When young children who are in the process of becoming verbal interact with each other, biting often occurs. At SEEC, we choose to look at biting holistically and consider the viewpoints of all the individuals involved. In a manner similar to looking closely at a painting or walking all the way around a sculpture to gain perspective, the educators at SEEC consider the viewpoints of both the bitten child and the biting child, as well as their caregivers. In this way, we are better able to discuss the situation and search for potential solutions.
While it is a perfectly normal behavior, biting brings with it a cloud of complexity because the caregivers of both children often have strong reactions to the biting.
Parent of the Bitten Child
When a caregiver hears that their child was bitten, their first thought is typically, “My poor baby!” They are overwhelmed with the natural instinct to protect their child and are worried that they failed to do so. Moreover, biting is seen as terrible offense to most adults. If I was walking down the street and someone bit me, I would be quick to call the police. When adults are confronted by the physical evidence of the bite, their emotions are heightened and they feel naturally protective.
“OUCH!” is the first thing that goes through a child’s mind as they are bitten. They immediately need comfort from an adult. In my classroom, we would pick up the child or give them a hug. We would also offer a special ice pack to the bitten area. These special ice packs are infrequently and selectively given out and are consequently highly sought after – the ice pack soothes their discomfort and at the same time, gets them excited for a treat, which helps them move past the incident.
After the initial shock, young children begin to process being bitten, which is different from the way an adult would. Children are beginning to learn about their world and how people respond to them. Being bitten is actually a learning opportunity that helps them better understand social interactions. The bitten child may learn that grabbing a toy out of their friend’s hand upsets them or, that climbing on top of another child is potentially scary and painful. The bitten child begins to understand that his/her actions impact others and when others are hurt or upset, they make act out.
Parent of the Biting Child
Parents of children who are biting may feel confused and wonder why their sweet child would hurt another child. If the child continues to bite, the parents often feel guilty and begin questioning their parenting abilities and even their own child. As an educator, I have worked with caregivers on both sides of the issue and I notice that the experience is much harder for the caregiver/s of the biting child and work to reassure them that biting, in very young children, is normal and natural. I have found it useful to talk about how the child is biting to communicate their needs. I will often point out that biting can be an immensely effective way to communicate for children who are not yet able to talk efficiently.
For young children who are preverbal or are in the process of becoming verbal, biting is a way to communicate their wants and needs to others. Young children bite for a variety of reasons, some of which may be because they are excited, frustrated, angry, overstimulated, or scared. Children do not bite because they are mean or bad. Biting occurs because young children are trying to navigate the world and they lack both the communication skills and the impulse control to handle situations in grown-up ways.
In my class, when a child bites, we treat everyone in the situation individually. We immediately comfort and support the child who has been bitten. We explain to the child who bit that biting hurts other people’s bodies. We look closely at the situation and ask ourselves questions about what we as adults can do to prevent future bites. We also talk to the child’s family to get additional perspectives and gain a better understanding of the child’s experiences at home. We then will work together to come up with a plan. Sometimes our plans take longer than we would like, so we have to wait for the children to develop the appropriate communication skills and impulse control, but we keep evaluating, thinking, and working with the children and families.