Question:  What do you do with a kid who bites other people? Our strong-willed toddler has been displaying this negative behaviour with increasing frequency over the past couple of months. How do we put a stop to it?


When dealing with toddlers, the best way to extinguish any kind of negative behaviour, including biting, is to administer swift consequences. One consequence that can be very effective with kids at this age is an immediate time out.

The technical term psychologists use to refer to this method of discipline is "time out from positive reinforcement." In other words, you remove your child from the situation and confine him to a very boring location for a short period of time. You put him in a place devoid of external stimuli of any kind.

A Pak N Play portable playpen is excellent for this purpose. Simply put the playpen in a location where your child is "away from the action," but where you can still keep an eye on him. Then require him to stay there until he’s "served his sentence." Typically we suggest one minute of time out for each year of a child’s age, so that a two-year-old would receive a two-minute time out.

As mentioned above, it’s important that the time out be characterized by a lack of external stimuli. The child should not have access to toys during that time, and you shouldn't interact with him at all. Don’t lecture or scold. Just ignore him. In the mind of a toddler, even negative attention is better than no attention at all. It’s likely that he will scream or throw a tantrum, but don’t give in to the temptation to pick him up until he’s served his time.

If you’re at a friend’s house or out in public when the biting occurs, you may need to be a bit more creative. But the same principle applies: the important thing is that you immediately remove your child from the situation and take him to a neutral, boring location.

Once the time out has been served, require your child to apologize to the person he bit. You may wish to help him out here by saying something like, "Tell Jamie you’re sorry for biting him." If he refuses or becomes disrespectful, then it’s back to the time out location for another two or three minutes.

As a side note, we’ve heard some parents claim that time outs don’t work for their kids. In such cases, it might be that the time out isn’t being administered correctly. If you’re consistent with your follow through and don’t give in to whining, screaming or temper tantrums, you should find that the biting behaviour decreases fairly rapidly.

If this doesn’t happen, there is a remote possibility that your child may be suffering from a more serious developmental problem. In that case, we recommend that you consult with your pediatrician. If your doctor gives your child a clean bill of health and determines that this is nothing but an instance of persistent strong-willed behaviour, you may want to order a copy of Dr. James Dobson’s book The New Strong-Willed Child, which is available via our online store.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox