Yesterday while perusing my Facebook news feed, a mother from a parenting forum sought help from other mums regarding how she should respond to her child biting.
One mother advised she should bite the child back. This comment received 16 likes (at last count). There were at least another six or so more comments from other mums with the same advice.
I was surprised that this was the advice given to a mum by other mothers, and that so many mother’s had done the same with their children.
I know from my experience supporting families that this is quite an ineffective parenting style. So many parents use the same behaviour as their child as a way of disciplining them for doing that behaviour in the first place. In other words, they bite their child to discipline them for biting, they yell at their child for yelling, they pinch their child for pinching.
I always ask my families:
What message does this give your child about their behaviour?
Perhaps, a message that it is okay for me to bite another person but only when I’m telling them off. I would imagine a child would be very confused by this and not know when it is okay to bite and not okay to bite. But is there ever a situation where it is okay to bite another?
And, what message does this give to your child about you as a parent?
Perhaps, a message that mummy can cause me deliberate pain. I imagine it would be difficult for a child to process this message as it is contradicting to the role of their parent being to keep them safe from harm. Doesn’t this undermine their understanding of you as their protector?
Then it occurred to me…. Perhaps many parents (fathers as well as mothers) may not understand why children bite in the first place. Perhaps many parents don’t have a toolbox of strategies to use to respond to their child’s difficult behaviour.
I have found through my family assessments that many parents use a similar parenting style to their own parents (or they go the complete opposite of their parents). This ‘bite for a bite’ school of thought is an old fashioned technique based on the assumption that parents are teaching their children empathy i.e. “when you bite another person, it hurts. See, when Mummy bites you, it hurt’s doesn’t it?”.
In fact, I can recall not that long ago an older relative of mine telling me that this is how I should be responding to my toddler when he started biting me. I adamantly refused.
My experience working with families and children, tells me that there are a number of better strategies to teach a child empathy than through pain and contradiction parenting. And that there are more effective techniques in managing difficult behaviours than using the same behaviour as the child.
A number of mothers on the forum said they did this to their child and the behaviour stopped. That might be true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but the child may be learning to fear the parent’s disciplining rather than learning the underlining reason for not doing it. This may then lead to another behaviour coming to the forefront, such as hitting or pinching. Moreover, some people consider biting a child a form of abuse. This is likely dependent on the nature of the bite, but it hits home about how we have moved on in our society from this older style of parenting.
Given the amount of people who advised this mum to bite her child, I thought rather than respond to the comment on the Facebook feed, I would tackle the issue collectively by reaching out to as many parents as I can through my writing.
Here are my recommended Strategies for responding to your child biting:
- “Stop, I don’t like it”
A more effective way of responding to your child biting would be to raise your hand as a stop sign and say “Stop, I don’t like it”. Do this straight after the behaviour and do it in a clear voice. You don’t need to raise your voice, but you can speak with assertiveness to ensure that your child understands that their behaviour is not okay.
- “When you bite me, it hurts and makes me feel sad”
A more effective way to teach empathy is to use feelings rather than pain. When a child hits, bites and pinches they are often learning about what they can and cannot do in a social environment. If you hit them back, they will learn that hitting is okay. But expressing your hurt through feelings, your child learns how his behaviour impacts another. They learn that when they bite someone they make someone ‘feel sad’. Learning empathy in this way is such a pivotal part of a child’s emotional development. That is, your child will grow up to become an emotionally intelligent teenager, and maybe one day, an emotionally intelligent parent themselves.
- Give your child a soft toy or close facewasher to bite
Children don’t bite because they’re naughty or bad. Many children bite because they are teething and when they bite down on something it makes their gums feel better. If you think this is the case for your child, give them a soft toy, cold facewasher (cold temperature soothes the gums) or a teething toy to help. Otherwise there are other medicinal options such as Panadol (this may help bring their temperature down if they have a teething related temperature).
- Recognise the early signs and prevent the bite
Children bite for different reasons; over-excitement, tiredness, wanting a need met, frustration. My son ticked all these boxes. He often bit his dad and me after work when we had play time together. Often this time involved play wrestling with and ‘horseys’. Our son loved it. He loved it so much he started biting in excitement! He bit when I was busy doing jobs around the house or on the phone. He bit when he was frustrated. You get the idea. Anyway, we quickly learnt that these situations were times when he would bite more. We monitored him over a few days and learnt to recognise the early signs of biting (with our son they began as a niggle on the shoulder or grabbing our thigh). Then we met the need that he was asking to have met. Over-excitement – we wound him down (see below); tiredness – he went to bed; one-on-one time – we included him in our activity (see below), frustration – we helped him express it in other ways.
- Wind them down
Hand in hand with the above point is that when we learnt how to recognise the signs of biting, we would wind our son down. Often parents want to have fun play with their kids after work as they miss them so much. While this is important bonding time with your child, many parents forget to wind their child down. That is, the parent gets their child so excited, the child ends up expressing their excitement in an inappropriate way aka biting, hitting or pinching, and then they get into trouble. But actually, it is the parent who has wound them up in the first place. How unfair is that? We learnt very quickly that we needed to wind down our son during these times. After ten-fifteens minutes of wrestling time, we then transitioned him into reading a book or stacking his blocks.
- Remove them from the situation
This strategy is often used when a child bites another child. It is not time out. Rather, it is giving both children space to calm down. If you have children that bite one another, it is important to console the child who has been bitten, but not shame the child who has done the biting. This is a challenging situation for many parents, yet an all too common one. One way parents manage this is to cuddle the child who has been bitten then ask the other child to come over for a hug as well. Depending on their age, the child may be able to say sorry or show empathy by rubbing the bite mark on their sibling. As a parent it is your responsibility to ensure that the needs of both children are met i.e one is consoled and the other learns their behaviour is not okay, yet both children still feel equally loved.
- Teach your children how to respond to another child biting
Another strategy is to up-skill your children to respond in a socially acceptable way. Teaching them to use their feeling words (“When you bite me, I feel sad”) or by saying, “Stop, I don’t like it” is easy for children to grasp. If everyone around the child is responding consistently, this reinforces to the child that his/her behaviour is not okay and they are hurting people. The quicker they will learn to overcome their biting behaviour.
- Get the whole family on board
When we had family come over or a visit, I advised them that if my son bit them, how I wanted them to respond. They were clear from the get-go. This consistent response reinforced the same message that biting was not okay.
- Reconnect with your child
Some children bite, hit or pinch in order to get their parents to spend time with them. My son was starting to bite me when I was cooking tea or on the phone i.e. when my attention was away from him. This is not something I should punish him for – he just wants to be near his mummy. At the same time, I can’t tolerate the biting behaviour. So, I asked him to help me with getting the vegetables out of the fridge, and set up a chair near the bench so he could watch me chop the vegetables. I also made a conscious decision to make all my calls when he slept and used the time I had when he was awake, to play with him.
It is important to understand that as parents it is our responsibility to ensure our children feel safe and protected. So in summary, here are the key messages I want you to take away from this article:
- disciplining a child using the same behaviour as what they are being disciplined for is contradicting and confuses the child;
- using a harmful disciplining style may undermine a child’s attachment with the parent;
- using a harmful disciplining style may stop the behaviour but it doesn’t teach the child why it is not okay to do that behaviour, consequently they may pick up other behaviours such as hitting or pinching as the fundamental reason for not doing the behaviour is not learnt,
- using a harmful disciplining style may cause the child to fear being disciplined;
- it is not okay for a child to fear their parent; and
- be consistent in your approach by up skilling other children and family members.
What strategies have you used to curb your child’s biting behaviour?
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