Help!! The toddlers are biting!

Elsie Calitz

Teachers can tell hair raising as well as extremely funny stories about biting. One teacher related how one little boy bit another one in a place where no little boy wants to be bitten. Two immediate problems presented themselves after the initial emergency treatment. How to tell the parents and what to write in the accident book. Luckily in this case the mother was extremely philosophical and declared that she was very thankful her son did not bite another child in that place! The report problem was solved by a nice vague term like “ bitten beneath the belt”.

I do not think that there is one teacher of toddlers who can honestly say that biting has never happened in her group. I also believe that many teachers remember in horror and guilty, silent hysteria the case of the daymother that was taken to court because she bit a child who was biting another child, thankful that they bit softly (!) or thankful that they closed their eyes and counted to ten before they reacted.

Biting is not only a problem to teachers. A young mother phoned the Association’s office saying that her 11-month old son has been confined to his cot because he bites the other children. Of course this only made it worse because now the biter is even more frustrated and unhappy than before.

Why do children bite?

Biting occurs mostly in younger children in the toddler group. According to Elisabeth Hurlock in her book Child Development, toddlers are often frustrated and angry by curbs on their independence. They often become frustrated by their inability to do things and express themselves. They become angry and frustrated if other children or adults do not understand them or if they feel threatened. Since all of these reasons have to do with the emotional development it is a good idea to look at the characteristics of young children’s emotions.

  • Children’s emotions are brief. The line between crying and laughing, feeling sad and happy is extremely thin in young children. Their emotions are not only brief but also transitory.
  • Children’s emotions might be brief and transitory but they are intense. Young children’s emotional outbursts are often much more intense than that of an adult. It is interesting to note that all children, normal as well as children with emotional disturbances have these intense emotions. Normal children’s emotions are in contrast with the other group more happy than sad. Negative emotions in a disturbed child are more intense and also more frequent.
  • Children’s emotions occur frequently.
  • There is a great difference in the emotional responses of children. With adults fear and anger are expressed in such a way that all adults within the same culture would be able to recognise the emotion. With children it is different. Take fear for instance. Some children will run away or hide, others will stand rooted and cry. Some children will even laugh. We are often astounded at the lack of emotion when a young child has lost a loved one to death – the absence of emotion is often more alarming that an outburst, and often signify a much deeper trauma that that of the young child who is able to show emotion.
  • A child’s behaviour often says a lot about the emotional state of that child. Experienced teachers and caregivers are alerted to children’s emotions by observing their play and relations with other children. The teacher should however observe children and interpret behaviour on an individual base. Aggression in one child might indicate frustration, in another child aggression might be a sign of intense insecurity. According to Hurlock boys show more symptoms of emotionality than girls.

What does this tell us about biting and how to eliminate it? Toddlers do not have control over their emotions. One moment they might be playing quite peacefully, the next moment one might bite the other in a fit of frustration or have a monumental tantrum. The cries of anguish of the luckless victim are usually enough to end the attack. How to handle this?

  • In the toddler there is no knowledge of right and wrong. If confronted with a situation that threatens his or her security or pleasure such a child is swift to defend him or herself. Since the child of this age is not able to express his anger and frustration verbally he or she might resort to biting.

There is a strong link between biting and feeling threatened. This might be the reason why children in care centres are more prone to biting. We must always remember that toddlers need a one-to-one relationship with emotionally important adults in their environment. Being in care is already an emotionally traumatic experience because they must form bonds with other adults. Sometimes the toddler has to compete with other children for attention and this heightens the feeling of being threatened. Care centres with educationally sound programmes that allow enough individual time with every young child seldom have many incidences of biting.

  • When we have too many toddlers for the number of adults, or where there is a quick turnover of caregivers (there is a relation between these two conditions), the young children become very insecure and this can lead to a variety of emotional disturbances, of which biting can be one of them.
  • There is no quick fix for a biter. We have to look at the emotional atmosphere in the toddler group. The atmosphere should be calm and child centred. Routine and adherence to a programme provides these young children with familiarity and the feeling that they have some measure of control over their environment. At the same time the programme should acknowledge the unique needs of this group and not expect them to have the same programme as the older preschoolers. Reinsberg (1995:23) says:

Infant and toddler care requires caregivers not only to understand developmental issues but to continually struggle with who infants and toddlers are and why they must not be placed in watered-down preschool programs

Do not change the lay out of the playroom. The familiarity of furniture and toys in the same places provide an anchor for young children.

  • Security is the prime issue for young infants. In order to develop a sense of trust, they must feel secure (Reinsburg, 1995:23). The caregiver must be able to form meaningful relationships with the babies and toddlers. This cannot be stressed enough. Harsh discipline or shouting will increase toddlers’ fear and anxiety which in turn will lead to emotional outbursts and biting. Stability and continuity of staff is absolutely essential. The caregivers working with the babies and toddlers are substitute parents. They should be chosen for their ability to be a substitute mother and provide a warm supportive relationship to these children.
  • The parents and especially the mother need to be part of the solution. Making them feel guilty and branding their child as a scapegoat is not going to solve the problem. Mothers, who go out to work and leave their children in care, already feel guilty. Caregivers should not increase this guilt. Guilt is never a good incentive for change and co-operation. The parents should be helped to understand that their child needs tender, loving care within a structured programme at home. Babies and toddlers that have no eating, sleeping and bathing routine can have intense feelings of insecurity.
  • The caregiver should know her children well enough to see when a play situation could develop into a biting session. Prevention is always better than cure. Remove the child physically, draw his attention away to something else. Make sure that the children are physically comfortable. Children who are overtired or over stimulated might be frustrated more easily. Again it must be stressed that the caregiver should know her children. Her relationship with the mother and father should make it easy for parents to share information like stress at home or a late night which might precipitate anger, frustration, fear and biting.
  • Toddlers should not be expected to share toys and equipment. There should be enough toys for this group. It is one of the facts of life that children of this age are egocentric and selfish. It is a developmental phase, there is very little we can do about it except wait and observe for the child to develop into the next phase.
  • Biting is mostly related to the under two phase. How we react to children biting might in some cases prolong this phase. An insecure child that feels that he or she lacks attention might feel that negative attention is better than no attention. In this case the biter might continue biting since this ensures attention.
  • Isolation of 11-month or 18-month children is no answer. We only increase the feeling of desolation, insecurity and lack of love. The answer lies in small groups, warm emotionally satisfying relationships with an emotionally important adult and an child centred environment.

Positive and negative reinforcement

We have given no attention so far to the victim. Our reaction to the situation is going to determine the kind of reaction and long-term effects we can expect. The typical scenario is usually admonishing the biter and then comforting the bitten. This results in a situation where the biter gets attention before the victim. This is what we call negative reinforcement. As we explained earlier on, for a young child who feels neglected will accept any kind of attention.

If we comfort the victim first and ignore the biter, the latter gets no emotional satisfaction. If we keep in mind that the child who bites often feel neglected we must then make room to reinforce positive behaviour in this child. Thus we should give special attention to this child when he or she is calm. In this way we will over a period eliminate biting. Positive reinforcement is very successful also in cases of tantrums and anger outbursts.

Now we get to the difficult part, namely to tell the parents that their child has been bitten. Manning & Schindler in the July 1997 Young Children, says:

Imparting troubling information to parents about their children is one of the hardest tasks teachers face. As pre-school teachers and caregivers we were trained to work with children, we can plan their programme but no one ever taught us the skills of interviewing and discussion with parents. The human thing to do is to shift the blame, and who easier to blame than the child who cannot defend himself? We should try to explain to parents that biting is normal for the development phase. Everything possible is done to prevent it but accidents do happen. Of course if you know very well that the biting incident could have been prevented through changes in staff or programme, it is more difficult to explain this to parents.

It is equally difficult to tell a parent that her child was the biter. We tend to be much more unsympathetic with this parent than the parent of the victim. In truth, the biter’s parent probably needs more support. The victim’s parent is on the moral high ground; self-doubt and feelings of guilt besiege the biter’s parent. How we handle this situation is just as important as the previous one.

In the end we should always bear in mind that we are working with very young children. Their understanding of what is happening to them as well as their insight into circumstances threatening their security is limited. There should never be a situation where young children are blamed and identified as scapegoats. We are in a helping, caring profession and if we want to call ourselves professional people we have to handle the education and care of young children in a professional way.