Help! My Kid is a Biter! (Hitter, Kicker, Pincher...)



The truth is, even good kids do bad things; and there’s a very good reason for it. It works.

The nuances of how it works depend on what context it happens in. I am going to break it down for you, which hopefully sheds some light on what you can do to make it stop—or at the very least, decrease the frequency.

First and foremost, determine that it’s a pattern. One bite in isolation does make a pattern of behaviour; if it only happened once, you likely aren’t at the point that you’re googling: “HELP! My kid is a biter!” This is important because kids often engage in exploratory behaviours (biting/mouthing/pinching/etc.) with no real purpose other than to give it a try.

Assuming you’ve noticed a pattern, here is what you do—the recipe is the same whether we’re dealing with hitting, punching, pinching, kicking, biting, etc.

1. Recognize that behaviour is communication. What is your child trying to say? In behavioural school of thought, every behaviour serves a purpose; there are 4 primary purposes for behaviours—remember the acronym SEAT. S-sensory behaviour: I do it because it feels good E-escape/avoidance behaviours: I do it because I want to escape something (I’m scared and want someone to go away, I don’t want to do what was asked of me because I don’t feel like...eating broccoli, doing homework..). A-attention behaviours: I do it because I want attention! (Remember, young kids often don’t discern between positive attention and negative attention) T-tangible item: I do it because I want something (a popsicle, a toy...)

You’ll figure out what your child is trying to communicate by appraising the context. This will take some finessing, don’t get discouraged.

Examples

If you were in the grocery store and your child asked for a lollipop, and you said no and she bit you, you can gather that she is trying to get an item (a lollipop) and is thinking “how about now? Now can I have it? How about if I do this? Or this?”

If you were about to get your child undressed for a bath, and you said “bath time” and your child bit you, you can gather they are trying to escape/avoid the bath.

Hopefully you get the idea. If not, email me. Like I said, appraising function takes some trial and error and requires you to consider behaviours as a pattern, not in isolation. Might I add—don’t try it when you’re mad. You need some distance to get perspective.

You can probably see by now, one behaviour can serve different purposes depending on the context. In such a case, you'd respond to one behaviour (say biting) differently in different circumstances. That's the secret most parents don't know about!

2. Recognize that how you respond to behaviour increases or decreases its likelihood of happening again.

So, if you inadvertently give your child what they want after biting/hitting/kicking you are fueling the fire. In the two situations above, buying your child a lollipop or saying “never mind” about the bath, is teaching your child that the behaviour they chose (biting, hitting, etc.) is a successful way to communicate. Along the same lines, if your child wants to avoid bath time and bites you, only for you to say “that’s it, time out” your good intentions actually also fuel the fire. Your kid gets a time out, which may in other scenarios be a negative but in this case—is actually a positive, because your child gets to delay bath time...that was their goal, right?

So you’re thinking ok...if my kid wants to avoid something, I just make sure that even if they bite/hit/kick, they still have to do it. That’s easy enough. If my kid wants to get something, I just make sure that if they bite/hit/kick, they don’t get what they wanted. That’s easy enough too.

But, what if my kid bites/hits/kicks for attention? How will I know, what do I do?

Examples Assume a situation like...you’re on the phone, and your son bites your daughter (it’s possible he wanted your attention). You proceed to make a fuss, hang up the phone and tell your son “that was not a good choice”. In this moment do you see how you are actually fueling the fire?

Now you’re thinking...so what do you expect me to do...ignore it? The short answer is yes, the long answer is no. Recognizing that your son wanted your attention, you are careful NOT to attend to him immediately. I know it’s counter intuitive, because you want to remind how that he made a bad choice, and that there are consequences for that...but bear with me. You hang up the phone, attend to your daughter who is likely in pain/crying/upset. You limit attention given to your son. You recognize that if he wants attention, giving a lecture is exactly what he wants—remember, he may not discern between negative and positive attention (even if he prefers positive attention, he will likely take negative as a close second). After some time has gone by, you’ve attended to your daughter and your son is engaged in some new task, THEN you can address the behaviour. The delay is integral to stopping the cycle and not fueling the fire. He cannot associate biting with attention, or guess what...anytime you’re tied up, he is likely to try it again.

Finally, let’s talk about sensory behaviours—which kids do because they feel good. A kid may bite because he is a teething, for example. Be careful never to assume a behaviour is sensory unless you’ve ruled out every other function (E, A, T). Since you cannot prove that behaviour feels good/helps regulate, you want to rule out other factors you can prove first. If you’re at the point that you think a behaviour serves a sensory purpose I recommend talking to an Occupational Therapist; sensory behaviours are the ONLY behaviours which do not increase or decrease because of how we respond, so you may need some outside guidance.

The general rule is to give your kids an alternate way to meet the same sensory need, in a way that is more appropriate. For example, a teething child needs to bite to feel better, so you give them a teething ring, a chewy food, etc.

Just remember...your kids maintain behaviours because they serve their purpose. If a behaviour stops serving its purpose, your kids will develop new adaptive ways of getting what they want.

Frankly, I’d much rather my daughter refuse a bath with her words “NO WAY I HATE BATHS” than bite me; in either case, sucks to be her—because it’s bath night no matter what. But at the least the verbal protest is more manageable and appropriate. I’m sure you’ll agree!

In short, by not allowing an inappropriate behaviour to serve its purpose you’re basically saying... “I don’t recognize that form of communication, please hang up and try your call again.”


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