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When Toddlers Attack

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OUCH! You’re playing with your toddler and out of nowhere, she chomps down on your arm. If you’re like me, you probably let out a scream (every single time, I let out a scream, even though I know better). Thrilled by your response, your toddler heads in for another taste.

Biting is remarkably common in toddlerhood. Kids bite for a variety of reasons:

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  • They bite because they want your attention (and because it makes you scream). That was really interesting the way you yelled when she chomped down on your arm, and she wonders what will happen when she does it again. It’s also a fast and easy way to get you to stop talking on the phone/Facebooking/paying attention to her little brother.

  • They bite because they like to explore with their mouths. Toddlers under 18 months haven’t necessarily learned to discriminate edibles yet, and often explore with their mouths as much as they do with their hands.

  • They may bite because they are teething and it feels good. This is why your nipples get chewed on by your nursing toddler. You know this, yet you still scream every time, don’t you? Babies who bite tend to grow out if it quickly after mom says, “Ouch! That hurts,” a few times.

  • Sometimes they bite because they are frustrated and don’t yet have the greatest communication skills to tell you what’s bothering them. When a sibling or playmate steals the same thing for the fourth time in a row and your toddler doesn’t have the words to say, “Mine!” or “Give it back!” biting may be their next best option.

  • And some kids bite because they have underdeveloped social skills, and it’s their way of getting another child to interact with them. Sometimes repeated biting, especially in social situations, is just your toddler’s way of saying, “Hey, want to play?”

Look for sources of stress in your toddler’s life.

Because biting isn’t acceptable, no matter what the intention behind it is, a parent’s first job is trying to figure out why her child is biting. Then try one of these strategies to stop it:

Veteran parents of toddlers know that negative attention is just as good as positive attention in a toddler's eyes. So the trick to reducing attention-getting behaviors is to not give your toddler her payoff. Say, “No biting, that hurts,” in a calm, but firm voice. Then go back to what you were doing. Repeat as needed and give a consequence if you need to, but make sure the consequence does not include giving more attention.

When your toddler bites another child, the idea is the same. Tell them that biting hurts and it is not allowed, then turn your attention to the injured child.

Older toddlers with developing language skills can be taught to redirect the negative feelings associated with biting and use their words to communicate. Teach kids to voice their feelings: “You are mad that Mikey took your car. You are very angry! Tell Mikey, 'That’s my car!'”

Likewise, toddlers who are developing their social skills need to be taught more appropriate ways to make contact with other kids. Work with your child on saying "hi" and sharing her toys, and set up playdates that offer plenty of opportunities for positive interaction to teach and reteach social skills.

(Word of warning: If your child is a consistent biter, you will need to stay very close during play with other kids and be alert to signs that your child is about to bite so that you can head it off before it happens.)

Older toddlers who bite often do so to release tension. Look for sources of stress in your toddler’s life. Is she getting enough sleep? Is there a new baby at home? Has something in her environment changed? You may not be able to relieve the stress, but there are things you can do to help her relieve tension in a more appropriate way. Hand in Hand Parenting has an excellent piece on "Special Time" and "Staylistening," two techniques that are helpful in reducing tension in children who bite.

RELATED: The Emotional Needs of Toddlers

Sometimes children bite because chewing provides calming sensory input and it feels good. In a case like this, chewable toys and jewelry (chewelry) may provide an appropriate outlet for chewing that doesn’t include biting other people.

Have you had experience with a biting toddler? Share your experience with us.

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