Parent Q&A: When toddler bites really bite

Hi Rebekka,

I could really use your help! My 21-month-old son bit his sister and father today. The incidents were pretty much back-to-back. My son has bitten us when he was younger (before 12 months of age), and we haven’t seen it again until now. This time, though, he did it out of anger and frustration that his sister was in his way.

I was going to treat this incident in the same manner we treat hitting and pushing.
I never got around to disciplining my son, because his sister was so upset, and by that time, he had already bitten his father, who let out an ouch and then said, “No biting!” Figured that was enough for now.

What’s the right approach?

Many thanks,

Concerned Mom

Hi CM!

Sounds like your son is expressing some really big feelings through his biting. I don’t believe there is one right way to respond to this kind of behavior, but here are some of my ideas for thinking about biting:

1) Don’t worry; the toddler biting phase is temporary! Biting is a toddler’s way of expressing a variety of big feelings in lieu of language to express it more directly. Know that this form of self-expression will pass, which should help you to approach this behavior more matter-of-factly.

2) There is a backstory to each bite. You indicated in the email that your son was frustrated and angry that his sister was in his way. However, I’m wondering what happened before that? Was your son already tired, frustrated, or overwhelmed? Sometimes excitement or happiness can lead to a bite as well. It’s like an explosion of dysregulation – a release of pent-up big feelings. When children are having big feelings, bites and other impulsive behaviors can sometimes be prevented by helping children down-regulate when overstimulated.

3) After tending to the one who got bitten, you can reflect both your son’s possible feelings and your limit, as well as offer an alternative to the biting impulse. For example, “You didn’t like that your sister was in your way, so you bit her and Daddy. We don’t bite bodies because it hurts – look at your sister and Daddy’s faces, they are upset. If you are having biting feelings, you can bite this washcloth instead.” Your husband stated the limit – “No biting” – and you do want to set that limit! However, it will also help your son to hear you when you can acknowledge the feelings that led to the biting. This skill can take some practice, especially if you are caught off guard.

5) You can always go back and revisit the incident later when everyone is calmer. For example, “Do you remember what happened earlier you were playing? You bit your sister because you didn’t like that she was in your way. It’s okay to want her out of your way, and you may not bite your sister because it hurts her body. Maybe we can check to see if she is okay now.” I try my best to use “and” instead of “but,” so as to acknowledge that feelings and limits co-exist; they are not mutually exclusive. We learn early on that a “but” means bad news for us and that we will be smushed in some way. Instead, I try to hold both the feelings and the limit together. Again, this may take a little practice!

6) If you observe carefully, you will likely notice lead-up behaviors and clues that biting feelings are coming. Those are great times to connect with your son and redirect the impulse. For example, “I notice you’re getting worked up and might feel like biting. Would you like to bite this stuffed animal or a celery stick?” Giving limited choices (in this example, the stuffed animal or the celery stick) offers the child some control within parent-chosen parameters, which can help increase the child’s buy-in to the redirection.

I hope these ideas offer some food (no pun intended) for thought!.

Be well,


For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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