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The Competent Parent: Four year old bites

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Four Year Old Bites

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I sometimes watch my friend’s son – who just turned four. Recently he has bitten my daughter – who is almost 5 – on more than one occasion. Between them all could be running smoothly, then chomp! She is starting to expect him to bite her and is quick to tell on him to his mother (which I think makes me look like a negligent babysitter!).

For example, they were both sliding on adjacent sliding boards then agreed to change boards. As they passed each other to make the switch, he bit her on the rear. Of course I tell him we don’t bite our friends as I’m trying to calm down my upset child. I don’t want to lose my friendship with the mom, but rather hope you have some tips for helping me do the right thing to teach him not to bite.




Click here to read last week’s post about Dangerous Food.

Dear Flustered,

What a good friend you are. Saving the children’s friendship is at stake here, too. If you make it your goal to have no more biting incidents, I believe you will succeed. But it will be up to you, not the children, to make that happen. Here are the strategies I recommend:

1) Stay close when they are playing together. Close supervision is the best way to prevent young children from being hurt, including being hurt by each other. This means more than standing by – if you’re lost in a phone conversation you’ll miss the clues that tension is building.

2) Give positive comments about what each child is doing. Regaining adult attention is often the motivation behind many misbehaviors. More than “I like the way you . . .” offer observations that show you are truly paying attention. For example, “I see you have two coal cars behind your locomotive.” Be sure to give each child individual attention so they don’t get jealous. And give your daughter lots of attention just before and after they are together, since her friend may need a bit more while he’s missing his mom.

3) Keep the children focused on age and interest appropriate challenges – at age four they want to see if they can slide faster, make a longer train, etc. Their minds are still growing rapidly, and boredom is a reason to hurt someone else. Not a rational reason, mind you, but a subconscious urge to make something exciting happen. When one child seems to have grown tired of the activity, it’s time to suggest something different.

4) Monitor hunger and fatigue. A young child needs regular, wholesome, food to keep his blood sugar steady all day. Peaks (after a sugar load) and drops (as the insulin kicks in) change behavior in ways nobody likes to deal with. He also needs rest periods – maybe even a two hour nap – to refresh from his body’s typically high-geared pace at play. Reading a few picture books together is a nice calming routine to insert between active play periods.

5) Strengthen your daughter’s position in this triad. It appears she has become accustomed to being the helpless victim which draws out your sympathy. Help her assert her ideas into their play, as in “Hey, Wesley, Madeira found a way to hold up the track with a block. Do you want to try that on your side?” Give her some “helper” roles, such as passing him the bowl of cut apples at snack time. This will build her self-esteem and also will help her playmate to see that she is deserving of respect.

6) Build the biter’s problem-solving repertoire. If sharing attention, space, and toys is hard for him – as it is for many children this age – offer solutions to each dilemma as it comes up. She’s talking to you when an urgent thought occurs to him? “Excuse me, Madeira, Wesley looks like there’s something important on his mind.” She’s passing too closely to him? “Let’s tell Madeira to walk around where you’re sitting so you won’t be pushed down the slide before you’re ready.” She takes a train car he was considering adding to his train? “Let’s see if there’s another caboose just like that one.”

Stick to your strategies for helping him to play nicely and everyone will benefit!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com.

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