Why Do Children Bite? Is It Normal And How To Stop Them?

Written by Rohit Garoo Experience: 9 years
Last Updated on

Your five-year-old daughter’s friend complains to you that she has bitten him hard. This is not the first such complaint you received because her teacher has already alerted you about her biting habit.

A child biting someone is perhaps the worst way to express their feelings. Biting causes physical harm to the bitten person and leads to an awkward situation for parents.

But why do children bite, and how should parents react to it? MomJunction tells you the reasons for this behavior and helps you stop the habit in your child.

Why Do Children Bite?

Children often bite to communicate a feeling or test the cause and effect (1). However, once the child passes their toddlerhood, biting is not a socially acceptable way of expression. Here are the likely reasons why children bite (2):

  1. Anxiety or excitement: When young children are under pressure, they find it hard to think and respond appropriately. It leads to frustration, which may make them bite. For example, when a child is a part of a large playgroup, an activity causes so much flurry that it leads to anxiety and the child might bite another child sitting next to them.
  1. Anger: When a child feels that the situation is not under their control, then they may bite to express domination. For instance, if a sibling takes a toy and does not return, then the child may bite to express anger. A few children may develop the habit of biting, when they get what they wanted every time they bit.
  1. Dominance: A younger child may bite their elder sibling or other children in a group as a display of power and domination. A child may bite to gain command over the other person.
  1. Stress: A child may bite as a reaction to stress. Stress could be the result of pain and emotional distress. For example, when the child is separated from the parent and handed over to another person, the child may throw a tantrum and bite the caregiver.
  1. Experimental biting: It is more likely to be a cause in very young children, those who just passed out of toddlerhood. Young children may bite as a way to test the reaction of others. Biting as a way to explore the world is considered a regular part of development, but only among children below the age of three years (3).

In certain situations, biting could be due to other problems.

Can Biting Indicate An Underlying Problem?

Biting could point towards a problem when it occurs repeatedly and when the child displays other personality disorders:

  1. Autism: Repeated biting could be an early sign of autism or autistic spectrum disorders (4). But do not panic. There are several symptoms of autism and biting alone does not indicate the condition. Get your child checked by a child psychologist.
  1. Psychiatric disorders: Research suggests that finger and nail-biting could be pointers of mental disorders (5). In most cases, the child bites someone else, but some children bite themselves. Biting the fingers for a brief interval is okay and usually not a reason for worry. However, if self-biting is intense and causes wounds, then it could be due to a problem. For instance, the child with a habit of repeated nail and finger biting could be displaying signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  1. May spread the infection: An infection is a complication that may arise due to repeated biting by a child. If the child bites deep enough to come in contact with the blood of a person, then they risk catching pathogens and also transmitting the ones they have in their saliva (6). This increases the spread of pathogens such as bacteria, hepatitis virus, and HIV. Medical experts state that the probability of transmission of the pathogen through human bites is very low. Severe bites are unusual at daycares (7). Nevertheless, there is still a chance of transmission of pathogens.

A biting child can be perceived as problematic by those around them. No doubt, it hurts parents the most. Therefore, they would want to do anything to tackle such situations.

Child Biting: How Should Parents Respond?

If you received a complaint about your child biting others at their school or have yourself seen it, then here is what you can do (8):

  1. Separate the biting child from the bitten child. Create the distance between the two even if it is the first time your child bit. You do not want the child to get into a confrontation or go on a biting spree.
  1. Tell the child it is not okay to bite. Look into the eyes of the biting child and politely, yet firmly, state that you are not okay with what they did. Say words like “You must not bite. It is a bad thing to do.” or “Why did you hurt your sibling/friend? You should not bite since it hurts them.” You can also point at the wound of the bitten child and tell that they just hurt someone. Do not go overboard; once you sense the child seems to have realized their mistake, shift your attention to the bitten child.
  1. Take care of the bitten child. Express your apologies to the child and their parents for the actions of your child. If the biting episode happened in front of you, then separate the children, and pacify the bitten child. Acknowledge what happened was wrong. Use soothing words and comforting body language. If the bitten child is a sibling, then give them a hug and cuddle. Check the bite and clean it with soap; then apply an antiseptic liquid. If the skin broke and led to bleeding, then use first aid and take them to a doctor if necessary.

 

  1. Assure the complainant: If you have received a complaint about your child’s biting behavior from the school/childcare staff or a parent, then do not try to defend your child. Assure them that you find biting unacceptable and are trying to address the problem.
  1. Ask the child the reason for biting: Do not intimidate the child but ask relevant questions that let you get the most accurate information. Ask questions like, “What made you bite?” “Did you feel bad about something and that’s why you bit? Were you in pain?” Use short sentences and ask one question at a time to get as much information as possible.

These quick steps help you deal with the situation. While following these steps, you should also make sure you are not doing a few things.

What Should Parents Not Do When A Child Bites?

Keep your calm and avoid doing the following things (9):

  1. Do not slap or yell at the child: Hitting the child and scolding them will make them more upset and stressed. Remember, the biting child is as anxious as the child who just got bitten. Your shouts will increase their anxiety and act as a communication block. Only use short sentences to express your disapproval, and ask shorter questions that the child can answer in monosyllables.
  1. Do not drown the biting child with attention: The biting child may get so much criticism that they may feel being under a spotlight. It can make the child feel important after they just bit someone. Therefore, once you are done expressing your disapproval turn your attention towards the child that is bitten. A kid is more likely to feel guilty and not bite when they realize everyone ignores them after they bite.
  1. Do not defend your child. Some parents take the complaints on the child as a criticism of their parenting techniques. Remember that you do not become a bad parent the moment your child bites nor does it indicate that you have not taught good manners to your child. Therefore, apologize and acknowledge your child’s mistake without getting into an argument.

You may take certain measures to prevent the biting habit in the child.

How To Stop A Child From Biting?

Stopping a child from biting is all about conditioning the child’s behavior such that they do not rely on biting as a means to express their feelings. Here is what you can do:

  1. Teach the child that biting is bad. Explain to them that biting is unacceptable and makes them less likely to have new friends. Make them understand that biting will invite punishment from their teachers. Children learn from elders; therefore, never bite a child to make them feel how it hurts. If they see you biting, then they think that it is okay to bite someone.
  1. Discourage biting in all situations. Once your child is over three years old, discourage all types of biting, including biting their fingers or playfully biting their siblings. Be consistent in your reaction. If you do not mind the child biting their sibling but reprimand them for biting a classmate, then it will confuse the child.
  1. Create rules and policies: Make rules and childcare policies that discourage biting. For example, the child gets a five–minute timeout on biting someone. Do not scold or say anything sternly to the child when implementing the rule. Ask the child politely to have a timeout with no toys. Be consistent with the implementation of the rule.
  1. Observe the circumstances: If the child bites in some situations only, then observe the conditions under which they tend to bite. It is useful in childcare situations where there could be multiple triggers, and you would like to know what precisely instigated the child to bite. For instance, a child may bite when another child pulls their toy away or things get chaotic while playing the game.
  1. Give time for cool-downs: If overwhelming emotions is the reason behind biting, then give the child time and space to cool down. Take the child to a quieter room and ask them to sit silently for some time with you. It helps the child calm down enough to listen to you patiently.
  1. Provide an outlet for frustration and anger: Tell your child that the next time they feel frustrated, angry, or upset, they must approach you right away. If they are at a school or childcare, then they must see a teacher or caretaker.
  1. Keep playgroups small: Choose a playgroup where the numbers are low as it cuts down the chances of a child being overwhelmed. Start with small playgroups and gradually work towards larger groups thus giving the child time to adapt.
  1. Reinforce positive behavior: Finally, when you notice the child showing all the positive traits that deter biting, shower them with appreciation so that the behavior lasts with them forever.

If you feel that your child’s biting is not improving with your reinforcing positive behavior, then take them to a doctor.

So, the next time you ponder “why do children bite,” understand that this action may indicate an underlying suppressed emotion. They may be trying to express themselves through this socially unacceptable act. Communicating with your child and trying to find the root problem will help. Explain to them that there are other healthy ways to express their overwhelming emotions. Refrain from using any punishments and seek the help of a counselor if the action continues.

References

1. Responding to Your Child’s Bite; Vanderbilt University
2. Biting; University of Rochester
3. Biting Behavior in Children: Normal or Not?; Ohio State University
4. Early Warning Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
5. A. Ghanizadeh, Association of nail biting and psychiatric disorders in children and their parents in a psychiatrically referred sample of children; National Center for Biotechnology Information
6. Human bites – self-care; U.S. National Library of Medicine
7. Canadian Paediatric Society, Biting in child care: What are the risks?; National Center for Biotechnology Information
8. Biting in the Child Care Setting; California Childcare Health Program
9. B.M. Law, Biting questions; American Psychological Association

 

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Rohit Garoo is a writer-turned-editor with over 9 years of experience in content writing, editing, and content marketing. He did his bachelors in Science at St. Xavier's College, Hyderabad, and masters in Business Administration at Osmania University.

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