Help, my toddler thinks he’s Edward Cullen!
12 March 2017
Houston, we have a biter.
As with all things parenting-related, just as you think you’ve got a particular age or stage waxed, one of your tiny humans throws a behavioural curveball. And this one’s about as antisocial as it gets.
My eldest, Skellies, was mostly a rather mellow two-year-old, and his tantrums were generally restricted to well-timed meltdowns in the frozen foods aisle of Waitrose. His sense of humour failures were more about a good solitary wail on the floor, rather than involving anyone else in the drama. It turns out more and more that the differences between him and Flea are, unsurprisingly, far more extensive than just their brown-haired/brown-eyed and blonde/blue-eyed appearances.
With Flea, it started with pushing, pinching and throwing, initially directed at his poor older brother, who is remarkably forgiving and rarely retaliates in kind when his brother grabs a fistful of hair, or thumps him on the head with a Thunderbird rocket. However, this behaviour soon became a feature at playgroups, and anyone who had something he wanted would find themselves with an extremely fast, extremely determined, extremely sturdy little bruiser headed their way. Long gone was any chance of a cup of a coffee and a chat with the other mothers – I became his shadow, an ever-present bodyguard for any other children he might come into contact with.
As exhausting as this was, it started to improve slowly and surely, and I thought perhaps we had finally moved through this rather challenging stage. Turns out he was just gearing up for the main event, and in the last few weeks, he’s started channelling Mike Tyson in a big way. Last week, he actually managed to draw blood from my friend’s two-year-old, and it was only the fact that she has four children, and a hugely forgiving nature, that we haven’t been banned from visiting her again until Flea leaves for university.
When Skellies was little, he had a friend who went through the biting stage, and I remember how vigilant his mother had to be. The important thing was that she never let it slide, and every incident was dealt with swiftly and firmly. I respected that, and would never have dreamt of blaming her for this stage. The important thing to remember, whether your child is the biter or the bitten, is that this is just that – a stage. It can be a reaction to tension or trauma at home, but it’s more often just a reaction to being a toddler. Also, just because you’ve had an older child, or children, who would never have dreamt of biting, it doesn’t mean your youngest won’t turn out to be a little pit bull. Likewise, a biting first child doesn’t mean a whole brood of little nippers. Since Flea started with this, most of the friends I’ve mentioned it to have said that at least one of their two or three kids went through it too. So, even if you haven’t experienced it yet, don’t assume it’s only something that happens to other people’s children.
Whether frustrated because they can’t yet verbally express what they want or how they feel; overwhelmed by a particular environment or crowd; or annoyed because someone else has the toy that they want, biting is rarely a planned, strategic action. It is more often than not a reaction that takes toddlers themselves by surprise, even if you as the parent have seen the warning signs building up. Flea often looks shocked by what he’s done, and usually I can actually spot when he’s about to bite, and manage to push back his forehead (just) before those tiny jaws lock on to their target (once he has locked on, I sometimes think it would be useful to always carry a hose loaded with cold water - you’d have more success convincing a piranha to let go of a steak!)
Like with so many strategies for effectively dealing with ‘bad’ behaviour in children, vigilance and consistency are essential. As knackering as it is, I can’t take my eyes off Flea even for a moment in a setting with other small children. This is important, not only to help stop him before he bites (and, as my small child, he really does need me in this situation), but also to ensure that other parents realise you are taking this seriously – it’s very upsetting when your child is hurt, especially by someone else, and can be very hard to understand if it’s not a stage you’ve experienced with your own offspring.
Then, if you don’t quite manage to stop the biting from happening (and, as I said, kids are quick), your response to the situation needs to be the same every time. In Flea’s case, I remove him from the immediate vicinity of the bitten child (to a step or a chair nearby is good), and get down to his level so we are eye to eye. I tell him that we do not bite, as it’s sore and it’s unkind. This is a message worth repeating once or twice. In my experience, a child this age won’t always understand that they need to sit and think about what they’ve done (it’s effective later on, but they’re usually so shocked by what’s happened, and have no concept of time at age two, so sitting there for a long time doesn’t help).
Rather, I suggest that he sits there until he’s ready to say sorry to whoever he’s bitten, and then I turn my attention to the injured party to see how they’re doing and give them my attention. Making a big fuss of the biter only reinforces the idea that this behaviour gets them attention, so rather concentrate on the child that’s been bitten. He then always sits a bit before coming to say sorry (or just shouting ‘sowwy’ from wherever he’s sitting – always remember that feeling embarrassed is not the exclusive preserve of adulthood).
I will make no claims to expertise in this area – as I’ve made abundantly clear, this is new territory in my seven years of parenting. But, I have seen other parents go through it, and I’ve read up on the topic, and Mac and I are navigating our way through as best we can. What has really struck me though, is the tremendous sense of shame, of feeling that you are somehow failing as a parent. Also, of suddenly not recognising part of your otherwise sweet, loving toddler. As much as you tell yourself that this is a stage, it can be tremendously challenging to maintain perspective.
The temptation to hide yourself away until your child is old enough for boarding school is pretty overwhelming. This isn’t helped by the strong reaction of others – whenever Skellies has been on the receiving end of a bite at nursery or school, I’ve been taken aside by a stressed-looking teacher, clearly anticipating my shocked and appalled reaction. In hindsight, I’m so grateful that I’ve always reacted calmly to this news, and never condemned the biting child as somehow destined for a lifetime of antisocial behaviour (or their parents for raising a little fiend that would dare to nip at my child!)
However, as long as you are clear on your strategy for both preventing and dealing with this behaviour, and you’re giving your child lots of positive attention for positive behaviour the rest of the time, you are not a failure, and there is no shame to be apportioned here. You’re not raising a bad child, just an otherwise awesome kid who is struggling to get to grips with an often rather overwhelming and overstimulated stage of development, with endless new experiences and appropriate responses to get to grips with. Your lovely little human hasn’t gone anywhere; they just need your help and consistent responses even more than usual.
Always remember, there are so many more parenting challenges to come (stay calm, this is not the part where I recommend an emergency bottle of wine in the nappy bag), and there’ll be times when those with previously ‘perfectly-behaved’ kids will find themselves flummoxed by a completely unexpected unacceptable behaviour, while your kid sails through. This is why being smug about someone else’s child’s behaviour is never a good strategy, and yet another reason to practise a bit of compassion in these situations.
And, I promise I’m not saying that just in case your tiny human is the next to find themselves with my little vampire locked onto their arm at playgroup…