For hours after the incident, I could still see the impressions of the other preschooler’s front teeth on the bridge of my four-year-old son’s nose. Apparently my son’s classmate had become very frustrated by something at school. Perhaps my son had been playing with a toy the other boy had wanted. Who knows?

Unable to express his feelings in words, the boy chomped on the closest thing he could find — which was unfortunately my son’s face. As with most situations like this, there was no lasting harm done, although both children were surprised and upset by what had happened.

Biting is a very emotional topic for the parents of toddlers and preschoolers. We tend to look at a child who bites with more disdain and perhaps more fear than a child the same age who kicks or hits. There is something wild and animal-like in a bite that makes it particularly upsetting, even if the risks of physical harm are quite small.

Similarly, the sometimes-dramatic concerns of parents whose children bite others are seldom warranted. Biting is very common among young children, and does not by itself predict later emotional or social problems. Yet even many preschool teachers have misconceptions about its causes and may respond in ways that do more harm than good.

A few years ago I received a call from the distressed mother of a 19-month-old girl who occasionally bit her playmates at a family child-care center where the owner didn’t believe in letting children use pacifiers. What upset this mother, who directed two shelters for neglected and abused children in Minneapolis, was that the woman who ran the child-care center asked for written permission to put Tabasco sauce on the girl’s tongue whenever she bit someone else — a response that would not only be ineffective, but would constitute child abuse.

When the mother refused to give her permission, she started receiving calls from other parents who used the child-care center. They threatened to withdraw their children if she didn’t take her daughter somewhere else. The situation grew so tense and became so stressful for the child that she started biting even more. The problem disappeared, of course, as soon as the girl started attending another child-care center where she was able to calm herself with her pacifier when she needed it.

Most biting occurs in children between the ages of 1-and-a-half and 3 years old. Its occurrence reflects not only the children’s feelings, but also their ability to use expressive language. A 5-year-old who doesn’t want to share his toy car has the verbal skills to say something like, “Leave this alone! It’s mine!” A 2-year-old does not. Instead of expressing his feelings with words, he defends his turf with his teeth.

Anger isn’t the only trigger for biting. Sometimes children will bite when they’re excited or even very happy. (This poses a particular problem for mothers who nurse older children whose first teeth have started to break through.) While almost all toddlers will bite someone at one time or another, very few will do so regularly. If that’s occurring, it’s a tip-off that something else is wrong. As with other forms of misbehavior, it may be a socially inappropriate way of getting more individual attention from the adults in his life. It may also reflect stress from changes at home, such as the birth of a new sibling or his parents’ recent divorce.

Rarely is biting malicious or premeditated. Children this age usually act without thinking of the consequences. In fact, when one child bites another, the one who bites is often as surprised and upset as the one who was bitten.

Helping a Child Who Bites

  • Respond swiftly. Children this age have very short attention spans. If you wait even a few minutes before talking to a child, he may not understand what you’re talking about.

    Also, don’t make vague statements like, “Now be nice to Billy.” A toddler may not see the link between that and his biting. Instead, immediately tell the child like this: “No! People are not for biting. We can bite apples and sandwiches, but we never bite people.”

  • Pay as much attention to the child’s feelings as to the biting. Also, show her another way of expressing what she feels. For example, begin by putting her emotions into words. (“I can see that you’re very angry. You don’t want Sarah to take your toy.”) This helps her make the connection between what she’s feeling and the names of those emotions.
  • Show your child a more acceptable nonverbal way of expressing her emotions. This might be stomping the floor or punching a pillow. Once her verbal skills improve, she’ll have less of a need to vent her frustration in those ways.
  • Keep things in perspective. Remember that biting is a normal behavior for toddlers and young preschoolers. The risks of injury are minimal, especially if the bite doesn’t break the skin. Usually, the only treatment the victim requires is a hug.