I call the big one Bitey
January 20, 2015 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Baby Stardust is a curious, energetic little boy, but you wouldn't like him when he's angry. He's on the verge of getting kicked out of daycare. How can we help him stop biting and pushing?

We've followed all the usual advice and I'm not sure what else to do. He is 20 months old and can't really speak. He babbles and says certain words (none of them useful), but still prefers to express himself through shrieks and grunts. We work with a speech therapist to address his speech delays. Meanwhile, he has no way of "using his words" rather than biting or pushing. Though he can't speak much, he does understand quite a bit. He can use some signs and has other ways of indicating what he wants; for example, he'll take my hand and lead me to the back door when he wants to play outside; he brings me books he wants me to read; he signs that he's hungry and so on. When he was evaluated for his speech delays, the Autism spectrum was ruled out, so while he may be frustrated in his communication attempts now, all his therapists expect him to catch up.

We've tried so many things, trust. We're constantly correcting/redirecting when he attempts to bite, but it's still his go-to way to communicate that he's tired, that he doesn't want to, that you're too close, that he wants attention, that it's Tuesday; whatever. Recently, he's started to be the aggressor in these incidents, where before he'd only bite if someone was pulling a toy out of his hands, now he'll cross the room to push or try to bite another kid with (seemingly) no provocation. We always stop him if we're with him, tell him firmly "no biting, we don't bite" and direct him to another action (i.e. "We don't bite mama, we give kisses" or "it's okay if X uses the toy now, we can play with this.") We model gentle touching. Still, this has been going on for months and he's starting to add hitting (with fists and handheld objects) to his arsenal. He has never been physically disciplined. Since his aggression has been escalating, I've gone to giving him a one-minute time out. If he's aggressive with me while we're playing, I tell him I can't play if he's hitting and I leave the room. I've also removed him from places if he continues to be aggressive. What are we missing?

He doesn't watch violent TV shows. The only screen time he ever gets are occasional music videos (nursery rhymes, wheels on the bus, things like that). He isn't ever spanked. He doesn't see violent altercations at home. He doesn't have siblings or spend much time with other kids other than at daycare, where he appears to be a bit of a bully. We have cats and one of them puts up with more than her share of toddler manhandling without retaliation; the other one avoids him. He is teething, and we have tried chewable toys and painkillers, but that has little effect on the biting. I really don't want him beating up other kids. I'm starting to wonder if taking him out of his daycare center is a viable option, but he gets bored at home. He seems to like people, just not people his age. Also potentially relevant: the daycare is a Montessori program, and their way of addressing the aggression is also to correct and redirect, with possible use of time-outs.

Are there other options for stopping the biting? Please don't say spanking or yelling, those are not things I'm going to do.
posted by Kitty Stardust to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How is his hearing? Have you had that checked semi-regularly? Also....his blood sugars and sleep. Is he getting enough sleep (not too hot, or snoring) Is he getting complex carbohydrates and low gi foods releasing steady blood sugars not peaks and drops of blood sugar?

Good to rule this all out too.

Also...What are the teachers recommending? They're the best behaviourists and if they don't have any suggestions, they're worth scrutinising.
posted by taff at 7:00 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

My 13 year old used to bite me when she was a baby. She would bite me especially when she was excited or happy. She would get this look on her face, and then go in for the bite, and it was hard to react quickly enough. She also bit her friends. I had to deal with parents calling me after play group to talk about my daughter biting their kids. It was awful- both her biting me, and having to deal with her biting other kids. It's so hard to figure out what is the cause of things like this, and how to stop it, but they do eventually stop, and most times they are not the sign of something being wrong or exposure to something damaging.

I would look at other options for childcare- my older daughter (not the biter) hated the Steiner preschool we sent her to- sometimes other programs are a better fit for kids. I might also opt for a nanny if you can afford it- they can do socializing activities with your son and run interference when he gets the urge to bite.
posted by momochan at 7:04 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

My son was non verbal until about 27 months and loved to chew stuff. He never took to a binky but like the chew things that they make for kids that need oral stimulation.
Maybe if your son doing something else with his mouth like chew a chew stick he'd be less likely to bite. It will also give your son a bit of practice using his mouth muscles as he gets ready to speak.
I bet it's pretty temporary and you just need to get through a couple more months. Good Luck!

(they have a cute little chewies on break away necklaces)
posted by beccaj at 7:17 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

My son went through a similar hitting stage at around that time and I'm convinced it was due to frustration at not being understand because he didn't have many words at the time. He also had major tantrums. Mostly, we just did time outs. Constant timeouts for a while there, I mean it probably took about three months or so before we started to see results. Like you, we would explain why he was going there and the behaviour we wanted to see instead. It just takes time. You'll also find once his words come, it will lessen if not stop altogether. Hang in there, I know it's hard.
posted by Jubey at 7:43 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ugh, this is tough. You're at a stage where your kid wants things a certain way, and can do some damage to other kids, but can't yet be reasoned with very effectively. The good news is that ought to improve, from a developmental standpoint. But it may be a bit of a slog until it does.

My suggestions are not going to work overnight, but hopefully they'll start to take eventually. It boils down to making it less rewarding to hit/bite than not to do so.
First, if you're out doing something fun and he aggresses, leave immediately with no fanfare beyond "you bit Z, and when you bite it means we have to go home." Negative attention is still attention and I think these behaviors have to be starved of oxygen. It doesn't get him what he wants, it doesn't get him attention, and it means he can't do fun stuff. Of course, this is going to suck royally for you.

The counterpoint is to PRAISE PRAISE PRAISE both constructive attempts at communication and positive interactions with other kids. Narrate in detail what he did right, jump, clap, exclaim. Make a damned fool of yourself.

And do whatever you can to work on the language - more signs, read even more stories, maybe songs with hand motions so he can participate even if he can't say the words yet; I'm sure your therapists have given ideas. (You're probably already doing this, but keep at it...)

Good luck. There's probably an inevitable element of growing out of this, but at least you can start laying groundwork for the yet-to-emerge rational human in there :)
posted by telepanda at 8:01 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

This might be a small thing but I would be as direct as possible.
Not "we don't bite"
But a firm, strong "NO."
posted by calgirl at 8:55 PM on January 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

What's seemed to have worked best for us (we've had some waxing and waning biting problems from 15-22months) is offering alternatives "if you need to bite something bite a toy" - and keeping teething toys together somewhere. This seems to help some with all varieties of biting (frustrated, over excited, just needing an oral fixation). Getting him a necklace like beccaj mentions might make that more workable at preschool.

We've also started using a timeout as described as happiest toddler on the block - unemotional "no biting", take him to his spot, etc.

This may be helping but we started it at the same time I gave myself a hefty reminder that he is still a baby, so so young, and made a colossal effort to not get emotional when he acted out. This was hard bc his baby sister was too often the intended target which upset me and set off my protective instincts. I also really, intentionally ramped up the positive reinforcement and positive attention. We used the "hand checks" (make a check mark on their hand with a pen when they do something good) for a couple of weeks. He was really into them at first but his interest faded, but I think it helped remind us to notice the positive more deliberately and helped us get back to a positive place.

My husband thinks the timeouts made the most difference, I think it was reducing our expectations of what he can do, taking most of the negative emotion out of how we react and increasing positive reinforcement.

I've also tried to encourage him to "use his words" but I'm not sure how much that has helped. But it definitely seems worth it to try and add some more signs. Based on my guys vocab, some "high use" ones are: no, don't want to, mommy, play, heard that (used for "did you hear that"), see that, up, watch (wants to see what I'm doing), mine and a handful of ones specific to his environment - baby, floor (as in "put the baby down and play with me!"), take ("daddy/mommy take the baby, so mommy/daddy can play with me"), ba (his word for pacifier).

Maybe if you an make a guess at his triggers (with the help of his teachers) you can try and teach him a few signs which he can use to express his feelings in those situations.

Good luck! It's so hard to watch your sweet little baby do something hurtful and struggle with their emotions.
posted by pennypiper at 9:54 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

My daughter went through a hitting phase (directed only at me, though) right around 23-24 months. At the time we were in a co-op preschool where the parents had weekly meetings with a parenting expert/educator. Another mom was having the same issue at the same time, and our educator told us to keep it simple, "No hitting" and to turn away. She also reminded us that it takes toddlers many, many times to learn something - they are just not going to get it the first 10, 20, 30 times. More like 100. And in the preschool classroom, the aggressor would not get the attention, the teacher would immediately attend to the "victim" instead. This sounds so cold writing it out, but it was a pretty loving happy co-op. My kid's hitting phase was short-lived.

Another thought: is your son getting enough physical activity during the day?
posted by stowaway at 10:20 PM on January 20, 2015

If he is bullying the other kids in his class at daycare, can he be bumped up to the 3 yr old class? Dealing with kids a bit bigger may back him down from being the aggressor or bullying others. has anyone ever but him at school? Are their other biters that he may be watching for attention and teacher reactions?
posted by MultiFaceted at 1:08 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd address the communication frustration by teaching him some sign language. He's using violence because it gets his point across.

This won't exacerbate his speech delay, it will facilitate his ability to communicate and reduce his frustration.

I'd work on some simple signs.

I'm Hungry

Stop it!

I want that!

Whatever would be useful to him. It'll be fun for him to learn it. He may enjoy sign language so much that he might study it as a second language.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:37 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm the mom of a former biter who was in daycare. Here's what I learned: This is not abnormal. At his age, when he is not able to express himself verbally, biting is completely appropriate developmentally. He is learning ways to manipulate his world (also evidenced by the hitting to get a toy). It has nothing to do (probably) with witnessing violence. It's just something that some children do.

It is embarrassing and difficult to deal with as a parent, because we bring our social rules to bear. We see it through our social lens--not his developmental lens. It is a frustrating problem.

Your school sounds like it is addressing it appropriately. Interestingly enough, we did not have biting at home, probably because my daughter is an only child and there was no competition for toys she wanted at home. Is it the same in your case? If so--I'd say just give it time, try not to stress, and make sure you and the school are on the same page so the "discipline" is consistent.

Sounds like you are on the right path. Hang in there.
posted by FergieBelle at 6:31 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wanted to clarify/expand on my original reply (written when I should have been sleeping :). The pattern seems to be that our little guy bites when he's having trouble with life, so we see a reemergence of the behavior when major life changes happen (the holidays, his sister becoming more interactive and so needing more attention, my going back to work). I think these changes, coupled with daily ups and downs of hungry/tired, make him feel unsettled and a little insecure in the world.

What I think helps is getting him to a place where he's feeling safe and secure again. The world is predictable and he knows how it works and what to expect, and he's getting a lot of good quality attention from his caregivers. So refocusing on routines, deliberate positive reinforcement, periods of focused attention from us (and his nanny), as well as trying to see when he's feeling crummy and give him extra hugs/attn/whatever.

When we respond in a way that (I'm guessing) adds chaos or insecurity to his world, it seems to get worse. So what I think doesn't work for us is expressing irritation or anger through our tone or words. Too much explanation, as others have said, keep it short and sweet "no biting". Too much talking about it, we say it once or twice as we take him to his time out spot, and then don't mention it again. Guilty type statements "look you hurt your sister!" (tone might be key here). Oh, and when I get caught up in getting something done and don't pace it around giving him regular periods of attention.

And I think the reason the time outs helped wasn't because they were a deterrent but because they became a predictable result of certain behavior, and so they were oddly comforting. And once the timer went off we'd 'start fresh' and find something fun to do all together.

I'm sure this is all harder since he's at preschool so you have less control over a major part of his day, but maybe trying to ramp up the focused fun, positive attention when he's with you guys, making sure he has predictable routines, lots of narration about what's going to happen next/today/tomorrow, and removing as much negative messaging/tone as possible. It might not work, but it might, and it feels so much better for everyone than the irritation/frustration/power struggles. He might also do better with a little more quiet time or structure in his day at preschool. I'm not sure if that's something that they could accommodate, but it might be worth asking.

During our last resurgence of problematic behavior (holidays), it only took a couple of days of doing all of that before we started seeing some improvements and within less than two weeks he seemed totally "solid" in his world again, not needing timeouts and not showing frustration and aggression.
posted by pennypiper at 9:23 AM on January 21, 2015

If he's in a Montessori, perhaps he needs a more structured environment? Maybe he's stressed because he has too many choices of what to do, and can't decide? His daycare environment may include just a little too much freedom for him right now, when he might be needing a few more limits (not just for him, but for his peers too so that he isn't singled out).

Fwiw, I think hitting & biting are pretty common at that age, regardless of how much screen time they get or the way they are disciplined. Our household sounds pretty similar to yours but my LO still went through a short hitting phase too. While addressing the behavior keep trying to introduce alternatives too. He'll get there. Sorry that you're going through this though, I get how frustrating it is.
posted by vignettist at 12:01 PM on January 21, 2015

This might be a small thing but I would be as direct as possible.
Not "we don't bite"
But a firm, strong "NO."
posted by calgirl at 8:55 PM on January 20
[9 favorites +] [!]

I suppose this may vary from kid to kid but my experience with my kid is that a raised voice or out of the ordinary reaction to his unwanted behavior creates excitement for him and reinforces that behavior. At this age redirecting, and praising the behaviors you want to reinforce, is the guidance I've gotten from the child development experts I've talked to. My son isn't a biter but he does push as a way of trying to interact with other kids, and our daycare provider has been working on getting him to wave instead.

Sorry, it sounds tough and stressful and I hope some of the suggestions in this thread give you concrete help.
posted by JenMarie at 9:47 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mom of 2 Montessori elementary school kids here. Get your 20-month-old son a copy of the sweet board book "Teeth are not for Biting" by Elizabeth Verdick. This little gem of a kids book has worked like a charm for countless toddlers your son's age. The other books in the same series are great for reinforcing pro-social behaviors, too. Nthing that biting is quite normal at his age.

I wholeheartedly agree with JenMarie: "a raised voice or out of the ordinary reaction to his unwanted behavior creates excitement for him and reinforces that behavior." (See also: The Nurtured Heart Approach by Howard Glasser.)

OMG please don't take him out of daycare! Disagree with the suggestion here that Montessori daycare at the toddler stage is unstructured and does not provide limits relative to other daycare programs. Wrong. Far from it. From your post, it sounds like your son's Montessori teachers are helping him handle himself in a healthy and proactive way that's in line with your own values about discipline.

This, too, shall pass OP. It's hard when you feel like your kid is acting out at school, but it sounds like his teachers have this well in hand ("correct and redirect, with possible use of time-outs") and again, this sucks but is 100% normal. Hugs to you.
posted by hush at 6:35 AM on January 26, 2015

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