Some children bite themselves or others when frustrated. I’ve seen a lot of this in children on the autism spectrum, but it can happen with any child–including those with sensory issues. Stopping this behavior can be quite a challenge for parents and caregivers. Let’s take a look at why children bite and what can be done about it.
Often the biting behavior is not due to aggression but rather by an imbalance to the sensory system and poor self-regulation. Chewing and biting are sensory activities. They tap into the proprioceptive system that registers pressure in the joints. The resulting information goes to the brain for processing, which has a regulating effect on the nervous system. In other words, the child bites because he finds it soothing. Knowing this gives us clues to what we can do to address the child’s real sensory needs and reduce biting.
5 Techniques to Reduce Biting
1. Jumping, pushing, lifting. Activities that place strong input on the child’s joint receptors will help lessen the need to chew and bite. Structure the child’s day, to make sure he gets to play on trampolines, does obstacle courses, and explores playground equipment. The more regular these activities become, the more they are likely to alleviate his need to bite himself or others.
2. Provide plenty of oral experiences. Games and activities that engage the oral muscles will go a long way to reducing biting. Try to have him blow bubbles, start with soap bubbles with a wand. Then move on to blowing bubbles using a big straw in a bowl full of milk or fruit shake. The effort needed to produce bubbles will help provide strong input to his brain.
3. Let him chew crunchy foods. Food items such as licorice sticks, carrot and celery sticks, pretzel sticks, crusty bread will provide great proprioceptive input. Some parents place a clean wet cotton rag in the freezer (make sure to wash the rag in non-toxic soap) for their child to chew on when he needs the extra input. If using food, always be mindful of the child’s food allergies, sensitivities and aversions. This should be pleasant and fun for the child.
4. Growling, mad faces, stomping feet and emotional play. Kids love it when adults enter their play or mirror their emotions. You can help your child by acting mad, and stomping your feet when he is frustrated. Tell him: “ I can see you’re frustrated. When I am frustrated I feel like stomping my feet, I growl GRRRR!” Mirror his face, so he gets validated and acquires a vocabulary around his emotion. Come up with more ways to mirror and educate your child about his emotions.
5. Pay attention to triggers. Changes in a child’s environment or interaction with others can impact a child’s nervous system. Stress reduces a child’s ability to react appropriately to a situation. The child has not yet acquired a toolkit to deal with his frustrations, new situation or sensory over-stimulation. Things like perfumes, lighting, crowds, or even lack of stimulation, can provoke the unwanted behavior in a child with sensory challenges. Parents and caregivers can look for patterns in their child’s environment to figure out what is triggering a melt-down or his biting. Often, an aggravating factor emerges. Figuring it out allows you to get to the root of the problem and fix it.
A child who bites is sending a message about his boundaries, his nervous system and his needs. By looking at biting as a form of communication, we can address the underlying issues that make a child bite himself or others. Occupational therapists have many tricks in their toolkits, sensory and otherwise, to help reduce biting behaviors.