My child bites. What do I do?

Take some inspiration from parents who figured out what was making their children bite and managed to find a solution.

We’re playing on the carpet. We’re stacking blocks and having a great time. My toddler scoots over to me, going “vrooom,” and I open my arms. Come here, you sweet, sweet child. I pick him up, he lays his head on my shoulder… and I feel a sudden, sharp pain. He bit me!

With a cheerful grin, he chomped right down on my shoulder. And not softly, either! I cried out in pain and pushed him away from me. He stopped smiling, sat down, and burst out crying.

What a betrayal: I’m so good to you, and this is how you repay me?

That really caught me off guard. It hurt quite a bit. But it hurt my feelings even more. I always touch him gently, with plenty of hugs and kisses, and he pulls this on me? What did I do to deserve this?

I’ve heard that kids bite sometimes, but my child? I could hardly believe it. We’re always so nice to him! He’s happy, he’s healthy, he’s not teething, so what is this about?!

It wasn’t just one bite, either. He tried it again and again, smiling and laughing while he did it. And this is what started running through my head:

“He’s trying to get to me. He’s doing it deliberately. He enjoys doing something to me that I don’t like. How can I put a stop to it? I don’t want him to be mean to me. Or to others. What if he starts bullying the other kids at school? I’m his mom, and I’m responsible for how he treats others. I have to nip this in the bud right now. Fix it. Right away. But how?”

Yell, spank, just put up with it?

I’m sure spanking would do the trick, but it would be the first one we ever gave him. And how can we use violence to teach him that violence is wrong? What if he thinks that hitting must be okay if mommy does it too?

Yell at him? Well… I did spontaneously cry out in pain, but other than scaring him it didn’t seem to have much of an effect. In any case, I felt like yelling was basically a counterattack – protecting myself from his sharp teeth with sharp words.

All this would just confuse him.

But I can’t just let him bite me! What if he starts doing even worse things? Even if it were just some sort of developmental phase, I’m not just going to put up with it!

I couldn’t see my way out of this mess, but because so far my child had always had a reason for doing things, I found it hard to believe that he would do this just to be “mean.”

I let it go for the moment and revisited the issue later that night with a cool head. And I realized that my son had triggered a very sensitive topic for me without knowing it.

It’s not just the biting

I reacted so abruptly because of a few experiences from my childhood that I still found very painful. And he had stirred up that old pain when he bit me.

For example, I remember how a certain girl would wait for me on the way home from school sometimes. Then she would hit and kick me for no reason at all. I defended myself verbally, and when that didn’t help, I ran away. She chased me through the streets. Long afterwards I still felt a rush of helpless fear every time I approached the corner where that girl would sometimes lie in wait.

Maybe that seems like a totally different situation. But there’s a connection. Someone hurt me for no reason. And I do not want to experience that feeling of helplessness again. The little girl inside me wants to protect herself at any cost. Even against a little squirt I could take one-handed.

So I realized that my extreme reaction was not just about him.

I also remembered getting so caught up in playing Jedi as a little girl that I hit my cousin with a stick and caused such an uproar that I still feel bad about it 20 years later. And yet,

I’m not a bad person, and I didn’t mean to hurt him.

In short, I have my own baggage involving old wounds and wrongs done to me in this regard. I was surprised to find I hadn’t forgotten them. They’re still kicking around in there and going strong. So my son doesn’t even have to do anything particularly terrible to bring out this immediate fear in me about whether he’ll grow up to be a good person.

I thought long and hard about what to do. How to stop my son from biting without taking my own feelings out on him. I concluded that

  • first I need to get him to stop hurting me,
  • and then I need to find out why he does it. Not just to nip it in the bud, but to understand where it was coming from.

That’s the key to the whole biting issue for me. So I went about it gradually.

First I need to protect myself

That wasn’t a given for me at first. I wasn’t sure what was okay with me and what wasn’t, where I should draw the line. I needed to figure out: How do I feel when he bites me? Am I okay with it, so I can just let him do it? Can I pretend like it doesn’t bother me and wait for the phase to pass? Or does it make me grit my teeth in misery while I assure myself that it’s just a phase and I can get through it?

My stomach clenched, and I had my answer: I really don’t want anyone to do something that hurts me. Not my child or anyone else.

I don’t want to yell at him or speak more harshly than necessary to him because of this, but it is very important to me that it stop. And not just because I wasn’t able to protect myself when I was young.

Something else came to me then, too.

My child learns through imitation.

At 2 years old, my son uses my words and my tone of voice. He tries to do push-ups like Daddy, and when I’m sad, he rubs my back and gives me kisses. Just like I do to him. He puts his teddy bear to bed, rubs its back and whispers, “Night night…” And after spending a week at Grandma’s house, he giggles and shakes a warning finger at us.

He does whatever he sees grown-ups doing. When something spills, I wipe it up. When someone cries, I give them a hug. And when someone hurts me? What do I do then, Mom, huh?

When someone hurts him someday, he’ll respond in the way he’s learned from us.

So – how do I want him to respond?

Calmly, but firmly. I don’t want him to respond with guns blazing, yelling, or hurting that person back. But I also don’t want him to let anybody hurt him. Great. So that’s what I need to do next time he goes to bite me.

And why is he turning me into a chew toy, anyway?

Once I stopped reacting to every bite like a bull seeing red, I was able to pay attention to the details and connect the dots. I was able to do something else, too: figure out why he was doing it.

Over time I worked out why my son was biting me. Even though he went through several biting phases and each one for a different reason.

Sometimes he’s just goofing off …

We do a lot of rough-housing and physical play in our family. I often chase him around the house, grab him by the feet, throw him on the bed, and tickle him until he’s breathless with laughter. So it was only fair that he might get caught up in the game from time to time and bite me.

… I stopped looking at this as a personal attack and started showing him how to do it more gently.

Tickling and blowing “raspberries” on the skin get the same kind of explosive reaction, but then Mommy’s laughing, and it doesn’t ruin the fun. He was happy to learn new ways of being silly from us and soon forgot about biting.

Other times he’s testing what “ow” means

Some time after that he had a phase where he was testing what it means when someone says “Ow,” or “That hurts.” He wore a frown of concentration while he did it, like a scientist engaged in delicate research. Several times a day he would come up to me and try to bite me or pinch my arm. There was no malice in it. He was just curious. “Hurts,” he always concluded with a decisive nod.

“Yes, that hurts,” I would reply. “But I don’t like it when someone hurts me. I don’t want you to do that to me.”

Then he tried it on himself for a while. He would pinch his own arm and say, “Hm, hurts.” After about three weeks he was clear on what pain was, and moved on to practicing big words.

He bites when he gets mad

And, of course, sometimes he bit out of anger. A couple of times he got so mad he would have liked to bite me to pieces right on the spot. He grabbed my finger and pulled it towards his wide-open mouth with all his strength.

“No!” I cried out in all honesty, once I realized what he was trying to do. There was no time for explanations at that moment. I brought it up again later, when his anger had passed.

“I know that anger is a big thing, love. It’s fine to let it out, but don’t take it out on people. Even if you’re mad at them. Bite something that won’t get hurt, and then work it out with whoever you’re mad at.”

Maybe that sounds weird, saying something like that to a toddler. He was about 18 months old. But I was used to talking to him like he understood everything I said. That seemed better than automatically assuming he was too young to understand and not even trying to tell him things. I’m still blown away sometimes by how much he does understand.

Any time he tried to bite, I offered him an alternative target, like a teething ring. He wasn’t crazy about that idea, so eventually he lost interest in biting at all.

And that showed me that when he’s mad, he needs a way to let it out without hurting anyone. I know when I bottle it up, later I end up exploding over any little thing and feeling horrible.

Or he needs something (and I’m not hearing him)

But I also noticed that his anger and lashing out is often just the last straw, an overreaction to some minor snag I didn’t see before he lost it. That’s what happens when I stop listening and paying attention to him, just doing my own thing. Maybe because I’m tired or in a hurry. He needs something, but doesn’t know how to communicate it properly, and I talk over him and refuse to slow down and listen.

My head is somewhere else entirely, so I don’t even really look at him. So he steps on the gas. Starts acting out. Sometimes he even bites me. As if he wants to say, “Can you hear me now, Mom?”

Every child’s reasons can be different

I find it fascinating how many things I learned when I tried to understand why my son was biting. Once more confirmation for me of that “good old” Unparenting standard: Children always have reasons for what they do. Sometimes innocent reasons, other times incredibly painful ones. Sometimes ones we would never expect.

Here’s one this Unparenting mom wrote about:

My daughter launched herself at me today, let loose a bloodcurdling scream and bit me in the neck. And then on the arm. And then on the leg. If it weren’t for Unparenting I would probably have panicked that I was a bad mother, my baby would grow up a criminal and I must have made some terrible mistake somewhere.

But then I thought for a minute: Where could she have seen that? The answer was clear: My husband and I often pretend to “gobble her up.” And of course the bloodthirsty growls we make while doing it just get her giggling even more, so sometimes it’s a tiger, or falling into an eating machine.

So my not-quite-6-month-old baby simply wants to get in on the action! The more we squeal and beg her not to eat us, the more fun it is. If not for Unparenting, I might have missed out on this! And that would be a crying shame.

• Klara

Some parents figured out that their children bit in order to get attention. Or out of a desire to be close to mom:

For us it was about physical contact … He wanted more physical contact, but didn’t know how to ask for it. I offered to hold and cuddle him, and he stopped biting. Now whenever he bites, I tell him I’ll be glad to cuddle if he wants, but please ask for it without biting.

• Lenka

In short, biting can be a method of communication. When they can’t see any other.

Zuzana made this same realization in an amazing way. Her son was biting at preschool. That’s particularly tricky, because other people are involved. So hats off to Zuzana and her son for successfully navigating a difficult situation. Here’s their story:

…my younger son started biting other kids at preschool. I don’t know what to do about it. The first time he bit, I just explained that it hurts the other kids, and tried to get him to give a reason why he was biting kids. But the answer was simply NOTHING. The teachers at school described it pretty dramatically. He bit a little boy on the hand when the boy ran in front of him. A week later he bit again, a little girl this time…
(January 27)

I’m sure he has a reason for biting, but the trouble is he can’t tell me what it is. He doesn’t know how to tell me yet. When I ask him and we talk about it, he nods and agrees with everything… I’ll try what you suggested this time…
(January 28)

It went great! :) I had a talk with my son (it was kind of one-sided, since he isn’t talking much yet). Before I sat down with him, I thought a lot about the times that he bit people, and figured out why he did it. When we sat down together, I told him I understood why he was biting, and suggested a few things he might do instead.

He actually had several reasons for biting, like wanting to be first in line (so he bit the boy in front to get him to move). Or protecting his toys. He’s not talking all that much yet, so instead of trying to talk it out with kids and risk them not understanding him, he just bit them. It was the most efficient solution.

We practiced a few things he can say instead. Since then we’ve had no problems. Even at preschool they said they can see a difference. In both my boys, in fact. They said they can really communicate with my boys, that they are more imaginative and relaxed than before. That they’re cooperative and helpful. I can see how Unparenting works in “baby steps”. :) And my son is talking now more and more. I hope my experience proves helpful for other moms!
(February 26)

• Zuzana, (from the Unparenting course)

As you can see, there are many different possible reasons, and no two little ones will be the same. But mainly, none of them are hardened criminal types out to hurt people just for fun. They’re simply reacting to something going on. Or what they see around them. Or they need to ask for something. They can’t use their words, because they don’t know the right ones yet. So they try the “universal” language of biting. :)

But then Mom and Dad get nervous. They don’t have the right dictionary for this biting language. They don’t understand and worry that their child will grow up a troublemaker. Biting looks pretty bad on the surface. But my son taught me that it’s actually a unique opportunity

to understand your little one a bit more and help them communicate some other way.

Sometimes it just takes a little while to decode the reasons behind it. There really isn’t a universal solution to stop kids from biting. There’s no “do this, say that, problem solved.” There’s just you and your child. You’re the only ones who can determine what’s going on in your particular case. You know your child best, and you know what kind of environment you’re in and what’s happening at the times your child feels the need to bite. Whether they’re overstimulated, angry or something else.

So I hope my biting story and the stories from other Unparenting families have given you some inspiration. Maybe they’ll be of use to you in working through your own.

P.S. I also found the Unparenting course really helpful with my son. It taught me that there are so many things my child is experiencing that aren’t apparent at first sight, but that if I pay attention (instead of freaking out), I can spot them. It also taught me HOW to spot them. Where to turn my attention when I’m having trouble with my son so we can get the situation untangled. I’m not afraid of my son’s behavior anymore, because I know we’ll always manage to work through it together somehow. No, I’m not perfect. :) But I feel much more confident as a mom now. If you want to find out more, check it out: