There is nothing worse that seeing your child leave huge teeth marks on a playmate’s arm — except maybe getting those marks yourself as you try to change your toddler’s diaper. You know that biting your child back only models the behavior, and maybe you’ve noticed that negative reinforcements such as time out aren’t helping. But it can be tricky to positively reinforce your child to not do something. You’ll need to focus on what you do want your child to do if you want to positively reinforce your child to stop biting people.
The best positive reinforcement for children is specific praise. Catch them when they’re being good instead of only focusing attention on them when they’re being challenging. So when your toddler doesn’t bite the toddler who’s playing with his favorite toy, say, “It’s so kind of you to share your toy” or “Thanks for sharing your toy.” If your toddler hates getting his diaper changed and he manages to get through it without biting you, say, “Thank you for helping me get your diaper changed quickly” or “I really appreciate your cooperation.” Your little one may not be talking much yet (hence the biting), but he can certainly understand when mommy is proud of him.
For kiddos 3 years old and older, behavior charts can positively reinforce appropriate behavior. Depending on your preschooler’s maturity level and biting frequency, you can keep a daily, half-daily or hourly chart. Every time period that your little one passes without biting anyone, you can give her a sticker or smiley face. When she gets five stickers or smiley faces, give her a small reward. It can be as simple as an extra story at bedtime, an extra TV show or a toy from the dollar store. As she gets better at controlling her biting, you can extend how many stickers she needs to get to earn her reward. If five is too overwhelming for her, try giving her a reward for each sticker she gets.
Model Non-Aggressive Behavior
Presumably you’re not going around biting people when you’re frustrated, or showing your preschooler the “Twilight” movies. But you still need to model how to handle frustration appropriately and make sure your preschooler isn’t seeing too much aggressive behavior. If your little one sees older children or adults hitting and grabbing each other, he’s learning that it’s okay to hurt others to get what he wants. Emphasize how important it is for your older children to model appropriate behavior for their little brother. Look for ways to handle your own frustration and stress without yelling and grabbing. Young children are like little sponges for the behavior around them; make sure they see what you’d like them to be.
Give Appropriate Strategies
If your child is prone to biting, you’ll need to watch her especially closely when she is playing with others. When it seems like she might be inclined to bite, step in and help her express herself without biting. When another child takes her toy, you might say, “You are upset that Billy took your doll. Tell Billy that you are upset!” You can then give her more appropriate strategies for how to handle her frustration. Young children aren’t inclined to think before they act, so you’ll need to directly instruct her on how to do so. Give her a vocabulary to use when she is upset and ways to get what she wants without biting. This takes some time to sink in, so be patient and give the same strategies over and over until she gets it.