Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
Sarah is a two-year-old child who has started attending a day care in the morning for the first time. Everything seemed to be going well, until the day care called and said that Sarah had bit one of her playmates. Sarah’s parents were aghast. Who did she learn this behavior from? Why is she acting so viciously? What is wrong with their child? Fortunately, the answer is… Nothing! Sarah is normal. Why would a normal child bite? That requires some background in child development.
The toddler period is from age 1 to 2½. This age overlaps with a period of child development that is known colloquially as the “Terrible Twos”. Parents often dread the defiant behaviors, temper tantrums, and mischief that define this transitional period. However, may we dare suggest that in reality you should look forward to it, being that the Terrible Twos are indicative of your child growing up and adjusting to the world that he or she lives in.
If you put yourself in your child’s shoes, you will discover that in many ways this period is very taxing. Your child is starting to experience a range of new emotions, such as anger, fear, and excitement. These emotions are confusing and your child has not yet developed a healthy way to express these emotions. Even if your child has an age-appropriate vocabulary, there are still not enough words in their repertoire to communicate something as abstract as emotions or feelings. Furthermore, as your child’s motor skills improve, he or she now has an opportunity to explore the world. This puts your child in contact with all kinds of sensory stimulation which are all completely new. This can be overwhelming for a young child. Your child is also teething, which can be a source of constant pain. Additionally, the child’s process of individuation makes the child want to feel somewhat autonomous from the adults which can lead to defiance.
If you put all of these factors together, we should be able to start to understand the difficulties that your child faces in his or her everyday life. With this background, we can now explore some of the situations that may lead a child to bite.
Children of this age get easily frustrated. They often do not have a robust enough vocabulary to help them vent their frustrations. Sometimes, this will result in a temper tantrum. Other times, it might lead to biting behavior.
Children at this age are starting to understand some abstract concepts such as ownership and personal space. When their newfound “property” is “invaded”, the reaction can be visceral. Would you attack a burglar who was carrying out a home invasion if that was your only option for survival? Your child feels the same way.
Children need our attention. Unfortunately, we often neglect our children as we are busy taking care of our own personal business while the children are blissfully playing in the background. They need us to talk to them, play with them, and spend time with them. If they feel neglected, they might engage in attention-seeking behavior. These little kids are smarter than you think, and they can intuitively figure out what they need to do to catch your attention.
Your child is just beginning to develop social skills. Trial and error are one of the ways that little children learn. Sometimes, the biting behavior is an attempt to see if this is an effective way of getting their needs met.
With time and guidance, children tend to develop appropriate ways of managing their feelings. As children mature, biting becomes less common. Biting in older children can sometimes be a sign of an underlying condition such as a speech delay, sensory processing disorder, or autism spectrum disorder. A child psychologist can be helpful in exploring the roots of the behavior and developing a diagnosis and treatment plan.
The Terrible Twos are a delightful period in your child’s life. Your child is exploring, testing, and learning. The cognitive growth that your child achieves during this phase is staggering. The ride might be a bumpy one, but make sure to enjoy it!