BITING IN DAYCARE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
BITING IN DAYCARE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can we help our 22-month-old granddaughter stop biting other children at day care? I know she is frustrated and needs help dealing with anger, as her daddy and aunts and uncles have.

A. Biting is a common and usually normal behavior in 22-month-olds. You compare the child to her father, aunts and uncles. At that age, did they bite? Presumably they also have trouble managing their anger as adults. Herein lies part of the problem.

As far as we know, biting in a 2-year-old doesn’t predict anger control problems later in life. Yet to many adults, biting is a serious problem and an ominous sign for the future. Parents and teachers who see biting this way may tend to overreact, unintentionally reinforcing the biting.

The child, who can’t understand what all the fuss is about, is bound to bite again – to see if the same thing happens again, and to get more information about what the frantic responses could mean.

The child may discover that biting confers a great deal of power: One little nip and a whole classroom can be catapulted into pandemonium. How exciting! Let’s try that again.

Harsh, repeated punishments may lead the child to conclude she is “bad.” This feeling can become another reason for more biting. A child who loses hope in her ability to change will not be motivated to try to get herself under control. She’ll continue what everyone now expects her to do – and keep on biting.

A clear but low-key response will help. Calmly separate the children. The bitten child may need adult comfort, but it’s important also to comfort the child who has bitten. She may be frightened by her own out-of-control feelings and by the other child’s screams. Reassure her you will stop her every time until she has learned to stop herself. Be sure she understands you know she’ll learn with time. Don’t think your efforts aren’t working just because you have to repeat them.

Why do young children bite? A pediatrician we know says that for children this age, “a bite is just the flip side of a kiss.” In the first year, babies will sometimes bite their mothers’ shoulders as if to say, “I love you so much I want to eat you up!” In the second year, when toddlers are interested in other toddlers but don’t yet know how to show it, they may bite as a bid to engage another child.

Sometimes young children bite when they are overstimulated. And sometimes they may bite out of anger. But at this age they don’t understand the connection between their action and its consequence – that a bite really hurts. That’s why some adults think the best disciplinary approach is gently to bite back. We can’t agree. Such a response throws a child’s understanding of adult caregivers’ roles into confusion.

All children this age need help with anger and frustration. They’re at the very beginning of learning how to handle these and other strong emotions. Perhaps you’re worried that this child needs help because she has been exposed to the behavior of adults in the family who continue to struggle with their anger.

If that’s the case, then the child’s biting may have a different meaning. Very young children are vulnerable to being traumatized by violent behavior of adults around them. They need help from mental health professionals trained to work with infants and toddlers. Check the websites of Zero to Three (zerotothree.org) and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) for more information, and ask the child’s pediatrician for a referral.

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.