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Your Child Today: Toddler

Breaking the Biting Habit

The year my daughter Carolyn turned 2, our family moved halfway across the state. It wasn't long before our formerly docile daughter bit another child. I recall the bite almost as vividly as I recall the move.

Although experts believe biting is common and parents should react calmly when their children bite, I admit my first impulse was not one of composure.

While biting is not acceptable, it is normal behavior for a 2-year-old, says Irene Blackford, clinical psychologist and mother of four. Toddlers often feel strong emotions, but haven't yet learned appropriate ways to express these feelings.

A frustrated toddler often expresses herself physically rather than verbally?by making faces, screaming, kicking or, in this case, biting.

Most children grow out of the inclination to bite as they gain more self-control and the ability to express their feelings in words. In a study published in Child Development (1996), researchers J.R. Brown and J. Dunn found that naming an emotion can help a child express it without aggression.

Our challenge as parents is to promote the positive expression of feelings. Children learn by imitating, so our own behavior can be a great teaching tool. Parents should try to express their own feelings through words, such as "Mommy's sad right now" or "I'm frustrated because I can't find my car keys."

As soon as you see your child bite or hear her playmate shriek from being bitten, Blackford suggests intervening and placing the biter in time-out (usually one minute per year of age is appropriate). This gives the child time to settle down and you the chance to sort through the situation.

Young children often fight over possessions, name calling or another child's physical aggression. Tailor your ultimate response to the interaction that triggered the bite. If frustration prompted it, give your child words to talk about his emotions. Say, "You're upset because Sarah took your toy." Provide many words to describe his feelings: sad, worried, annoyed.

Sometimes children bite for attention. If this happens, a longer time-out may be in order. Remember, however, that your child's need for attention is real. Spend some extra time with her later, so she doesn't associate the attention with the bite.

Provide examples of better ways to handle the situation: "If Jake takes your toy, see if you can find something else to play with" or "If you want me to look at something, tell me and take my hand."

Toddlers are accustomed to exploring with their mouths. Help your child differentiate between biting food and people.

If your child continues to bite, monitor his play, step in at the first sign of conflict and remove him from stressful situations?like being with too many kids for too long a time. When he plays with a group, provide plenty of toys?more than one of a favorite.

Discuss your child's biting tendency with anyone who will be supervising her.

If your child's inclination to bite lingers after age 3, experts suggest consulting a health professional.

?Faith Tibbetts McDonald
Writer, educator, mother of three

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