Wednesday 19 December 2018

Dear David Coleman: How can I stop my older son from biting his brother?

You need to be present and observant, with a view to distracting him, or intervening if needed
You need to be present and observant, with a view to distracting him, or intervening if needed

Question: Our two-and-a-half year old is biting and starting to smack his eight-month-old brother. He leaves teeth marks on his hands a lot. When we catch him, the punishment is to go to the silly step at the bottom of the stairs for three minutes. We tell him he's being silly and it's not okay to hurt his brother. He listens and might say back what we've said in a serious tone or he might cry. The problem is he's doing it more and more. We are not sure what to do? How can we address this?

David replies:  There are a couple of factors to consider. Biting and hitting are not unusual behaviours for a toddler/pre-schooler. For many of them, biting is just a natural way to express their frustration. It is an almost instinctive way to show that they are cross or unhappy with the way things have worked out.

So, while you definitely need to respond to the biting and hitting, you might like to think a little about why it is either starting now, or is increasing in frequency and, perhaps, in intensity too.

For example, your son's little brother has possibly become more mobile in the last few weeks if he has started crawling. So, he can now make his presence felt in a way that he wasn't able to before. Your older boy may feel quite put out that his little brother can now get stuck into the middle of things.

Also, if you had been on maternity leave after the birth of your younger boy, and that leave has ended, perhaps your older boy has been upset by the changes in his care, either that his little brother has arrived in his crèche, or that you are no longer at home full-time.

The next thing to consider is the way that you are dealing with the biting and hitting. I don't think that using a "silly step" is a good idea. For a start, even the terminology you are using is belittling for him and this could really impact his self-esteem. When you tell him that he is "being silly" you emphasise to him, that he himself is silly. There is no reference to his behaviour being bad (or silly) and this too increases the likelihood that he will internalise a sense of himself as silly.

A better approach is to get rid of the step as a punishment and just correct the behaviour. So, given that you know he is biting his brother more frequently, you need to be present and observant, with a view to distracting him, or intervening, before he even gets to the point of biting. Heading him off at the pass, so to speak, is better than having to deal with the aftermath.

If, despite your supervision, he still manages to bite his brother, then you need to respond to him sternly and immediately. I'd suggest that you quickly lift him away from his brother while saying "No biting!". It is fine to both look and sound cross as you say this.

When you have safely moved him out of reach of his brother, you can then comfort your younger son if he is upset. As you are soothing your little boy, you might want to say to his older brother, "We do not bite in our family. You may feel upset (or frustrated or cross), but you may not bite. When you are ready to play without biting then you can continue to play with your brother."

You might also want to acknowledge to your older boy that you can understand it may be challenging to have a little brother but that biting is never okay.

The key thing is that your older boy knows, from your stern and cross tone, that you do not approve of his behaviour. You haven't stopped loving him (nor have you banished him out to the step), you simply don't like his behaviour. He will learn, through repetition, that you will not accept biting behaviour and he should reduce, or stop, it altogether.

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