Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Do Toddlers Bite and How to Handle it When They Do

Most parents are horrified when they receive a note sent home from day care that their child has bitten someone. Some of our own mothers and grandmother's would advise us "Bite him back, then he won't do it again, it worked with my kids". As child development specialists we do not advocate biting a child back, since this only teaches a child that it is indeed ok to bite when they are angry. However, we can offer some other suggestions as to why biting behaviors occur and how to remedy them.

Toddlers bite for several reasons, many because they simply lack the language skills to tell someone "I am SO mad", or "You are in my space". They may also bite because they are over-tired, teething or have a need for extra oral stimulation. Some kids bite because they are over stimulated by a situation or overly excited. And, some may just do it to see what someone's reaction is when they do it. The best way to understand biting is to find out which one of the above reasons led to the bite. From there parents and caregivers can start to work on ways to prevent future biting episodes by asking:
  1. What happened right before your child bit someone?
  2. Who did he/she bite and what were they doing at the time?
  3. Where was your child when they bit (home, daycare, play ground)?
  4. Does your child always bite the same child/adult?
Next look for ways to intervene before your child bites. For example, if a child is biting due to the need for oral stimulation, offer him something appropriate to chew on such as food or a sensory chew tube. If a child is biting when others get too close, intervene by telling him "I know you don't like when Stevie gets too close to you, use your words and tell him, do not touch my hair". If your child is over-tired adjust his sleep schedule or avoid play dates when he is tired. If your child is teething offer a teething toy or cold washcloth to chew on. At other times you may be able to intervene simply with distraction and move the child elsewhere before too much frustration or anger sets in and leads to a bite.
When a child does bite here is what to do:
  1. Be calm and do not address the situation unless you can do so in a calm matter of fact tone.
  2. Keep your words firm, simple and clear (but not angry) saying "Biting hurts, we do not bite" and separate the child from the situation. Also make the child aware of the other child's feelings by saying "You hurt Christine, look at her she is crying because you bit her. Biting hurts'. Many times parents & caregivers focus too much attention on the biter and not the child who was bitten and even though the attention is negative this may be an incentive for the child to bite again. Try to give more attention to the child that was hurt and less attention to the biter.
  3. If the child does have language, then you can address the issue a bit later with the child by saying "I know Christine took your truck, but you need to use your words and tell her that is my truck, and if she doesn't give it back you can go to a teacher for help".
  4. Next help both children to get involved in another play activity, but do not force them to play together if they don't want to and remember learning new behaviors always takes time.
You can also read books about biting to toddlers such as:
  •  Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick
  •  No Biting by Karen Katz
  •  No Biting, Louise by Margie Palatini 
Biting is a very common behavior for toddlers, however it usually stops by age 3 to 3 1/2.  If your child continues to bite, or the number of bites increases instead of decreases over time, it is probably a good idea to request an assessment from a child development specialist.  A child development specialist can help you identify the reason for the biting and develop a strategy for addressing the behavior.  Remember, there is no quick fix for stopping any behavior. Over time, and with assistance, your child will stop biting and use more appropriate ways to express his/her needs, especially as language and socialization skills increase.

BedTimes

Children need to be taught bedtime routines and assisted in maintaining them.  Routines help children fall asleep and stay asleep successfully. Without bedtime routines, young children can feel disorganized and uncomfortable. Here are some ways to help your child feel confident and secure during bedtimes:
  1. Start quieting down after dinner. Play quiet games, read books, turn off the television. This sets the tone for a peaceful evening.
  2. Keep bath time calm. Rowdy water play is best saved for the backyard pool.
  3. Try some infant/toddler massage techniques after the bath. You don't need to know any specific techniques just do what comes naturally and what you would imagine would feel good to you.
  4. Find a cozy spot to snuggle in and read a few books. Stick with the same preset number of books each evening. Three books then lights out!
  5. Choose a favorite lullaby, nursery rhyme or prayer and say it each evening before putting your child in bed.
  6. Give a hug and a kiss, say goodnight and leave the room.
This exact routine might not work for your situation. Find the routine that will work for you and keep that structure each evening.  Bedtime routines that are established early and followed consistently keep children and parents happy!

Mealtime...?

In our busy lives, mealtimes can be simultaneously a brief reprieve from a hectic schedule and one of the most chaotic points in a family's daily routine.  Mealtimes can be a time to check in with one another, hold hands, sit on laps, tell funny stories and report important events.  They can also be times full of temper tantrums, thrown food, non-compliance and bickering.  The wish for most families is to have more of a "checking-in" feeling and less of a "food-throwing" feeling associated with their mealtimes.  Following a set routine and establishing expectations well in advance and in a consistent manner can help foster a smooth and successful family mealtime. 

Here are some suggestions:
  • Plan simple and quick meals that don't require a lot pots and pans.  Save that fancy recipe for a weekend meal or a grown up dinner party.
  • Prepare as much of the meal as possible in advance.
  • Let the children help shop for, put away and prepare the foods that they eat.
  • Start encouraging your children to "help" set the table from a young age.  Even two year olds can place spoons on the table.  This is a perfect opportunity to work on language skills and following directions:  "Put the spoons beside the plates." Kids enjoy feeling that they're "helping" and it keeps them busy for the five minutes that they would otherwise be pestering their siblings or getting into the pantry for a snack!
  • Slow down!  Try serving the meal "family style" and help the kids pass serving dishes around the table and to serve themselves appropriate portions.  Encourage them to ask for items to be passed to them.  Again, this is the perfect opportunity to work on language skills and table manners ("I want more potatoes please." or "Please pass the chicken.") and fine motor skills (using utensils, self feeding, etc.)
Encourage your child to at least try a bit of each food.  Forcing them to eat something they don't like will only associate negative feelings with mealtime and will escalate emotions that are not conducive to a calm and pleasant family time.  If your child has an extremely limited repertoire of foods that he/she will eat, you might want to consider getting an OT evaluation.

For children who resist sitting at the table for appropriate amounts of time, auditory or visual timers can be helpful.  The amount of time the child is expected to sit at the table can gradually be increased over a period of time.  The child should be rewarded with verbal praise for each successful effort at sitting at the table.  Some children may require an external reward such as a sticker or small treat.

If misbehavior occurs during a meal, calmly explain to your child that the dinner table is not an appropriate place to scream, throw food, stand on the chair, etc.  If the behavior occurs again, calmly remove your child from the table and tell them that they may return when they're ready to behave appropriately.  ALWAYS be sure to model the behavior that you expect of your child.
At the end of the meal, encourage your child again to "help" clear the table and clean up the dishes.  Even very young children can help out in small ways.  One year olds will feel so important if they're asked to throw the napkins away!

Mealtimes can no doubt, be an incredibly stressful time for families.  These suggestions may help to alleviate some of the stress associated with mealtimes but there will certainly be times that none of them seemed to work.  Gradually, over time, and done consistently, these strategies will establish an expectation and routine for family meals.  That's not to say that there won't ever be nights again where more of the spaghetti ends up on the floor than in your child's belly or that you're left exhausted, sitting at a table that looks like a miniature war zone.  On those nights, put the kids to bed, make yourself a cup of tea and be happy that mealtimes only happen three times a day!

What to Do About Negative Influences on Your Child

Right from birth children learn by observation and imitation. Your infant learns facial expressions from you. Your baby learns words from you. Your toddler however learns from everyone. In fact new research shows toddlers as young as 14 months can even learn and remember actions and behaviors seen on television. So it comes as no surprise that toddlers also often pick up bad behaviors and habits from other children or adults. As a parent this can present a catch-22. On one hand you want your child to be well socialized and interact well with other people and children, but on the other hand bad learned behaviors can be extremely frustrating especially with a toddler already in the "terrible" stage. So what can you do to prevent your toddler from learning picking up bad behavior from others?

Remaining consistent in the face of bad behavior
The most important thing you can do as a parent is be consistent. Even if the negative influence you are dealing with is present and his/her parents, address bad behavior immediately. Don't feel as if addressing your own child's behavior may single out, embarrass or offend the other child's parents. Different parents have different rules and approaches, one way may not be right for everyone. For example I let my toddler son color on our walls with washable markers. It comes off easily and he enjoys it. Most parents would view wall coloring as a negative behavior, but I do not. No matter where you are and whose around you need to stick to the rules and discipline forms you have established. If the negative behavior is a new habit, you also need to act quickly so that your child doesn't think this behavior is okay.

In the case the negative influence is an adult you should not only address your child, but the adult. In the case of a child you may want to avoid doing so, so as not to over step your bounds into another parent's realm, but an adult should know better. Be frank, honest and polite. Simply say, "Hey, I'd rather you not do *this* around my child please." In most cases people are willing to oblige your request.

You may also consider asking a parent to address an extremely bad or possibly dangerous behavior in their child that your child is copycatting. Again, be polite, honest and in this case tactful. Avoid accusing or suggesting bad parenting. In example, say your toddler's new role model likes to climb the entertainment center in the living room. Perhaps say to his/her parents, "That entertainment center doesn't look very sturdy. He/she could get hurt. Do you want me to get him/her down?" This brings their attention to the fact that the behavior is dangerous even if it doesn't point out furniture climbing is simply a bad thing for a kid to be doing which should result in them stopping the behavior.

Limiting negative influences
In the event a behavior is dangerous or extreme and the parents or the adult are unwilling to address or change the behavior you may have to debate limiting or eliminating your child's contact with this person or child. The same way you wouldn't let your toddler watch a television show that taught him or her a bad habit just because he/she enjoyed it, you shouldn't continue to expose your child to a negative influence just for the sake of friendship. There are many toddlers out there to set up play dates with, social interaction can be obtained from other sources.

Outside of remaining consistent, being quick to react and correct negative behavior, and limiting or even eliminating negative influences there's little more you can do to prevent your toddler from picking up behaviors from other kids or adults. On the upside your toddler will likely also pick up positive habits and behaviors.

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