NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN A 3-YEAR-OLD BITES HER TWIN
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. I am a stay-at-home mom of twin girls, age 3 and 1/2; a son, almost 2, and am expecting another little boy in March.
When my girls were around 2, one of them would bite the other. The roles were consistent: One was always the biter; the other was always the victim. I initially reacted the way most parents probably do, with scolding, time outs, etc. None of these responses was effective in stopping the behavior. It was especially distressing to me because of the unique, special relationship of our twins. They love each other so much and clearly demonstrate it all the time — I had a hard time seeing one hurt the other.
All of this biting began when I was trying to give them a little more independence. By age 2, I thought they needed to begin to learn to play and do some activities without me always right there. I set up a play area near the kitchen where they were close by me when I was doing other things. When I really determined to figure out what was going on, I spied on them and realized what was causing the biting.
My little victim is a big tease! She could quietly do something to pick on her sister (which I, in the next room, would be unaware of). Sister would object and try and get her to stop – but the pestering would continue.
With limited communication skills, the only way she could get it to stop was with a bite! Then I would come running when I heard the crying. I was able to explain, “You love your sister and don’t want her to be hurt. Look at the owie you gave her. When she does something naughty, you yell for mommy and I’ll help you. Be as loud as you want! That way mommy will know and I can come help you.”
This worked beautifully for our family. I was concerned it would turn the biter into a “tattletale.” But it didn’t. She only used her “yelling for mommy'” weapon when she really needed it. Soon their communication skills with each other advanced to the point where they only need my intervention on rare occasions. They remain best of friends, yet still have a healthy independence and enjoy playing with other kids, too.
A. Your letter shows how much you have learned about sibling relationships from your careful observation of your twins. First of all you’ve discovered that when, as a parent, you try to figure out who’s to blame, you’re usually wrong! Second, you saw how each twin was taking a different role in their relationship, yet how each had their turn at being victim and victimizer. Third, you saw how siblings handle their ambivalence about their own growing independence.
As you gave them more room to play on their own, they managed to draw you back in by attacking each other. And finally, you learned from your mistakes as a parent– the best way for any of us to learn. You saw that time outs and scolding weren’t working, and questioned your approach and what was really going on. Then you went back to really look again — observing children’s behavior is the only way to really understand them as individuals, and of course you couldn’t really figure out what to do until you did.
To your great credit, you avoided taking sides, and focused on strengthening their relationship. Your strategy of inviting the twin who bit when teased to come to you for help may actually have prevented either of the children from becoming tattletales. After all, a tattletale is not a child who innocently goes to an adult for help when she can’t defend herself against another child. A tattletale is a child who uses this situation in order to win special favors or a preferred role from an adult.
The way you treasured your children’s special closeness — so unique and precious in twins — was bound to keep you from reinforcing this child’s cries for help with unhealthy favoritism. You gave the biter know two very important messages: (1) that you trusted she could give her biting up and that you knew she wasn’t “bad” and (2) that she didn’t have to go on being a victim to her sister’s teasing. And by giving that child an alternative to biting, there was little incentive left for the teaser to tease her. Bravo!
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.
Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of 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 now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.