Why Do My Children Bite?by Sarah Hurst
There’s something about biting isn’t there? In comparison to every other shitty little thing your child could do to someone else, or have done to them...hitting, pushing, pinching, snatching, kicking... it’s all part and parcel of normal child development until someone bares their teeth and sinks them into the flesh of another little human. Suddenly, it feels like a child - the biter - has stepped outside the boundaries of an ‘inner circle’ and the ranks can quickly close in, removing their ‘space’ and any tolerance that came alongside it, because of their choice to bite.
If your child has ever been bitten, you’ll probably recognise some of the feelings of fury and reactions mentioned above. If your child has ever bitten another child, then you’ll likely be familiar with the feelings of guilt, shame and isolation that can come from the aftermath of an incident. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of understanding parents who ‘get it’, and have a good understanding of child development and behaviours to go alongside that.
If you have ever been in the vicinity of a biting incident involving young children, you’ll likely have come across 2 very big misconceptions:
- For the children who don’t bite - you can thank their parents for bringing them up not to partake in this behaviour (bullshit by the way)
- For the children who do bite - you can probably blame the parent for not dealing with it appropriately and nipping it in the bud (also bullshit)
Often, the offended party expect a consequence to the biting action which isn’t in line with age-appropriate ways to deal with small children and can actually make the situation worse - by shaming, embarrassing and drawing attention to the biting child...which, depending on the reason for the bite, can make a repeat offence more likely to occur.
I’ll pause here to confirm something, for the avoidance of doubt: IT IS NEVER OKAY TO BITE A CHILD WHO HAS BITTEN IN ORDER TO TEACH THEM A LESSON.
So this brings me to the point of this post - Why DO children bite??
- Excitement - yes, contrary to popular belief, biting isn’t always a product of aggression. Young children just don’t know how to display all of their emotions properly and finding a suitable outlet for a strong feeling can sometimes lead to some strange behaviours. Little ones can sometimes get SO excited by certain situations that they release those feelings by acting out physically...ever been given a hug too tightly? Been so happy you’ve squeezed someone until they or you might burst? An excited bite is just the same.
- Unable to express their feelings and emotions - this does link into the previous point, but obviously isn’t always just down to feelings of happiness and excitement. In fact, becoming aware of any new emotion and feeling can be strange for small children as they become more self-aware, and learning how to display those emotions is a massive learning curve. We know that many young children suck their thumb, use a dummy or nurse to regulate their emotions and also their breathing. Putting something into your mouth when you are small and attempting to cope with a situation is almost second nature.
- Lack of language - not having the skills to speak and let another person know how you are feeling can lead to frustrations. Never has it been truer that ‘actions speak louder than words’ than when we are talking about a young child who cannot articulate their feelings using language...or perhaps they can, but the person they are speaking to doesn’t understand the words. These situations can leave children feeling cornered or like a caged animal where they have little choice but to act impulsively in the moment. Remember, young children don’t yet have the skills to control certain impulses like older children and adults. They simply aren’t capable.
- Explore cause and effect - inquisitiveness is a well-known trait of many young children and quite simply, sometimes they just want to know “what will happen if...”....how much attention they then get for that action or the response that follows will likely determine how likely they are to give it a go again.
- Oral explorers - need for oral stimulation. Pretty much ALL babies explore objects using their mouth. The amount of nerve endings and the sensory information that is passed to their brain from feeling an object with their mouth is huge. It can help young children to make sense of the world around them. As children grow they learn to use their hands more when exploring, but some children still NEED the sensory feedback from and stimulation from exploring objects orally. For many young children, this can display as an intense need to relieve pressure in the mouth by biting down on something or chewing an object. To put it simply, most of the time they just can’t help it. The action of biting is almost as much of a reflex as scratching and itch.
- Teething or needing a sensory pressure - this links to the previous point. The pain and pressure from erupting teeth, or new teeth moving around in the gums can create an intense need to counterbalance the pressure by biting into something. Often teething can result in biting.
- Anxiety about change in routine or transitions - like nail-biting is often a symptom of worry or anxiety, as is chewing and biting into other objects...clothes, hair, their own arm/hand and even other children. Biting may be used as a coping strategy - whether the act itself makes them feel better, gives them a sense of control, or warns away others when they are feeling vulnerable.
- Attention - children love attention, and if they don’t feel they are getting enough of it for doing the right thing, you can bet that they will try to get it via other means. This is why the reaction to a bite can be a crucial way of managing the behaviour if you suspect attention seeking may be at play. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, most people do react in a more extreme way to biting, and other parents do expect an obvious consequence. Try to make sure you stay consistent in your behaviour management approach and don’t feel pressured into reacting differently for the benefit of others.
- Mark making - all children go through phases of making marks. Usually, this is using media such as pencils, paints, water, shaving foam etc ... sometimes their obsession can include making marks on the skin using nails, teeth or other objects. This isn’t born out of aggression, anxiety, excitement or anything other than a pure desire to notice the cause and effect of mark-making.
- Self-defence - the thing with biting is that it works whether you are big or small, and as far as revenge or self-defence goes, it is often successful. This is why a child who bites will often bite again...because it works.
- To gain control of a situation - as above, if a child cannot gain control through words, discussion or strength they will usually go for the one way which is quick and easy...biting hurts no matter how big or small you are and will often cause the victim of the bite to recoil or retreat and give in...whether this is giving the child some much-needed space by moving away or handing them a toy that they want to play with. It often ends with the desired result, and children are experts it noticing cause and effect.
As you will now see, the reasons for a child biting are vast and varied. If you come across a biting situation, please don’t judge negatively too quickly. It is likely that the child, and probably their caregiver, need a little extra support and understanding.