Self Control! Wow, that can be a hard one for us adults, can’t it? You know. That second piece of delicious chocolate cake that is calling your name, even though you want to cut back on your calories? Or the urge to whisper something snarky about another person behind her back, even though you know that it is wrong to do so? We have so many temptations and self-control can be very difficult for us.
If it’s hard for us … imagine what that’s like for a little child who doesn’t yet have the skills, knowledge or ability to exercise self-control. That’s where we come in, as parents and teachers. One of our greatest tasks is to help lead kids to the development of self-control – self-regulations – inner direction.
I had the opportunity to talk with a mom of a young three year old recently who is having challenges with self-control. In particular, she has a tendency to bite her child care classmates. Biting is a “hot topic” in child care. Parents of the bitten children are upset. Parents of the biter are upset. And child care centers tend to disenroll kids whose biting is not controlled. The mom was getting all sorts of bad advice from her friends, including giving stickers for rewards and biting the child back Neither of these options will lead to the desired outcome of the child learning to self-regulate the behavior.
So, if you’re the parent of a biter, what can you do?
First, observe carefully. Look for patterns. Is the biting happening at a particular time of day? Is it happening in a particular area? Or with a particular child? Look objectively for clues that can give you insight into the cause of the biting.
Kids bite for a variety of reasons. For the youngest biters, it might be an exploratory, sensory experience. Babies explore the world through their senses. Everything goes in the mouth – and that might include mom’s arm or grandpa’s shoulder! If that’s the case, stay calm but firm. Stop the behavior and say, in a firm voice, “No biting! ” Offer a teething ring or other toy that the child can bite and keep it handy to offer when it seems that your little one might be winding up for another bite.
By toddlerhood, the reason for biting shifts a bit. Toddlers have strong emotions that they don’t yet know how to manage or express appropriately. That’s why “meltdowns” are common when toddlers feel frustrated, tired, frightened or angry.
For the toddler who is biting out of frustration or anger, help them find the words to express their feelings. Teach him to say simple phrases, such as “Please stop!” or “I don’t like that.”
Look at your toddler’s routine. Is there a good balance of active and quiet times? Does your toddler have plenty of opportunity to make choices and move about freely? If a toddler is feeling overly controlled or restricted, biting can be a response to inappropriate expectations.
Is there a particular child who is “pushing your child’s buttons?” Maybe those two need to be encouraged to play separately or an adult needs to stay nearby when they are together, helping them learn to negotiate their social issues.
Things to be careful about:
– Labeling the biter as “bad”. Young children get their self-images from those around them. We hold a mirror for that child to say, “This is who you are.” If we communicate that a child is bad, that child will work very hard to live into that expectation.
– Overreacting, yelling, shaming. Stay calm and low key in the moment. Comfort the bitten child and give little attention to the biter. Let the dust settle a bit before you talk about the biting with the biter. You can include the biter in providing first aid, if both parties agree.
– Biting the child back. That just gives the message that if you are bigger and stronger than someone, you can use violence and inflict pain to solve a problem.
– Punishing the biter. Punishment does not lead to the development of self control. Instead it creates anger, defiance and does harm to your relationship.
– Forcing an apology. When we teach children to say, “I’m sorry” when there is no genuine feeling of remorse, we are teaching a couple of dangerous lessons. One lesson is that all I have to do is parrot some magic words in order to get out of trouble. And the second harmful lesson is that it teaches kids to lie about their true feelings.
For further reading on this topic, these resources might be helpful to you.
If you have parenting questions, I would love to talk with you!