My Daughter Was a Preschool Biter

They told me it was “just a phase,” but it felt like a mortifying betrayal.

Credit...Giacomo Bagnara

I never truly hated the royal “we” until it was used to inform me that my child had bitten one of her classmates.

Her preschool’s main method of communication is a messenger app. The teachers typically use the classroom thread to send photos of the children going about their various daily activities, event reminders and calls for parents to bake cookies for this or buy raffle tickets for that. Personal messages are usually reserved for health issues (“she feels a bit hot, you may want to pick her up early”) or extraordinarily good behavior (“she helped her classmates with counting today!”). But when things took a sudden turn for the worse, “she” became a carefully impersonal ”we.”

“We had a little biting incident today,” came the solemn message, accompanied by a frowny face emoji.

I get it. Soften the blow. They’re two years old. It happens. It’s more normal than you think! These were the assurances my daughter’s teachers gave me, that Google gave me, that my coworkers with older children gave me. But I felt mortified. Betrayed, even. How often had I boasted to my family about how my daughter was excelling in the classroom? I was blindsided by my own foolish pride and by my apparent inability to mold my daughter into the child I wanted her to be, that I thought she wanted to be.

But that line of thinking was ridiculous; a two-year-old is not a rational person. Very quickly, I was forced to relinquish any lingering delusion of influence over my child’s core self. I felt that ruptured sense of influence almost as acutely as I’d felt my very first separation from my daughter, a little over two years earlier, in the hospital where she was born.

Her dad and I flew into crisis mode: we exchanged parenting articles and Amazon links to books by experts on the subject. We researched possible causes and solutions, as well as distractions that might help ease the situation until the solutions kicked in. We bought her a chunky necklace and instructed her to chew on it when she felt too angry or sad to communicate. We created a chart for her classroom, so her teachers could keep track of her behavior with shiny stickers. (If a full day passed with no biting, she received a “special treat” when she got home: a cookie, a half hour of television, a container of bubbles.) We smothered her with affection and asked, constantly, how she was feeling.

Every night, every morning, we read one of the same two books with her: “No Biting” by Karen Katz or “Teeth Are Not For Biting” by Elizabeth Verdick. Yo Gabba Gabba’s “Don’t Bite Your Friends” haunted my dreams. I would scan her face anxiously as I recited the same sentences, searching for any sign of comprehension, of regret. “Biting hurts!” she would repeat brightly, engaged but unrepentant.

Sometimes it seemed to work: “We had a great day today!” her teachers would report. Yet more often: “We had another incident this afternoon.”

We. Some days I shut my door at work and cried, furious and embarrassed at my fury, having nowhere to direct it. Where do you turn when your baby is locked in a torrent of emotion she can’t control? What did this say about my parenting, my influence, my genes, even? Eventually, we turned to our pediatrician, who referred us to a therapist: Erica Miller Ph.D., a child psychologist based in Brooklyn.

Echoing the experts we’d already encountered in our own biting-themed research, Dr. Miller assured us that biting is quite common among children ages 1 to 3, and may be linked to many factors. Children bite because they are just starting to develop their language skills and emotional vocabularies, so it can be difficult for them to express their feelings. Biting is more likely to occur in faster-paced and highly stimulating environments. Not only was biting typical at our daughter’s age, Dr. Miller told us, it was also probably a phase, and one we could expect to see fade within a few months, or sooner.

I’d heard “just a phase” many other times during various parenting crises, and although those once hellish phases did pass (remember when she kept taking her diaper off during naptime?), I still had trouble remembering that these behaviors are finite. Her dad echoed my fears. “So, in the meantime…?” What were we supposed to do with our apparently feral child while she was still unpredictable in school?

Dr. Miller had plenty of strategies. “Keep reading those books with her,” she advised. Repetition is crucial at this age, she explained, because it helps young children internalize information. Talk to her teachers, and learn her patterns: When does she usually bite? Who is she around? What is happening immediately before and after the biting incidents? Demystifying the biting behavior will help to make it more manageable, and eventually empower her teachers to be proactive rather than reactive.

Dr. Miller also encouraged us to continue using our chart. “It will help for her to remember that there are rewards for behaving well,” she said. On the weekends, when we had more time, she asked us to set aside a dedicated hour of play: whatever she wanted to do, we were to go along with it, and let her take full control (within reason). At the end of the hour, Dr. Miller theorized, our daughter would feel more comfortable communicating emotions that might otherwise have remained smothered.

I’m not sure what the solution was, honestly; most likely, it was a combination of some of the above. Her dad and I made sure we set aside time for the three of us to hang, and we let her take the reins for a bit when we did. We cheered her on when she had good days at school, and we FaceTimed close family members so they could celebrate, too. We practiced calming strategies with her and tried to drive home the importance of playing nicely with friends. And, honestly, we bribed her. A lot. We were desperate, but we also knew patience and consistency would be the key.

By the end of the school year, the messages we received throughout the day were overwhelmingly positive. “We had another great day today, no biting!” I would read, and put my phone down with an explosive, happy sigh. “We” had had a great day, indeed.

This story was originally published on May 24, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

Carla Bruce-Eddings is a book publicist, freelance writer and mom to a fiery and opinionated 3-year-old girl.