent's response to a child's biting should depend on why a child is biting.  A child who bites instead of giving a kiss, needs to be reminded: Give kisses, no biting.  When a child bites a friend, tell your child: "I think you want to play with Bobby, let's all play with the blocks nicely.  Biting hurts our friends."  We want our children to know that biting is never okay.

Toddlers or children with limited vocabulary are the most likely to try biting.  We need to send a clear message that it is not okay, and show them with our words that we can get messages across without using our teeth!  If a child is teething and he or she begins biting, simply provide an appropriate teething toy to chew, instead of Mom or Dad's arm.  Redirecting can also work well with young children.  Give them another toy to play with instead of playing with the sibling or friend they were biting.

Whatever the reason for a child's biting, it is important as a parent or caregiver that you refrain from biting them back.  A young child is not capable of understanding that when Dad bites me it hurts, so if I bite my brother it must hurt him, too.

If a child is going through a biting phase, don't label him or her as a biter.  We do not want a child to live up to that expectation!  No matter how frustrating, remember that biting is normal developmental behavior. Observe your child carefully and figure out why he or she could be biting and try to intervene to prevent it from happening next time.  Children are constantly learning, they just need to learn that biting is not ok.  

Deb Archer is a licensed teacher, parent educator and the owner of Kickstart Preschool in Two Harbors.