From the time my son was 12 months old until he reached age 24 months, it’s conservative to estimate he bit nearly fifty other children.
It brings tears to my eyes sharing that with you right now because that is an insane number of children to bite. And because working through a year of toddler biting is an insanely long time.
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I’m just a regular stay-at-home mom with a regular toddler boy. He loves to run, play in dirt, chew on sticks, and laugh.
Turns out, he also loves to bite.
At first, we thought it was just a regular toddler biting issue that would pass in no time at all. We did all the right things that all the parenting experts recommended: saying no, teaching consequences, comforting the victim, offering other acceptable ways to bite or chew, and so much more.
And yet, not much seemed to improve.
We continued to struggle so much that we actually removed ourselves from about eighty percent of social situations involving other children. The biting was incessant, unprovoked, and it was extremely stressful for everyone involved.
But this story isn’t really about a toddler biting.
Maybe you’re a parent struggling with toddler tantrums, screaming or whining. Or maybe you’re parent struggling with toddler hitting and kicking. Or maybe you’re a parent struggling with toddler teasing or saying mean words. Or maybe you’re a parent—just like me—struggling with toddler biting.
No matter your struggle, you try to do all the right things to teach and guide your toddler towards positive behavior. You stay up late Googling solutions. You try to stay patient. You aim for consistency.
And yet, the negative behavior continues.
But what if there was a better solution?
One important solution to challenging behaviors.
Several months ago, a friend shared a copy of The Danish Way of Parentingwith me. Dealing with toddler biting and several other negative toddler behaviors, I was open to reading or trying anything. I remember clutching the book tightly with my hands as I grabbed it from our post office box, then sneaking off to the car to catch a glimpse of the first few chapters. I was hoping for answers, yet remained cautiously optimistic.
When I reached the fourth chapter—Empathy—my eyes widened as I read this quote:
“Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the feelings of others. Simply put, it’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
The lightbulb went on in my brain. If I could help my toddler understand that his negative behavior was hurting others—even in the simplest capacity—it could help him gain enough self-control to stop hurting other children.
Glued to the page, I continued reading…
“Parents have a big responsibility because they are the primary example of empathy and must practice being empathetic themselves. This can be done with their use of language, their behavior and actions. Children will constantly be focused on their parents and will mirror them. Therefore, what they experience in the home will be crucial for their empathy development.”
I was sold. Teaching our toddler empathy was a key factor in helping him stop biting. In fact, teaching any toddler empathy is a key factor towards stopping any negative behavior.
You might be thinking how exactly do you teach a young child empathy?
A step-by-step guide for teaching empathy.
Teaching empathy to toddlers is not an easy solution to remedy negative behavior, but it is an important solution. Learning empathy takes time, along with a lot real life application from parents and others who are with your child on a daily basis.
Here is one way parents can teach empathy:
1. Your child exhibits a negative behavior
2. Set a boundary. Examples:
- “We don’t hit others”
- “Our hands are for gentle touches.”3. Convey empathy towards the hurt child using both actions and words. Examples:
- “She feels sad that you hurt her.”
- “Why do you think she feels hurt?”
- Patting the hurt child on the back or offering comfort in some way.
4. Allow your child the opportunity to mirror your behavior. Examples:
- “Can you show me how to be kind and gentle?”
- “Can you help her feel better?”
Here is a second way parents can teach empathy:
This second method is an activity you can do with your child before the negative behavior occurs. It’s a way of practicing at home to help your child recognize the feelings of others and how to respond. Since this activity is proactive, it helps children learn about empathy without the stress and heightened emotion experienced during a real life event.
1. Show your toddler pictures of kids conveying a variety of emotions: sadness, fear, anger, frustration, happiness, etc.
2. Help your child label the emotions.
3. Help your child explain what to do if she saw a child experiencing a given emotion.
Using a combination of the first and second methods over the course of time can help toddlers learn about empathy in a safe and effective way.
Did the biting ever stop?
Just yesterday, I took a leap of faith and went to a playgroup with my son. Chatting with the other moms, I heard another child start to scream. Initially my heart sank, and all I could think was please not again. I turned my head, saw my son and our eyes met.
My heart melted.
There sat my son comforting the crying child who was hurt from falling down. My son—the boy who bit nearly fifty other children—was now patting another little boy on the head asking about his “boo-boo.”
He was walking a mile in another child’s shoes.
He was understanding the feelings of others.
He was empathizing.
To be honest, I never thought this day would come. After twelve arduous months of teaching and teaching and guiding and then teaching some more, it was difficult to envision the light at the end of the tunnel.
Teaching empathy was a lot of work, but it was worth every bit of energy. It lead our family to a much happier place. It transformed everyday life for my husband and I as parents and for our toddler too.
Our work isn’t done yet though.
There is so much more to learn about empathy in the years to come.