Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Behaviour

My 17 month-old has started biting other children when at nursery but not at home.

I have a 17 month old little girl, who attends a very good nursery 3 days a week. She is extremely happy there and likes the interaction she has with the other children. However, over the last 3 months she has started to bite the other children at random. Sometimes in retaliation, but most of the time she bites them for no reason. I am beginning to worry, as this is now happening once or twice a day when she attends, and some of the other parents aren’t happy. The nursery is dealing with her by telling her it’s wrong, giving her time out and explaining that she mustn’t do it again. Unfortunately this is not working, and I can’t deal with the issue at home as she doesn’t display this behaviour when with us or with other children in our family. I have purchased a book to read to her (“Teeth are not for biting”) and talk to her about it when I collect her from nursery, but she is still biting. Other friends have said that they bite their children back, but I haven’t taken this action as most of the advice you read tells you not to do this – and I tend to agree, that you should not mirror their behaviour. Please suggest what I should do. People have been trying to give me explanations of why she is biting such as : “It is just a “phase”, and she will grow out of it”; she is attention seeking; or she is tired. (she is a very active little girl !!) But it’s not great when other parents are complaining about your child, and you are lost for an answer.

Biting others is a common issue for young children in the 2-6 age range. It can be extremely worrying and stressful for parents. My advice to you is to tackle it and not ignore it, as it could affect the development of your daughter’s successful relationships with other children as well as adults. In order to address it successfully, you will need to have good, open discussions with the nursery staff and plenty of time to do this calmly and without distractions. You need to agree with them at the outset that biting is unacceptable behaviour and will not be tolerated in the nursery or at home.

When looking for a way to stop the biting, it is important that you and the nursery staff look closely at the context it occurs in and to identify what sets it off. This is crucial because there are various strategies which you can use to change the behaviour. Choosing the right one will depend on you looking carefully at what is causing the biting in the first place.

To look at what is triggering your daughter’s behaviour, you and the nursery staff need to think about the following questions:

-What happens before the biting occurs? (triggers)
-What happens after the biting occurs? (consequences)
-Does it happen in any environment? (Children usually behave differently in different contexts. Bad behaviour can be inhibited in one place and not another, either because the triggers don’t exist or because the children are affected by knowing the consequences of what they do ).

Speak to the nursery staff to ask them what occurs before the biting happens. If they do not know, they need to observe the child closely over a period of a few days to identify what happens prior to a biting incident. It may be that it occurs at a particular time of the day or during a certain activity. If this is the case, then you can make plans to try to avoid it occurring.

Once you have identified the triggers then it is safer to speculate on what the cause is and to look for a way to manage the problem. The child’s biting behaviour could be a display of several things, for example:

1. Frustration/anger

If your daughter is becoming frustrated with a task or another child, or simply getting out of sorts through tiredness, this can cause stress and may result in an episode of biting. The best way to deal with this is careful monitoring and support through calm handling and a change of scene to a quiet smaller setting. It may be that certain activities need to be restricted or her time spent with certain children or groups of children reduced.

2. Boredom

If your daughter is getting bored and finding biting or other aggressive behaviour more stimulating, it may be worth looking at the group of children she is with and the activities she is engaged in. Changes to these can be made in order to stretch her a little more. A box of activities especially for her can be created, or an individual “timetable” of tasks be set up to provide her with a bit more challenge.

3. Seeking attention

All children seek attention because attention is something we all need, especially when we are little. There is nothing wrong in seeking attention in itself. The problem arises when the method used is inappropriate, hurtful or harmful to others. In this case, it is very important that the biting behaviour is acknowledged as being unacceptable. Your daughter as a person must still be accepted. She needs to know that she will get attention when she behaves appropriately. This will be easier to achieve if the adults involved are very clear about what is appropriate behaviour and make this explicit. It is not enough to tell her to “be good” or to “behave”. She needs a very clear message describing the desired behaviour, for example “Use your mouth for speaking and eating”, “Use you teeth for chewing food”, “Keep your hands and feet to yourself”. When she shows this behaviour, she should be rewarded with appropriate attention. This is not necessarily the same as praise. At the most simple level it could be a friendly smile, a nod or a hug. If more heavyweight strategies are needed, then it might need to involve more tangible rewards.

4. Attempt to interact (unsuccessfully) with others

Some children find it hard to know how to approach others and end up having a series of unsuccessful attempts at interacting with them. This is usually very clear by the way the child acts, and can be linked to other difficulties with language or communication problems. It is important in this case to teach the child the social skills required to interact successfully with others. This may mean teaching things that come relatively naturally to other children and may need to be done on a frequent, regular, timetabled basis over a period of time.

As with all attempts to change a child’s behaviour, the key principles are consistency and review. This means that all adults involved need to agree strategies and plan to carry them out for a given amount of time before reviewing them. Sometimes things just don’t work well and need to be thought out again. Alternatively, your strategies might work well and need to be reduced or dropped altogether.