What To Do When Your Child Is A Biter: A Child Therapist Weighs In

Biting is a behavior that some toddlers seem to manifest, while others don’t. Why does this happen? The answer is not so simple. Child & Adolescent Therapist, Laura McLaughlin shares her strategies for managing a biter.

Angry toddler trying to bite mom

If there were one behavior that parents most commonly wish their child would avoid, it’s biting. Not many things will get your child left out of play dates or booted from school or extracurricular activities faster than biting. Unfortunately, many parents are all too familiar with the sting that comes from effects of having a child that bites others. It often leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy- both for the child and the parent.

Biting is a behavior that some toddlers seem to manifest, and others not. Why is this the case? The answer is not so simple. 

Based on experience from my practice as a play therapist, I have come to see that children fall somewhere between two ends of a behavioral spectrum when they are feeling hurt, sad, or angry: those that curl up into a ball and hide in their room, and those that make themselves known by the tornado of destruction in their wake. Children that bite typically fall in the latter category, and biting can sometimes accompany its other friends: hitting, scratching, and kicking. 

With consistent and firm limits, most children will outgrow biting behavior and abandon this technique after repeated experiences of biting not accomplishing their needs or earning them consequences they do not like. Some children may benefit from intervention with a behavioralist or play therapist if they appear to be doubling down on biting and not able to accept alternative methods of getting their needs met. 


How to Respond When Your Child Bites


Removal from the Environment


The initial step in responding to a child that is biting is to remove that child from the environment. Environment in this case refers to the current situation or space for which the child is occupying. This could be the playroom, dinner table, classroom at school, or any other environment. 

For this step to work, the child must be removed from the environment immediately and swooped up and carried to an alternative space to calm down, with a safe and calm adult staying with the child. Appropriate alternative spaces would include the child’s bedroom, sitting in the car with the child if you are away from home, or any other small or confined space. 

Make sure this area is void of items to be thrown or played with if possible, as the idea is that the removal from the environment is also acting as a consequence of removal from the fun activity or stimulation that caused the escalation of emotions that led to the biting behavior. The child is to remain in this space until their body is calm, and the adult is there to make sure the child is being safe and modeling appropriate self-calming behaviors such as deep breathing. Once the child is calm, the goal is to re-integrate the child back into the previous environment and the child gets another chance at making it right. 

If the biting continues after several times of removing to a quiet space to calm the body, the next limit can be implemented.


Natural Consequence and Loss of Priviledge


After a few attempts at removal and the biting occurs again, the next step up in intervention is a natural consequence or loss of priviledge. Natural consequence here refers to a consequence, either positive or negative, that would occur naturally based on behavior chosen by the child. Natural consequences should always have a clear connection to the behavior and can implemented immediately. 

Threatening to take away a sleepover that upcoming weekend for biting behavior at home on Thursday is not a natural consequence. Loss of the immediate playtime with younger sibling and spending 10 minutes of quiet time in their room to calm down would be an appropriate natural consequence. If biting occurs during a playdate, the natural consequence is loss of time playing with a friend at the park to sit in the car until they are calm or to end the playdate and go home. Once the child is home, typically no additional consequences are needed for the previous offense of biting that occurred at the park, because the natural consequence of losing park time as already been applied.

As appealing as they may be to parents, delayed consequences often do not work with children because they are unable to cognitively make the connection between a delayed consequence and their own antecedent behavior that earned them this consequence. The more immediate and clearly connected to the event as possible, the more successful the intervention will be. 

Another good reminder is that to a child, everything is big, so there is no need to think of a big or bad enough consequence. Usually ending the fun game or activity, or natural consequence of loss of attention from mom or dad to go spend quiet time in their room is enough.


Target Alternative Behaviors


The final intervention for when a child bites is to target alternative behaviors that help get the child’s need met in a much more appropriate manner. This step can only be successfully implemented once the child is calm and able to listen and comprehend verbal language. This is not to be done if the child is currently biting or has lost control of his or her physical body (if that’s the case, removal from the situation until the child is calm will be the most successful step).

Most children engage in biting when they are not feeling in control, are not receiving the attention they desire, or are feeling angry or rejected. As a parent, is it best if we can try to look beyond the biting and determine what the child is trying to achieve.

If you get the sense that the child is biting out of a need for attention, talking with the child about alternative ways of getting your attention can be helpful. If the behavior appears to be stemming from the child feeling a loss of control, using choice giving can be extremely effective. Giving the child control over choosing two appropriate choices (“You really wanted that toy, but Tony is using it now. You can choose to play with the truck or the ball”) helps the children feel they are in control, which in turn gives them the confidence that they do not need to resort to biting.

With practice of identifying alternative and positive ways of getting their needs met, most children will slowly begin to drop the tactic of biting in lieu of more appropriate and helpful methods. 

If there is one thing we know about childhood, it is that nothing lasts forever and there is constant change as the child passes through varying developmental phases. As scary and uncomfortable as it is to see your child bite another person, most children do outgrow this behavior if appropriate interventions are implemented consistently. The important part for parents is patience and empathy as your child works through these phases, and reaching out for additional support from a professional when these initial steps do not feel effective. 


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