By Guest Blogger Michelle Barson
My sweet, little baby boy is a hazard to others and while it doesn’t faze him it’s something I am forced to wear like a scarlet letter.
No mother wants their child to be hurt in any way, but I can tell you that worse than your child being hurt is being the parent of the child who inflicts it. It’s true. There is nothing more upsetting, depressing and utterly demoralizing than being told that your child hurt someone. Of all the pain that our toddlers can inflict upon one another the ultimate childhood offense is biting. Why? Because unlike hitting, kicking, and pushing it is most likely to cause the most amount of pain, often bleeds and presents the health hazard of infection when the skin is broken. Unfortunately, it’s also the offense that parents of non-biters just don’t understand.
Biting typically occurs between the ages of two to three and half and is frequent even though it continues to carry a social stigma among parents, said Angela Hicks, preschool director for Clemmons Moravian Preschool. In fact, she goes on to say, in a group of 20 two to three-year-old children there are, in her experience, two habitual biters.
This offense is so common, that Stephanie Forrest, M.D., a practicing pediatrician at Twin City Pediatrics in Clemmons, provides parents of biters with an answer from a fellow of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, and a professor of pediatrics, at the same university. I’ll reference this article regularly throughout, click here to read the full article.
The reason biting is so common among toddlers, according to Dr. Ireland and Stein, is that toddlers strive for autonomy and this autonomy, without full physical and mental ability to be autonomous, begins the process of learning to manage frustrations and anger, which for some children result in biting.
Dr. Ireland and Stein agree that most toddlers pass through a biting stage, but regardless of how commonplace it is this behavior in a group childcare setting may be stressful for parents and other child care individuals.
In my experience, my sons biting impacted my work, my social life (as well as his and his brothers) and my marriage.
I was constantly being pulled out of work due to my sons biting in preschool. By constantly, I mean it got to the point where it was daily. Not only was it embarrassing to deal with the childcare providers, but I had to explain my situation repeatedly to my manager. While my manager understood the issue, and was fantastic and supportive throughout, it didn’t take away the feeling I had of being an inadequate mother and employee. I was also no longer able to complete my work in an office setting, but rather forced to do it from home while also trying to parent toddler twins.
Our social lives were impacted because of where I could and could not take my son. If it was a new setting or one that wasn’t tightly controlled I lacked the ability to guarantee the safety of other children. Even on play dates with small groups of children and multiple mothers I was forced to hover over my child to avoid an incident.
My husband works twelve hours a day and often travels. I stay at home (and worked part-time) and am the primary caregiver for our twin boys. He wasn’t the one being removed from a work out class, from his office or having to explain to another parent how sorry he was for the pain his child inflicted. He just didn’t understand why I would cry over, from what he saw, as something toddlers just go through and then get over. He couldn’t feel the embarrassment or the shame that I felt. My son is a reflection of me, of us, but when I was the one with him all the time it felt as though I was failing him and failing in my job as stay-at-home mom. My husbands’ lack of empathy and inability (logistically) to support me during this time furthered my feelings of isolation and caused tension between us.
According to the American Psychological Association biting is a behavior that can be worked through. Actions must be taken to diminish the behavior overtime by introducing other coping mechanisms and creating the understanding that biting is not the best way to express frustrations. For Angela Hicks this means working with her teachers to recognize what the triggers for biting are with an individual child and then proactively working to avoid them so that the child stops biting. Often, Angela says, triggers for kids are frustration relating to communication, being unable to control themselves emotionally or upset about a change in routine (for instance, ending one activity and starting another) or something new being introduced into their world.
Ultimately, what worked for me, and my two-year-old son, was a multi-pronged approach.
Step One: I matched a behavioral action with a behavioral reaction. Specifically, I followed him around with a syringe of apple cider vinegar during play dates and at every attempt to bite he got a mouth full. This took us from multiple bites per day to just one. A huge success in my book.
Step Two: I removed him from his existing preschool that had a zero-biting policy (though not an official one) and found a preschool that wouldn’t remove my child each time be bit (thus rewarding him with the appearance of his mother), but rather would work with him (and me) to reduce and eliminate the behavior.
Step Three: I had his ears checked…AGAIN…and this time we found something. A huge blockage. The blockage not only prevented him from hearing for an estimated six months and was painful, but also caused language delays, which ultimately led me to step five.
Step Four: I had his hearing checked at Piedmont Ear Nose and Throat Associates in Winston after the object was removed to ensure that that my progression to step five made sense. (My son has excellent hearing as it turns out.)
Step Five: Weekly speech therapy.
Step Six: Giving him an option other than biting. This one sounds SO SIMPLE, yet I had never thought of it. His preschool teacher at Clemmons Moravian Preschool did. So, he and I started talking each day about not biting and instead putting our hand out and saying, “no, please stop”. His language wasn’t such that it was clear so the hand out was a big help specifically because most of his biting was done in defense of personal space.
Angela Hicks also shares that it can be equally important to reinforce good communication, especially with children who bite more frequently. The child should be praised if they express themselves in an appropriate manner in, especially in a situation that had resorted to biting in the past. (Example: I love how you told Sam no when he tried to take your truck. Good job using your words!) This will encourage the child to use their communication rather than resort to biting.
It’s been an emotional struggle for me, and my son, for nearly two years but I feel like we have the resources and the tools in place to be successful. I had to find a preschool that would partner with me and I had to take some proactive steps to help the progression, but it was worth it. I feel as though I shortened the time he would have been a habitual biter for and showed to others that I was not taking the situation lightly. At the end of the day, it is a stage. Your child will get over it, but for those amid the struggle it can be hard to find a sympathetic ear. Know you are not alone.
For families struggling with biting beyond age three a referral to a consultant should be considered.