By Alison Cupp Relyea
My first child, at the ripe old age of eleven months, earned himself a note home from daycare. He bit another child. I went through all the emotions one would expect: shame, anxiety and confusion. I also had an overwhelming desire to fix this immediately. This was prompted in part because biting is wrong, and in part because the biting intervention sheet that I received from daycare outlined a protocol that said, in summary, three strikes and you’re out.
Luckily, the daycare director also understood that we were dealing with a child who had not even reached his first birthday. We thought about what the factors could be causing the behavior, such as moving into a new classroom, being the youngest and switching his schedule to cut out his morning nap. We put a plan in place, and it worked. The teachers watched for times when he seemed tired or frustrated and gave him a bit of extra attention. If he bit another child, they would remove him from the situation and pay attention to the other child. He bit once more, and then never again.
Now that my children are older, it is important for me to remember the lesson I learned in this early stage of parenting. When children are trying out bad behavior, a helpful approach is to be prepared, stay calm and be firm.
If your child hits or bites on a playdate, in preschool or at the playground, do not let on that you are appalled by their behavior or nervous that they will make it a habit. Remind them of the right things to do before you get into social situations as a means of preparation. Rather than telling them all the things they should not do – “no hitting, no biting, no kicking” – try telling them the appropriate behavior – “use your words, take a deep breath, share.” Of course, very young children may have a hard time applying these strategies, but as they practice, it is better for them to strive for the desired behavior than simply avoid the problematic one. Another way to prepare yourself and your child is to focus on your child’s limits and wellness. Avoid letting your child go to playgrounds or parties when he or she is overly tired or not feeling up for it, and keep in mind the importance of healthy food and a balanced diet in children’s behavior.
Even if you try to be proactive, negative behaviors still happen sometimes and it is very normal. Children test limits, imitate what other children do, and elicit reactions. It is their job. Your job is to stay calm in these moments and to be the adult. This means that you remind them of right and wrong, redirect them, and do not show your anger, disappointment or shame, even if you feel those things. Also, recognize positive behaviors when you see them!
Lastly, if you are doing all that you can to prevent these behaviors and stay calm when situations arise, but the negative behavior continues, make sure you are not giving too much attention to your child in that moment. You may not want to cut a playdate short, but going down the road of second chances, threats, rewards and ultimatums gives your child a lot of power and will ultimately send the message that they can get a lot of attention for this. Sometimes the best form of communication is to quietly and calmly remove your child from the environment. Using the silent treatment is not cruel. It gives you both a chance to breath, process and move forward. In that moment, remind yourself that this, like all phases, will pass.