Dear Miss Faith,
I have an intense, energetic little boy who is almost 3. I just don’t know what to do when we are playing with other children and he pushes a child down repeatedly, or bites or hits. It often co-incides with being hungry, thirsty, tired or needing a diaper change, but I usually try to be pro-active about those things and am surprised when my first sign is him being rough with other children. I usually remove him from the situation, telling him that we have to be gentle with other children. After the physical need is taken care of, he usually wants to go give the child a “gentle hug”. We also visit with friends who have older children but sometimes he bites them. In these cases, I think he is over-excited. (…hmmm am I making excuses or accurate observations…?) I find it alarming, discouraging and embarassing that my child hurts other children. I am sure it is linked more to his age and stage of development than anything else, but I would really appreciate any guidance that you could give me.
I completely understand how discouraging and embarassing it is to have your child bite, especially if it leaves marks, and I want to emphasize: it’s not a reflection of your parenting. Many children go through stages of biting at this age, and it is our spiritual task as caregivers and parents to be consistent and patient, especially with ourselves!
The first question that I ask myself with a biter is, what is the motivating feeling behind the action? Many children bite out of frustration, but it sounds like your son bites more out of excitement and/or over-stimulation. Does that sound accurate? If so, this is both good news and bad news: good because it’s much nicer to have an excess of enthusiasm, but bad news because it’s much harder to see it coming. Good for you for being on top of tiredness/hunger, etc. Here are some ideas I have:
Structure Breaks for Him
One way to help your son self-regulate and avoid becoming over-stimulated is to remove him from the action periodically, so that he can have regular out-breath time during the course of play. This can be especially helpful for children who are very intense, as they often won’t do it on their own. One way to do this is to have him come over to you and sit on your lap (or next to you if you have the baby) and eat a little snack. Otherwise a little snuggling or massage can be nice (long, firm strokes down arms, body and legs can be very grounding), or have him come over to ‘help’ you with something, in the kitchen, getting something for the baby, etc. If he’s having a great time he may resist, but once you guys get in the rhythm of doing it, it will be easier. Just remember: it’s much better to remove him BEFORE he gets rough! One way you might do it: Have a song to call him over. Allow a moment for him to come over on his own, then walk over to him and take his hand. As you walk back to your spot, you’re saying, “Wow! You’re having such a fun time! What are you and Eric doing together?” then, “Really? That sounds really fun! What will you do after our break?” How often these breaks need to happen depends on your child and how stimulated he is, but I’d suggest every 15 minutes as a starting point. Going potty is also a great break, and a slightly larger one which can be very calming. Also, consider shorter play-dates so you can end things on a positive note.
Help Him Step Back
Another thing to do is to help him learn to regulate himself during play by stepping back a little bit. One way that I do this is: when I start getting that slightly nervous feeling that something might go wrong (or just periodically during the play) I’ll go stand or squat next to the child and simply talk about what’s going on. “Look! Justin is digging a big hole. It’s sure deep, isn’t it? Oh! Julie’s putting some sand into his hole. Justin doesn’t like that at all.” This helps him take a mental step back from being IN the action, to watching the action, and he can calm down a little. This action sometimes feels awkward, but it can be really helpful for toddlers as they learn the ropes of social interaction.
Help Him Join In the Play
Sometimes children bite older kids because they want to join the play but they don’t know how to incorporate themselves gracefully. I had one little boy in my classroom who did this regularly: he would play on his own, then he would notice the other children playing, he’d watch them for awhile, and then he’d jump in and hurt someone. With him, I found that putting words to what was going on was helpful. I’d see him watching and I’d say, “You’re watching!” I’d wait a few minutes, then I’d suggest a way for him to incorporate himself into their play: “They’re playing that they’re a family. Why don’t you bring them some milk for their kitty?” or, “Why don’t you find a bucket and dig next to Michael?”
Finally, you might have something that he can do when he gets really excited INSTEAD of biting. I’ve had mixed success with this one, as I think nothing can really be as satisfying as chomping down, but with a few children it’s worked really well. This might be something else he could bite: “Wow, you’re really excited! Here, bite this apple!” (a whole apple has a satisfying crunch). Or, it might be a special ball that you bring with you everywhere, and when he’s excited, he throws it as hard as he can and runs after it. These activities can be useful if he’s biting because he doesn’t know what do with all of his excitement, rather than being over-stimulated.
Anyways, these are a few ideas to get you started. If he is biting more because of social frustration, I have some ideas around that as well, so let me know if that would be helpful. And most of all, good luck! The good news is, most children are done with biting by three and a half, although it can come back in spurts during times of stress or before developmental leaps. If you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to write back.
Warmly, ~Miss Faith