Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Punishment Doesn't Stop A Child From Biting

Punishment doesn't address the root cause.

Key points

  • Children don't set out to bite and harm others on purpose. They are in reactive-mode and not in control.
  • Biting is a reflexive reaction that is meeting a sensory need/urge that drives their behavior.
  • Punishment assumes the child can stop the behavior, and is also shaming, which only increases dysregulated behavior, like biting.
  • Kids need to learn an acceptable substitute for biting people, otherwise the urge and behavior persists.

I met with a family recently with a 23-month-old (whom I'll call Aiden) who is biting people. Naturally, the parents (Maritza and Oliver) are very concerned because other families are getting upset at their children being the victims of these bites.

Like many parents who find themselves in this situation, Maritza and Oliver want to do whatever they can to stop the biting. They believe/hope that punishment will end this behavior; that Aiden will want to please them and not get into trouble, which will motivate him to stop this behavior. So they have been using a harsh voice and putting him in time-out, or taking desired toys and activities away.

Meanwhile, Aiden has been walking around the house saying, "No biting. Aiden no bite," throughout the day. Just like us, kids replay experiences over and over that are emotionally-charged, trying to make sense of what it all means. This puts Aiden in a quandary, because what he does understand is that his parents are unhappy with him, but what he does not have is the impulse control to stop himself when he has the urge to bite. This puts him in an impossible situation. It also means that no amount of threats or punishment is likely going to help him stop this behavior.

As I guide Maritza and Oliver to figure out as best we can what the root cause is of the biting, we identify a pattern: the biting happens when Aiden is triggered into over-arousal. He is happily playing rough-and-tumble with his dad and then, out of nowhere, he chomps into Oliver's arm. Or, he is racing up and down the slide, and after a few rounds of this, sinks his teeth into a child next to him in line.

So, the punishment is not working because:

1) It is not addressing the root cause of the problem: the over-arousal.

2) It is confusing Aiden because he cannot meet his parents' expectation. Punishment conveys to a child that you believe he can control his actions, that he is acting with pre-meditated intention, and can therefore make a different choice.

But at 23 months, Aiden is not able to control these impulses—to say to himself: "I am really over-excited right now and need a sensory release, but my mom and dad have said biting isn't okay, so in the heat of these moments, I need to quash that need and find something more acceptable to fulfill this urge." That is not a reasonable expectation for a young child.

This gap between his parents' expectations and Aiden's ability to meet these expectations creates a space of endless frustration for everyone involved.

3) Aiden feels shame. When children feel shamed, they shut down. Their brains get flooded with negative emotion. They can’t take in any lesson you are trying to impart. Further, it is during the first five years that children are developing their sense of self—what kind of person they are—which is deeply affected by the messages they get from those around them. If that message is that he is a hurtful person, who is being harmful on purpose, it becomes part of his personal narrative which makes it more likely he will keep engaging in the unwanted behavior.

Moving from a mindset that Aiden is purposefully being hurtful to "I have a great, high-intensity kid who bites for relief," Maritza and Oliver are able to come up with a new plan based on teaching, not punishment, as follows:

1) They come up with acceptable things he can bite safely, understanding that just telling him to stop biting is unlikely to work as it does not make the innate urge go away. Absent an alternative, he is likely to keep biting people.

2) They explain to Aiden that people's bodies have feelings, so biting is not okay because it hurts. They are aware at his age he may not process this information, but as they remind him of this over time, he will begin to understand.

3) They acknowledge that the act of biting feels good to him, and show him the different objects (like those noted above) he can safely sink his teeth into. They bring these objects with them wherever they go.

4) They emphatically communicate that they know he doesn't mean to be hurtful. His body sometimes acts before his brain, and they will be his helpers to find safe, acceptable things to sink his teeth into.

5) When they see Aiden getting revved up and moving into dysregulation, they try to head it off by helping him focus on something productive with his body. For example, on the playground, they turn aimless running into a game with a purpose, like counting together how many strides it takes to reach the fence, then banging on it three times and giving a high five. Or they help him take a body break pre-emptively, when they see him starting to spiral into dysregulation.

5) When Aiden does bite, his parents immediately stop the behavior, as calmly and matter-of-factly as possible. They tell him they are going to help keep his body safe and direct him to chomp on an acceptable object, ie, "Chewlery."

For those of you with older children, keep in mind that even though they may understand the concept that biting (or other physical aggression) is not okay, when they experience an overwhelming urge or feeling, their downstairs brain takes over and reacts. Even if their aggression appears to be purposeful, for example, children who bite when you don't give them something they want, or when another child takes a toy from them, no child starts out wanting to be hurtful to others. So I find that the same steps detailed above are most appropriate and work for older children as well.

More from Claire Lerner LCSW-C
More from Psychology Today