What To Do When Children Bite (Part 2)

IMG_3037Wait? There was a part 1?  Yes – on September 5, 2012.  I occasionally forget to finish my blog-thoughts.  Thanks to a reader for pushing me onward to part 2!

As our children grow, we hope to nurture them into assertive adults.  Children who act aggressively need support to temper that aggression.  Children who are victims need support to verbalize their needs and stand up for their rights for physical and emotional safety.

Here are some lessons I have learned from my mentors and wise educators about how to help:

  1. Refrain from judgment.  Instead, use language that helps children understand the complex feelings of everyone involved.
  2. Don’t teach while children are upset.  In the middle of the meltdown, it is not the time to chide anyone about the need for “gentle teeth” or “using our words.”  When emotions run high, the brain is in fight-or-flight mode, and cannot accommodate new information.  Those conversations are very important to have when a child is calm.  I initiate conversations about emotional regulation with groups of children over meals or during gathering time.  Our family discusses these things during our weekly family meetings.  Conversations about strong emotions might might sound like this: Do you know what I do when I’m angry?  Sometimes I feel like breaking things.  Instead, I like to kick pillows.  It feels good to let my energy out.  What do you do when you’re angry?
  3. Give language to the children involved.  Children need scripts to tell their peers how they feel.  Without our modeling, they lack the specific language tools to communicate their feelings.
  4. Keep in mind that the biting is only the outward expression of the inward need.  Until we help children learn different ways to get their needs met, they will continue to bite (or hit, kick, etc.).  For ideas on what could be going on inside the mind of the biter, check out this article.

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Consider this scenario: Two children are engaged in play.  One (Lucy) takes a toy from another (Max).  Out of anger and a strong need to have her toy returned, Max bites Lucy.  Lucy is crying.

Adult: “Lucy – you look sad.”
Lucy: “Max bit me!”
Adult: “Did you want him to bite you?”
Lucy: “No!”
Adult: “Tell him, ‘Don’t bite me!'”
Lucy: (to Max) “Don’t bite me!”
Max: “She took my block away!”
Adult: “That made you angry.  Biting hurts.  Let’s ask Lucy what would help.” (to Lucy) “What would help?”
Lucy: “Ice.”
Adult: (to Max) “Let’s go get Lucy some ice.”  (as the ice is being applied)  “Max, you can tell Lucy with words when you aren’t done with a toy, or you can ask me for help getting it back, but biting won’t work to get your toys back.  Biting hurts.”

Important features of this exchange:

1.  The children voice their needs, with support of the adult. The You look sad at the beginning serves as an invitation for Lucy to reflect on how she is feeling and verbalize it.

2.  There are no forced apologies, but children are invited to participate in the process of making amends.  Through participating in the restitution process (providing ice), they find that they have the power to mend a relationship when it has been broken.  The greatest phrase I ever learned for this process is, “What would be helpful?” (said to the wounded child).  With practice, children learn to identify their self-care needs.

3.  We reflect the child’s inner feelings with our language.  “That made you angry.”  “You look sad.”  — these phrases help a child begin to articulate how they feel inside.

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Consider a similar scenario with pre-verbal children.  15-month-old Emma is very happy to see her cousin, Danny.  She bites him on the arm.  This is common for Emma; biting when she is excited releases the strong emotions she feels as well as offers a point of physical contact with her cousin.  Danny is crying and hurt. 

Adult: (calmly, matter-of-factly) “Emma.  Look at Danny’s face.  He is crying.  You bit him with your teeth.  It hurt.  Danny, tell Emma, ‘No!’ [signaled with a hand sign for 'no']  Emma, if you want to say ‘Hi’ to Danny, hold out your arms so he knows you want a hug.”

Important features of this exchange:

1. Body language is important with pre-verbal children.  Positioning ourselves on the same level with the children and using hand gestures to communicate helps them find agency in a verbal world.

2.  This can appear to be a lot of language to use with children who don’t yet talk.  Keeping sentences short and pausing between thoughts can help children process what they are hearing.

3.  Often, children aren’t even aware of how their actions impacted another child.  Telling Emma that her teeth were responsible for Danny’s tears helps her connect her actions with the consequences.

Have your children experienced a “biting phase?”  (…as the biter or the bitten.)  What did you do?  Do you have thoughts to add?

Categories: Emotional Development, Guidance, Social Development, Tough Behaviors | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “What To Do When Children Bite (Part 2)

  1. Erika Cedillo

    Emily I have become a big fan of your blog, your posts are AWESOME! I have learned a lot and have gotten great ideas to use with my daughters. This posts spoke directly to me and I had to comment. Fernanda, my oldest, who is 5, has a bitting ‘issue’. It has been hard to identify the triggers but the two extremes you describe here have happened to us, being mad or extreme excitement. I wanted to share two things that have helped us. The first one is to use deep breathing to help her calm down when her feeling are going too high. She is starting to identify much better when she needs that and it works. A variation of the breathing is a yoga technique doing like fast clapping without actually touching hands (like venting) and make the “aaah” sound at the same time, ending with a deep breath. The second thing we’ve done is to be more verbal about our feelings (my husband and myself), sharing more how certain situations make us feel so she is more exposed to talk about it and see that it happens to all of us. Finally a resource, we found a book which is “No more hitting” by Maria Maysen about a monkey teaching a tigger his wonderful technique the “no-hitting-hula.”As parents we have lived the shameful moments when she has hurt her friends and one thing we’ve learned is that we have to eat our shame and understand that she needs support and guidance to understand her feelings, find where she feels them and have techniques to calm down.
    Thank you again for your great work. I’ve been very inspired by you. All the best!

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