Battling biters

It’s a common, frustrating and painful habit for some kids


Phyllis Nutkis

It's a gloomy Sunday evening and Dovid Friedman of Chicago is reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to his two children, 22-month-old Donny and 3-year-old Kivi. Each time Daddy gets to the end, the kids exclaim, "Again!"

Soon, the children decide they also want to eat through four strawberries, so everyone heads to the kitchen. In their rush to be first, the kids trip over each other, and Donny's cheek smacks into the edge of the door. He screams; Friedman picks him up, kisses him, gets an ice pack and in a few minutes, Donny is happily munching strawberries having completely forgotten the mishap.

The next morning, I drop by, see the bruise that now extends halfway across my grandson's cheek, and exclaim, "What happened to your face?"

Donny replies, "Kivi bite me."

My daughter, Shoshana, the kids' mother, sighs. "Actually, he was running and he crashed into the wall; but Kivi has bitten him so many times, that whenever he notices a bruise or a scrape, he just assumes that Kivi bit him."

While the situation is troubling to my daughter, it's not unusual, experts say. Since young children have limited communication skills, they may not be able to easily express strong emotions such as boredom, frustration or happiness. Combine this with a toddler's natural tendency to put everything in her mouth, and biting can easily result.

"For toddlers and young children, biting is a common behavior," says clinical psychologist Michele Nealon-Woods, assistant professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "Adults tend to see this as an aggressive act, but usually it's just a physical response to a burst of emotion."

Identify the triggers

It's not just other kids who are the targets; a child may bite a parent while putting up a fuss at naptime or bedtime, for example.

"Some biting incidents can be avoided by identifying what triggers them," says Nealon-Woods.

Just like other negative behaviors, biting is more likely to happen when children are tired, hungry or not feeling well. At these times, offering quiet activities, separating children, providing structure and keeping an extra eye and ear out for developing problems may be helpful.

But a bite can occur suddenly, without warning, even when children appear to be playing happily.

"That's why we sometimes have parents report that their children bite even when they don't seem angry or upset," Nealon-Woods says. Some kids even bite themselves on the hand or arm when they're excited. "A parent might be playing with her child, and the child gives the mother a big hug and then suddenly bites her on the shoulder."

When she was 2½, Rachel Zimmerman's daughter Devorah, now 4, was roughhousing with her father. Without warning, she bit him on the leg. He let out a yelp, and Devorah immediately burst into tears.

"She realized right away what she'd done," says Zimmerman of Chicago. "It was obvious that she wasn't trying to hurt him; she was just excited."

As children mature, gain self-control and develop more language skills, most outgrow their tendency to bite, generally by age 3 or so. If the biting is still occurring at age 3½ or 4, Skokie pediatrician Dr. Cathy Divincenzo says, it's probably time to seek outside help. Your family doctor or pediatrician, or your child's school, should be able to offer suggestions appropriate professionals or other resources.

Controlling the behavior

Biting may be developmentally normal, but it can't be ignored. There's the potential for serious injury to the one who's been bitten-usually another child-as well as the likelihood that a child who bites may be thought of by others-usually the parents of the bitten children-as a "bad" kid.

There are things parents can do to help control the problem. For example, Nealon-Woods suggests providing a bib or a squishy toy the child can bite on in an emotionally intense moment.

If the child bites someone else, she recommends a calm but immediate response. "The child needs to see what he's done, but it's the child who has been bitten who should get the parent's attention at that moment," she says.

Generally that means taking the victim and leaving the room, which teaches the biting child that biting doesn't automatically mean extra parental attention.

Any discussion following the biting should be brief, but can still help the biter understand the effects of his actions. This is also the time to model more appropriate behavior, says Nealon-Woods. "You can say to your child things like, 'I know you're angry,' and teach children the vocabulary they can use in order to express themselves with words."

Some children may need a further consequence. Divincenzo says a time-out after every biting incident is often the best way to curb this behavior. But whatever you do, make sure you do it right away, Nealon-Woods says. "You can't say to a 2- or 3-year-old, 'Wait till your father gets home,' for example," she explains. By that time-or even just an hour after the incident-the child is likely to have, at best, a hazy memory of the episode, and any discussion or punishment at that point isn't likely to be effective.

No biting

Some parents opt to respond to a child's biting by biting the child-gently, but enough to cause some discomfort. They reason that a child may not understand biting hurts, and this is a very effective way to show her. "If we're trying to teach the child that biting is wrong because it hurts, then biting the child sends a confusing message," says Nealon-Woods. "It just reinforces the child's belief that this [biting] is how we solve the problem."

Nothing seemed to stop Zimmerman's son, Ezzy, 2½, from biting his 4-year-old sister. "I talked to him about it each time, but I really think he was just too young to understand any explanations," Rachel says.

One day, following yet another biting incident, she took Ezzy into the kitchen and put a drop of dish detergent on his tongue. "I only left it there for a second, and then I rinsed his mouth out with water right away," she says. Ezzy's biting became much less frequent afterwards.

Don't despair

It's important to remember that the child who is bitten may need more than just a comforting hug. "With any bite that breaks the skin, there's a potential for infection," Divincenzo says, "especially when the bite is on the hand."

She advises washing the wound with soap and water and applying an over-the-counter antibiotic cream or ointment. It may take a week or so for the injury to heal; during that time, as with any cut, parents should contact their child's doctor if they notice signs of infection, such as increased redness, swelling or tenderness.

And comfort yourself with the knowledge that, most likely, this is just another childhood phase. Both Friedman and Zimmerman report that both their sons have been "bite-free" for several months.

Bites away from home

Preschool classrooms are a common setting for biting. At the early Childhood Education Center at Concordia University in River Forest, Director Doris Knuth says biting rarely is a recurring problem, but when it is, a meeting with the child's parents is arranged. "[U]sually, if the biting is happening here at school, it's happening in other settings as well, and the child needs to have consistent responses everywhere," she says.

Carla Young, principal of the Nursery School and Kindergarten at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, says parents need to be involved if biting becomes serious. "We don't necessarily call the parents if there is a single incident."

If the biting continues, the child may be sent home for the day, and the parents will be asked to come in for a discussion. "If it's a serious, recurring problem, we may ask a social worker to come in also," says Young.

In the intensity of discussions about the child's behavior, parents' feelings often take a back seat. "It's very embarrassing to be the parent of a 'biter,' " says Knuth. "There's a common perception that children who bite are 'bad' children."

That's not true, she says, but parents don't always understand that. "When a child is bitten, we don't tell her parents who did it," she continues, "but the kids certainly talk about it, so by the next day, everyone knows."

To correct misinformation about biting, the school sometimes provides handouts or articles. Nealon-Woods says the director of her child's daycare center sent home a brochure about toddlers and biting, with helpful advice for parents-for example, if you play "This little piggy," don't bite their piggies.

"The more information that parents have, and the more educated they are about kids and biting, the more likely they are to understand it," she says.

It's really no different than having a child who has head lice, Nealon-Woods says.

"You feel embarrassed if it's your child, but it doesn't mean you're a bad parent, or that your child is a bad kid."

Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher living in Skokie. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.

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