Thursday, January 22, 2009

How Can You Stop Your Toddler From Biting?

Photo (c) Zsolt Nyulaszi

It's something every parent of a toddler will deal with at some point in time-- BITING. It's scary and disturbing all at the same time. I know many parents are horrified when they get that call from the school, daycare or witness their child biting first hand at a playdate.

Chicago Parent Magazine contributor, Dr. Lisa Thornton, says many parents react in a way that actually supports the behavior instead of preventing it.

She says toddlers bite for many reasons. "Sometimes it’s to show aggression, but many times it’s something else. Many toddlers don’t have the language to express what they are feeling. Since they don’t have the words, some children may communicate by biting, hitting or shoving. Others may do it to get attention and still others bite when they’re tired, hungry or not feeling well. For the most part biting is a phase that usually passes by age 3 or so. But biting is very emotionally charged so even though it’s developmentally normal, it can’t be ignored."

How do parents respond? Dr Thornton says, "The first response from many parents when a child bites is to get very excited and yell. Some may even hit the child, but that’s exactly the wrong response. Hitting a child who bites is communicating that hitting, not biting, is the appropriate response to a frustrating situation.

The most effective way to help a child stop biting is by using immediate, unemotional intervention. It’s important to be unemotional because for some children getting attention from an adult (even if it’s negative attention like hitting or yelling) will reinforce their behavior. Speak calmly and keep language to a minimum. This isn’t the time to try to logically explain why biting is bad. Simply say "Biting hurts. No biting" and put the child in time out. The rule of thumb for time out is one minute per year of age, so a 2-year-old would be in time out for two minutes. After the time out, give your child some coping skills. For example, if your child was biting out of frustration give your child the words to match his emotions: "It makes you feel angry when Noah takes your toy. When you’re angry you cannot bite or touch another person, but here’s what you can do instead ..." This gives your child language and strategy for coping with negative emotions.

Try to find out why your child is biting. It may be helpful to keep a log of what happened right before the incident because you may see an opportunity to intervene before the child bites. On rare occasions biting is part of a developmental problem. These children may also drool, eat things that aren’t food or chew items. Talk to your pediatrician if you see this pattern."

Is there an end in sight for parents?? Dr. Thornton says, "It will stop one day. Biting can feel like a problem that will never end, but consistency is key and almost every child will eventually stop."

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. These are excerpts from Dr. Thornton's column in the September 2008 issue of Chicago Parent Magazine.

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