Although biting is usually considered a problem of early childhood, especially the toddler years, some children will continue or even begin this behavior in the school age years. This can be a real problem especially if your child is biting other children and adults. Biting behavior in older children is usually seen in children who have some sort of special need whether it be ADHD, autism, or developmental delay. There are usually four common reasons why a child may take up biting and these include:
- The child is acting out of frustration and anger (aggression).
- The child has learned that biting can get them attention.
- The child is using biting as a way to stop a task they find difficult or boring.
- The child has sensory integration issues and needs oral motor stimulation.
To ascertain the reason behind the biting look for situational cues. If your child is doing this to other children during rough play or when he or she feels provoked then it may be out of fear or frustration. Your child may perceive this action to be a way to protect themselves against other children who get in their space. It may also be a direct aggressive act where they also hit or kick other children when feeling angry.
If your child has a big silly grin on their face or laugh after they have tried to bite someone it may be an attention getting behavior.
Look for patterns of when the biting behavior occurs. If your child is engaging in this behavior during certain tasks that you know he or she does not like, it may be an avoidance behavior to get out of completing the task at hand.
Lastly, if your child is biting his or her own skin, clothing, non-food items, in addition to biting others, it may be that they have some oral motor sensory issues which need to be addressed.
I can tell you that my son has engaged in biting for every reason stated here except for aggression. This is one of those behaviors which can be extremely challenging because people are not going to want to be around your kid if they are going to get hurt. For my child, what happened was, the biting began as a sensory issue and then generalized to an attention getting and avoidance behavior. This is the problem with such behaviors is that they may begin for one reason and then they take a life of their own when that behavior is sustained for multiple reasons.
Here are some strategies you can use to stop your child from biting.
If your child is biting out of fear, frustration, or aggression: Replace the biting behavior with communication and coping strategies. Explain that biting is no longer an option and what consequence will ensue if they even try to bite someone. Role play the situations which provoke this response and find alternate ways for your child to cope such as asking the teacher or parent for help. Set up examples with a lead in phrase of, “When I feel angry I can…” and list those alternative actions for your child.
If your child is biting because they want attention: It may be that you, other adults, or children have inadvertently given your child a lot of attention for this behavior. It is a hard behavior to not react to. Give the victim a lot of attention and give your child an immediate time out (and or loss of privilege) so that they understand that this will not give them the attention they want. Teach your child appropriate ways to gain attention. Make sure to give attention to good things your child does during the day to decrease the need for negative attention.
If your child is biting to get out of doing a task they find difficult or boring: If your child is trying to bite during times when they are expected to do something they don’t like doing then the biting may be an avoidance behavior. This is the time to teach communication as in “I need help with this” or “I need a break.” It is important to let the child know that biting or any other disruptive behavior is not going to let them off the hook, that they will have to finish the task regardless. But you do want to teach them the communication skills necessary to tell people when they are having trouble with performing an academic task or home related chore.
If your child is biting because they are in need of some oral motor stimulation:** How do you know if your child needs oral motor (mouth, gums, jaw, palate) stimulation? When your child is biting and chewing on everything in sight including strings on their hoodies, pencils, fingernails, and even their own skin then they are probably in need of some oral motor work.**
For some children with sensory issues, receiving oral motor stimulation can have a calming and organizing effect. What do I mean by oral motor stimulation? Basically this mean that your child is not receiving the proper amount of sensory input to their oral motor region and so you need to find external ways to meet this need.
When your child wants to bite things that he or she should not, you can replace this behavior with any of the following:
- You can create a “necklace” for your child using rubber tubing which may be found at most any speech and language therapy stores on-line such as this one. When they want to bite they can chew on their necklace instead.
- There are a variety of rubber toys including mallets and chewy tubes which are rather indestructible. A speech therapist gave my son a red rubber mallet years ago that he used for a very long time and it is still intact. You may find such chewy toys on occupational therapy stores such as this one.
- There are also vibrating toys specifically created for oral stimulation. When my son was younger we used the vibrating star a whole lot. You can find such a toy here.
- Provide your child with chewy or crunchy snacks where they really have to work their mouth muscles like sugar free gum, carrots, or hard pretzels.
An occupational therapist or speech therapist can be invaluable in helping with any sensory integration issues your child may have.
I hope this has been helpful to parents, caregivers, and teachers who are trying to help a child to decrease this behavior. Let us know if you have any other tips and suggestions on how to deal with biting. We always love to hear from you
I am a mother, a writer, and now an MS patient