What to do when a child is biting others…

What to do when a child is biting others… 150 150 Jane Evans

Photo by Paul Hanaoka 

Why is biting so bad?

I remember only too well picking my son up from pre-school and being told there had been a ‘biting incident!’ When we got home he showed me a clear bite mark on his arm.

Initially I was really upset but, as he seemed to be less so. I tried to follow his lead and treat it as I would any other event in his life. I took a deep breath. I switched into genuine curiosity about how he had felt, both emotionally and physically but without putting my own feelings on to him.

You see I am a former ‘biter’. I can clearly remember biting my older brother. I did it really well, sinking my teeth in and leaving painful bruising and clear teeth marks. I recall getting into BIG trouble and being confused by this. Because my brother often hit me hard, and when he got too close to me I flicked into protective mode. I had accidentally come across this as a way of retaliating. And it did seem to stop him in his tracks!

What’s really behind biting?

Rest assured biting is NO FLAW in a child’s character or their capacity to grow empathy for others. It is often linked to anxiety. Hard to pin it down to a reason, apart from overwhelm. Sometimes when children spend time together in Day Care settings, the biting incidents seem to come out of nowhere.  Therefore, it can be hard to detect what led up to it.

Often the child who is doing the biting is overly anxious, they easily become overwhelmed and reactive. In such a state of arousal, they repeatedly automatically flick into fight (in this case bite), flight, freeze of shut down.

The stress of telling parents and carers

Having worked as a childminder, in schools and pre-schools. I used to dread telling parents about biting as often there would be a big reaction. In reality is biting worse than hitting, kicking, snatching or pushing? All cause physical pain and emotional distress, but somehow biting seems more aggressive according to some imaginary scoring system.

I wonder if the strong feelings about biting are because it seems more ‘animal-like’. Also, because if the skin is broken, there is a potential risk of infection?

What is the most helpful thing to do for the child who has been bitten and for the child who is going through a ‘biting phase’?

Calm yourself as its emotional. Also, know that this IS temporary. The right responses and reactions will mean it passes! Don’t lose sight of the fact that VERY few people bite others as adults!

What to do with the child who has been bitten:

  1. Offer comfort but don’t assume they automatically want a cuddle. They may be in a state of shock and need time to feel safe enough to be held.
  2. Show compassionate curiosity about how it felt for them emotionally as well as physically. Go slowly, let them take the lead.
  3. Be compassionately curious about what was going on for the child who did the biting to build understanding and empathy.
  4. Ensure you don’t’ ‘sound off’ about it in front of other children or they may get scared
  5. As a parent/carer try to stay calm at pick up and at home.
  6. Assure your child you will chat with the adults at Day Care later to see what can be done to help them feel OK.
  7. Resist promising that it “won’t happen again.” No one wants it to, but it’s very hard to stop a child doing anything as they are quick and unpredictable.
  8. Try to remember that all children go through phases and recognise yours might bite, push kick or hit too!
What to do with the child who is going through a phase of biting (Whether you are the parent/carer/another professional in the setting):
  1. Once you have been told what they did, calm yourself down, take a breath as it may bring up big emotions for you.
  2. Remember they are a child with a very under developed brain.
  3. At a quiet time when you can be fully EMOTIONALLY available to your child. Not whilst driving or in bed before they go to sleep. Talk with them about how their day was, any scary or sad moments? Not with great expectations they can tell you but to show you care.
  4. “Jane said that you had a difficult day and there was some biting. I wonder what was going on for you. I heard it was Jack who was bitten, I wonder how that felt for him….sad, sore, scary? What do you think?”
  5. “Sometimes we get full of too many feelings, we get cross, or scared what could help us?” Make a plan with them for times like this; share it with Day Care and anyone who is present in your child’s life. (It will need repetition to become a new way of responding)
  6. Consequences won’t be helpful OR work. Neither will rewards or bribes.
  7. As a parent/carer/professional…It’s a long game of being curious about feelings, finding names for them. Exploring where we can feel them in our body. Also building empathy by thinking of others feelings.
  8. Remember you are doing your best; the staff are too, and most importantly, so is your child!
  9. Whatever your role, it’s tough. Get emotional support yourself. Someone who LISTENS to how it’s making you feel but holds back on ‘advice.’
  10. Your child will pass through this phase. Finding names for feelings, showing you have their back whatever, and using compassionate learning and curiosity will be your best tools.

Growing an understanding of how our brain and body can help us to get calm it essential. Check out my story book with simple exercises you can practice together. Little Meerkat’s Big Panic

It goes beautifully with TEDxBristol Talk on childhood anxiety

Jane Evans

Jane is a ‘learn the hard way’ person. She has learnt from her personal experiences and her direct work with people who have often been in really bad places emotionally, relationally, practically and sometimes professionally.

All stories by: Jane Evans

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