Ouch! Why do toddlers bite adults or other children, what steps can parents take, and when should you seek professional help?

What to do if your toddler is “bitey”
 There are ways to get to the bottom of your toddler’s biting habit.

While biting is not uncommon (at least for toddlers and pre-school children) it can be a major cause of concern, frustration, and embarrassment for parents. According to experts, the cause children bite stems from brain development and is seen as a powerful and necessary coping mechanism.

Fight or flight

Our brain is wired to act in a very specific way when threatened or under stress. Our nervous system basically has two modes: firing up and calming down. And, a big part of the firing up mode involves the fight or flight response. When our brain experiences threat or stress, chemicals will be released that give a “get out of here” or “fight for all you are worth” message to the rest of the body. Due to developmental reasons, we typically see this a lot with two and three-year-olds, in the form of biting, kicking or screaming. The part of the brain that regulates moods and behaviour is at this age still being formed. And the only real control a little one will have in a situation as described above, is to react on his impulses that tells him to fight, kick or bite.

Steps parents can take

This is no quick and easy task (seeing as though you are competing with powerful brain chemicals)

  • As far as possible, help your child by identifying and eliminating possible triggers that will upset him (ask the teacher to help here)
  • Calm first, talk second (a tip for yourself)
  • Guide your child through repetition towards healthy and acceptable coping mechanisms by modelling and engaging in fun role plays (be sure to do this when your child is calm and in a good mood).
  • Be consistent and clear about your (and the school’s) expectations and about more constructive options available to your child
  • A child who bites is already frustrated, so responding with anger will do neither of you any good
  • Help a child with a word to express what he is feeling; thereby validating his experience

When is biting not okay?

  • When your child experiences social difficulties as a result of his behaviour
  • If your child is in primary school already
  • When your child repetitively shows oppositional defiance
  • If your child struggles to calm down after being upset
  • If your child seems to hold a grudge for a long time
  • Should his temper start to get out of hand

If you have answered yes to more than one of the above questions it might be worth seeking professional help.

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