My 4-year-old is biting kids at preschool

Dr. Cathleen McGreal

My 4-year-old has been getting in trouble at preschool for biting some of the other kids. He’s normally really sweet-tempered, but this is worrying us. How do we make sure he doesn’t become a bully?

At age 4, my daughter, Erin, had learned to “use her words” to communicate her feelings to other children. One afternoon, however, another child hit her after being told he couldn’t have her toy. She came running to me and said, “I used my words and he didn’t care!” It is challenging for the parents of the victims and for the parents of the child who has behaved in an aggressive way. Let’s look at biting in childhood through a developmental perspective.

Biting during the toddler years. Child-care providers working with toddlers know that biting can be quite common. In fact, there is research to suggest that almost half of the toddlers in day care have been bitten. One- and 2-year-olds are just learning effective ways to communicate with others. Toddlers haven’t grasped the concept of sharing yet, either; just think how often the word “mine” pops up. If Harper grabs a favorite toy from Logan, then his angry response may be to bite. Adults can help toddlers frame this experience by consoling the victim and providing feedback to the biter: “It’s not OK to bite Harper. That hurt her. We only bite food.” Sometimes, adult intervention can help before biting occurs by suggesting ways to share: “Harper would like a turn with the blue truck. Why don’t we take turns with the red truck and the blue truck?”

Biting during the preschool years. As children get older, their communication strategies improve and they can use their words to express frustration and anger. By this age, a child can say, “I want a turn with the blue truck,” rather than just grabbing it. A child can say, “No,” rather than biting. Adults can help children sort through their feelings regarding sharing, frustration and anger. Your 4-year-old son is continuing to bite at an age when other children have learned to respond in more appropriate ways. Ask the preschool teachers whether there are particular contexts that are associated with the biting. Does he become anxious when the room is bustling and noisy? Is he more easily frustrated just before lunch? Find out what methods they are using to redirect his behavior and then use the same strategies at home under similar circumstances.

Avoid responding to aggression with aggression. Sometimes friends recommend giving children “a dose of their own medicine.” Biting a child to teach him not to bite isn’t effective. Putting hot sauce on the tip of a biter’s tongue doesn’t encourage the inner control that she needs to develop. Instead, work with the preschool director and teachers to develop a plan to help your son replace biting with an appropriate reaction. If no change is seen in his biting behavior within a month, then consult your pediatrician to see if there is an underlying problem.

Pray for guidance as you make parenting decisions. “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children.” (Is 54:13)