Dear CMP,

My son has recently returned to school after a long holiday and he has started biting his schoolmates over toys and territory. I’m trying my best to help him understand that biting is not correct, that he has to learn to share, and to express his frustration with his words. What can I do to help him?

Children usually bite to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need. Trying to figure out the underlying cause of the biting will often lead you to the best strategy to extinguish this normal, but undesirable behavior.

Child biting on a ball

The reasons toddlers bite might be several. First of all it can be caused by a lack of language skills. Biting is often a substitute for expressing not only frustration or anger, but excitement and happiness, even when they want to interact and play with someone. Being overwhelmed by sounds, light or activity level can be a catalyst too. Experimenting to see what will happen, being overly tired, teething and a need for oral stimulation can also be a trigger.

Take into consideration what was happening right before the bite. Who was bitten? Is it always the same child or a different child each time?

Keeping with the old saying, “…an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…”. Watch your child at play so you can begin to anticipate when a biting incident might occur. Reduce tension and shift your child’s attention by distracting him with books, toys, or conversation when he seems on the edge of biting. Offer suggestions on how to use his words if the biting trigger is related to sharing space, toys, or activities. Sharing is one of the most common triggers for biting. Reading children’s books about biting can offer opportunities to problem solve, talk, and make connections how others feel about being bit.

What to do after a bite has occurred? In a firm, matter of fact voice say, “No biting. Biting hurts.” Keep it short, simple, and clear. Comment on how the other child is feeling. Shift your focus and energy to the child who was bitten. Showing concern and sympathy for the child who was hurt models empathy. Many times a lot of attention is given to the child who is biting, thus reinforcing the biting behavior and encouraging it to continue.

Learning a new behavior, or stopping one takes time. Pay close attention during your child’s interactions and stay consistent. Repeating the mantra, “No biting. Biting hurts.” If your toddler continues to bite or the biting increases over time meeting with a child development specialist might be beneficial. They can help you identify a reason, and develop strategies tailored made for your child.