Echoing the experts we had already met in our own bite-themed research, Dr Miller assured us that the bite is quite common in children ages 1-3 and can be linked to many factors. Children bite because they are just starting to develop their language skills and emotional vocabulary, so it can be difficult for them to express their feelings. The bite is more likely to occur in faster, highly stimulating environments. Not only was the bite typical of our daughter’s age, Dr Miller told us, it was also probably a phase, and we could expect to see it go away in a few months, or sooner.
I had heard “just a phase” many other times during various parenting crises, and although those once hellish phases had passed (remember when she kept removing her diaper during the nap?), I had still struggling to remember that these behaviors are over. His father echoed my fears. “So, in the meantime…?” What should we do with our seemingly wild child while she was still unpredictable at school?
Dr. Miller had many strategies. “Keep reading these books with her,” she advised. Repetition is crucial at this age, she explained, because it helps young children internalize information. Talk to her teachers and learn about her habits: when does she usually bite? Who is she with? What happens immediately before and after bite incidents? Demystifying biting behavior will help make it more manageable and eventually empower its teachers to be proactive rather than reactive.
Dr. Miller also encouraged us to continue using our chart. “It will help her remember that there are rewards to behaving well,” she said. On weekends, when we had more time, she would ask us to book a dedicated game hour: whatever she wanted to do, we had to accept it and let her take full control (within reason). At the end of the hour, Dr. Miller theorized, our daughter would feel more comfortable communicating emotions that otherwise might have remained stifled.
I do not know what the the solution was, honestly; most likely it was a combination of some of the above. Her dad and I made sure to set aside time for the three of us to hang out, and we let her take the reins for a bit when we did. We cheered her on when she had a good time at school, and we faced close family members so they could celebrate too. We practiced calming strategies with her and tried to convey the importance of playing well with friends. And, honestly, we bribed her. A lot. We were desperate, but we also knew that patience and consistency would be key.
At the end of the school year, the messages we received throughout the day were overwhelmingly positive. “We had another great day today without biting! I read and put my phone down with an explosive, happy sigh. “We” had had a great day, indeed.
This story originally appeared on May 24, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
Carla Bruce-Eddings is a book publicist, freelance writer and the mother of a fiery and opinionated 3-year-old girl.