It's not often that we hear about an adult biting another, so it was surprising to learn that Luis Suárez, a player on Uruguay's soccer team bit one of his Italian opponents during a FIFA World Cup 2014 match.
Why do people bite -- well, why do mostly toddlers, and the odd frustrated, enraged adult bite?
Quite simply, because that's what our bodies are programmed to do when we are stressed or threatened. There's a part of our brain that shoots out instructions to fight, run, freeze or faint when we are under duress. It's easy to be friendly and compassionate when all is well, but when sh*t is hitting the fan, and the "SAVE YOURSELF!" or "HEY! THAT'S NOT FAIR!" part of your brain kicks in, we have to reel in the strong instinct to bite, shout, kick, hit or throw.
When that instinct is initiated, as most of us know, it is very powerful and can take control of our behavior. Our heart and breathing rates go up, muscles tense and negative self-talk races. It's like this reaction is hijacking us; and more appropriately, child singer/ songwriter Raffi said to me, "We should call it 'low-jacking'." I agree! The lower part of our body leaves our higher good reason in its dust.
How do we reel this reaction in? We need to learn nonviolent communication. It takes lots of practice to catch rage in its tracks and stop our anger from turning us unto mean jerks.
Sorry parents, there is no quick fix for this -- it takes time and LOTS of repetition to teach a child (and adult) how to "catch his or her bites/ throws/ kicks/ yells." Let's talk specifically about biting since it was Luis Suarez's reaction when he had had enough.
Most toddlers do some biting, and this behavior is well within the normal, yet painful, things that toddlers do. Although a common phenomenon, it is still important to nip biting in the bud.
There are four main reasons that children bite. I will list those below with suggestions to help in each case.
1. It looks like fun:
You might be asking... how does biting look fun? Toddlers may have seen someone else playfully nibbling on another, which made that person laugh.
When the toddler thinks he is being fun, he needs to understand the biting he is doing is not the same as playful biting. I would suggest not using cute biting games if your toddler is biting. Follow the script I outline below. The toddler brain can't really process the difference between you lovingly pretending to chew on his fingers and he chomping down on yours.
2. Communication goes sideways:
In this case, parents need to help the child put words to what he is thinking or feeling. In the case above, you can say, "OUCH! Biting like that hurts. No biting." *Remember not to use too many words. Keep the sentences short for toddlers.
The key for stopping biting is to be firm (definitely no "please" or "okay" here!) and use a strong (not yelling) voice. "OUCH! That HURTS! No biting." The important thing to remember with toddlers is that repetition is necessary. I know that's frustrating, but it will take a few times of your consistent, firm response before the toddler gets it.
If one child bites another and you have one shrieking child and one biter to deal with, I suggest going into slow motion. Hit the pause button; this is not an emergency. Take a moment to calm yourself, then do your firm words with the biter. Look at the shrieking child and say, "I know you are hurt. I am here to help. Let's calm down together." Your two roles are to respond to the biting, and let the other child know he has been heard. You want to use this moment to teach one child not to bite and the other to find his own inner strength.
3. Intense feelings become overwhelming:
In the case of overwhelming feelings, there are two important aspects to consider. The first one is how do you model being mad? My suggestion is to roll out your calm-down plan and remind yourself to calm first, talk second. We have to help another get out of his or her fight-or-flight reaction by being calm ourselves.
The second aspect is giving your child permission to let his big emotions out. Sometimes a child will bite when he really needs to have a big cry. As I mentioned above, help the child connect with the feeling and try to put a word or two to it. "OUCH! No biting. That's hurts! Do I see you being sad?" You are allowed to lead the witness here: "Your sister took your toy. I would be sad, too. Sad." Open your arms for a big hug.
Anger is what I call an "icing" emotion -- there is more underneath. Most of the time anger has roots in sadness. When the child can shift from anger to sadness, he is more able to be rational and less aggressive. Once the child makes the shift to sadness and the tears flow, you can scoop the child up and hug him until all the tears are out. Hugs that happen after the sobbing starts are okay, and will not be a positive reinforcement for biting.
4. The child is attention seeking:
The fourth reason for biting is when a toddler is looking for more attention, and that his attachment tank is low. If you would like more information about this, please click here to read about what an attachment tank is, and how to fill it.
I would like to thank all the awesome parents on my Facebook page who helped me write this article by asking lots of super questions, and providing different angles to consider.