Older babies and toddlers can have sudden surges of excitement, frustration, and anger that they cannot express in a modulated way. Without language to mediate their impulses, they can at times express strong feelings through biting. For example, a nine month old baby who is playing with her mother’s face gets over-excited and suddenly bites her mother’s shoulder when she picks her up. Or a 20-month-old toddler lashes out and bites, when his toy is grabbed from him. Although this is a normal developmental stage, it can be upsetting to parents and other adults. Parents can be concerned about what this means about their child or their parenting, and can worry that other parents will be rejecting.
At The Pacella Parent Child Center we have found a particular approach with mothers and their children that decreases this behavior. Since babies and toddlers cannot regulate their emotional states on their own, they need the adult to adjust the level of stimulation and create physical boundaries that are protective. Our approach is to try to prevent biting from happening. For example, the mother of the nine month old can learn to read the cues of her baby, so as to help her not get over-excited. Or, if she is unable to regulate her baby’s level of arousal, she can hold her baby in way that physically prevents her from biting her. In the case of the toddler, we also help mothers learn how to anticipate and physically prevent the biting. In addition, the toddler needs the adult to put his feelings into words and to give him simple language to express himself. For the toddler, this is the beginning of a long process of learning to use words, rather than impulsive behavior, to express strong feelings. Our approach involves setting non punitive limits that foster positive experiences in which a child’s self esteem is enhanced.
In the parents’ group, mothers can share experiences with each other and with a supportive, knowledgeable group leader. Mothers grow to feel safe to talk about the feelings that are evoked by their child’s behavior and realize how everyone struggles with their own child’s aggression. Because of the unique physical set up of our side-by-side groups, mothers can observe and learn from the child development staff's interventions with the children in vivo.