NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
A TODDLER WHO BITES HIS MOTHER
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My 22-month-old son is delightful and energetic. However, he tends to bite me. This behavior began around 17 months and shows no signs of abating.
He doesn’t bite when he’s angry or frustrated; it’s mostly when we’re playing or when he’s excited. I’ve firmly said, “No!” – complaining of a boo-boo (which elicits a kiss from him) – and I’ve ignored the behavior completely (when possible).
He doesn’t bite his father, grandmother, day-care provider or other children. Also, much to his father’s chagrin, my son has been increasingly focused on me: Mama must read stories, give baths and prepare sippy cups. Are these behaviors connected?
A. For children this age, a bite is just a step away from a kiss.
For babies and young toddlers, love means feeling you are a part of each other. At 22 months, his sense of the two of you as separate has begun to emerge, but the awareness is tenuous and likely to confuse him. Biting you is a way of connecting.The focus on you helps balance his new drive to do everything “all by myself.” He also is beginning to recognize that when he is alone he is without you, and that he must share you – with his father.
The biting sounds like a display of affection and a bid to keep your attention. Clearly he can control his impulsive behavior with everyone else.
You are doing the right thing by saying, “Stop.That hurts. Would you like it if I bit you?”
Be sure that your tone and your expression match your words. It is important to be clear with a child this age that he has hurt you or that you are angry. Your reaction helps teach him about emotions and how his actions affect other people.
A friend or a relative may recommend that you bite the child in return. Please don’t. A parental bite will surprise and stop him at the moment. But the turnabout undermines your role as a model of predictability and trust.
I used to keep a list of parents with toddlers so they could get the kids together to learn about each other. Then I realized that some toddlers were hair-pullers, some were eye-scratchers, and some were biters.
So I suggested that parents pair their toddler with another who was up to the same behavior. When you put two biters together, sooner or later one bites the other. The victim looks astonished: “Why did you do that? It hurts!” And if he bites back, the first biter will ask the same question. Then both will stop biting and never do it again. They’ve understood their actions’ consequences.
Biting is normal in small children who are just learning to control themselves. So don’t worry. He will outgrow the biting. Meanwhile comfort him and love him – but if he bites, say, “I don’t like that. You can show me in other ways how you love me, and I’ll love you back.”
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.