Every child has its own temperament and expression. Some kids are calmer, others wilder. Some more eager to discover, others more reticent. Some are loud, some are quiet, and some are somewhere in between. Just as in all other areas, children express their expression of love or anger differently. They hug, cuddle and kiss or scream, stomp on the floor, roll around. Or they bite: out of anger or also out of affection.
Every child is different
Since 8 years I am in the subject of autonomy with children and since 7 years always one of my three children is in the phase, which is often called "defiance phase". I’ve already written a few times about why the term "defiance" is misleading. Each of my children and each child I know expresses their needs a little differently. There are different types: the child throwing himself on the floor, the stomping child, the biting child – but each one is also always individual. After I had a child who threw himself on the floor once, I also had a child who was especially loud and one who sometimes liked to bite.
biting is not due to parental failure
A biting child makes us as parents uncomfortable. Because quite often the child’s behavior is attributed to the parents. And even though we naturally have a lot of influence on our children through our style of upbringing, the temperament of the child is innate and varies only slightly over time. So when a child throws itself on the floor in anger in public, wildly flailing its arms and legs, or bites the leg of the next parent out of indignation, this has only a limited connection with us parents. We have not failed as parents, we have not "spoiled" our child just because he has a certain way of expressing his annoyance. The important thing now is to listen and look carefully to find out possible causes and remedies.
Why children bite
There are children who bite when teething and seem to get relief from rubbing their jaws against someone else’s body. Midwife Anja, for example, wrote about the biting breastfeeding children here. Other children bite out of positive or negative emotions: they are virtually flooded with their feelings, but the brain cannot yet respond to them the way we adults do, because it has not yet developed the right structures to do so. It can only react reflexively with very simple actions that even small children can perform, such as running away, hitting, biting. They can’t control the wave of emotions, and as toddlers, they can’t act any other way than they do. Toddlers do not bite with malicious intent and the thought of necessarily wanting to hurt another person. They bite out of inability and lack of alternative expression. Often they don’t understand our reaction and don’t know that they have hurt us – even when we say so. It is not uncommon for toddlers to laugh at the startled expression on the bitten parent’s face – because they do not know that the parent has just felt pain, but are just marveling at the unfamiliar grimace.
What NOT to do with a biting child
A biting baby or toddler does not bite with the intention of hurting the other person. The child is not yet able to empathize with the feelings of the other child. That’s why parenting methods such as "Bite back so that it realizes that it hurts" are not appropriate!" completely inappropriate. The child will not understand through the pain that he/she has also inflicted this pain on someone else. It only understands that pain is being inflicted on it by an attachment figure. Similarly, other painful parenting methods are inappropriate: children should not be beaten or emotionally hurt for biting. Nor should they be left alone or ostracized. All these "means of education" do not meet the needs of the child.
The loving way through the biting phase
The biting period is a phase that ends for many children when they are more articulate and good at communicating their emotional experience. The desire to bite out of love ends in the same way as biting out of frustration and anger. However, as parents we have to accompany our children on this way and help them through this – also for them difficult – time.
In being with other adults and especially with other children, it can sometimes be difficult to have a biting child. Here is a testimonial from a mother of a biting child. As a parent of a biting child, it is our job to protect others from injury. This means that we educate others about the stage, including naming the fact that our child just can’t do otherwise. It is often necessary to accompany the child closely during this time when playing with others at home or on the playground in order to intervene in biting situations or even prevent them. This is also important so that the child is not ostracized in the long term in a group in which he/she is more often active, which can lead to even more frustration.
Some children also go for alternatives and bite pillows or cuddly toys instead of skin. Others learn to reframe their behavior and instead of biting, punch a pillow or stomp on the floor. Teething children sometimes like to bite on violet roots in order to satisfy the need. For children, on the other hand, who use biting as an expression or. Using communication tools is important to engage in conversation with them and to understand and attend to their needs. Some children start talking comparatively late and use biting as an expression: they want to be taken in the arm and if we overlook this need, they bite the leg. They want something off the table that they can’t get to themselves, and bite the caregiver’s arm. Here it can be helpful to pay particular attention to the child’s signals and intervene at an early stage. Sometimes baby sign language can also be helpful, if the children do not speak yet, but can already form gestures for individual words. In this way they can better express their needs and are more likely to be understood.
The way through this stage is not to punish, imitate, or exclude the child. After perceiving, we need to understand the child’s need. The next step is to accept that this behavior is here now and will probably be with us for a while and not to be ashamed of it, because it says nothing about us as parents or about our child’s future development. It is a way of the child we accompany. It is important to find a gentle way* here, to tell the child again and again that biting hurts (but depending on age, do not necessarily expect understanding), not to punish him in the process by prohibiting contact, and to try to avoid possible biting situations. And for us parents, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that it is a phase and that we have to go through it together with our children.
*"gentle way" does not mean not to cry out in pain. It means being gentle in our thoughtful actions and not continuing to yell at the child after the initial reaction, biting back or locking them in another room.