It was a shock when my one year old daughter learnt to bite me. She seemed to find it so amusing. I’d tried saying ‘Ow’! loudly, or ignoring it, but that didn’t stop her. She’d often bite me when I was busy and distracted; if I was holding her while trying to write an email, or in a rush trying to get ready to go out. Then the screaming began. She started screaming if I didn’t get her breakfast fast enough or, if I was busy cleaning up and she needed something. On one particularly difficult day, she screamed loudly on the train at some businessman who were talking, and then started screaming at the teacher of our music class. It was as if my daughter had turned into a toddler overnight!
According to Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, screaming, biting, and other kinds of aggression are actually signs that our child is experiencing fear. It might stem from family tensions, a difficult birth, or medical treatments. But all children gather fear from everyday situations such as falling over, or being separated from a parent for a short time.
Patty Wipfler teaches an approach called Parenting by Connection which is based on the idea that our children are naturally good, loving, and co-operative. They don’t want to hurt us or other children. When children feel safe and connected to us, they can heal from stress and upsets through laughter and tears. But their sense of connection to us is fragile and can be broken by small things, such as our turning away to answer the telephone. Children need extra attention to help them recover from any fears and upsets they have experienced.
My daughter was giving me a loud and clear message that she needed my attention. The screaming grated on my ears and made me feel stressed and irritable. The biting wasn’t so bad, as usually I could deflect her teeth from chomping down on me. However one morning when I was busy getting ready she bit down on my arm and wouldn’t let go of me. We stared at each other like wild animals for about thirty seconds. I couldn’t do anything to make her let go! I knew then that I needed to do something. So far it was only me that she bit, but I didn’t want her to start doing it to other children.
Sharing the stresses
I began to experiment with the listening tools I’d learnt through Parenting by Connection. First of all was my Listening Partnership. This is when two parents exchange listening time with each other, to talk about the stresses and difficulties of parenting. When we talk with another, we can let off steam, so that we have renewed patience for parenting. Being listened to helps us clear our minds of all the clutter, so that we can think clearly and use our full intelligence. I talked about how much the screaming bothered me, how it grated on my ears and made me feel angry. It was a relief to be able to talk honestly about how irritable it made me, and how sad I felt that my lovely daughter was growing up. The next day when my daughter started screaming, I realized that it just didn’t bother me as much anymore. Talking about it had really helped release my feelings. It also helped me to understand that she wasn’t doing it to “annoy” me. She was doing it because she was feeling scared and disconnected.
Laughing and loving
The next tool I used was Playlistening. This is when we pay attention to what makes our children laugh (anything except tickling), and repeat it over and over again. It’s important in playlistening that the adult takes on the less powerful role. As the child laughs, and feels powerful, some of the tension from fear dissolves, and they feel strong and confident.
When my daughter tried to bite me, I would scream and try to crawl away. We had a few giggles as she chased me around the bed. I also gave her a pillow to bite which she enjoyed attacking! We had fun playing this game. My daughter seemed to enjoy the chance to play in a way we hadn’t before: to be given permission to express her power in play. It reminded me of the way kittens play, biting and scratching gently - not wanting to cause pain, but just playing for fun. I began to understand that if I gave her opportunities to play in this way then perhaps she wouldn’t feel the need to bite at other times.
“She was peaceful and joyful. We were making a lot of eye contact. I felt like I had finally found the right game to help her release tension”
A difficult birth
But the biting continued. When she bit me hard and held on for 30 seconds I felt intense anger for the first time. Afterwards I decided to give my daughter some Special Time. This is when we listen to what our child wants to do, and follow their lead for a timed period. I didn’t feel like my daughter “deserved” special time, but I tried to remember that the biting was a sign of fear. She didn’t mean to hurt me, she was trying to connect with me. As I got down on the floor and began to play ball with her, I reflected about what must have scared her. My pregnancy had been easy and straightforward. We had relatively stress free, happy lives. However, her birth had been difficult. A long induction that ended in a vacuum extraction. I thought of the book, Birth without Violence, by Michel Odent, and felt so sad that she had experienced violence as such a tiny baby. I no longer felt angry, and began to cry suddenly feeling such empathy for her.
My daughter would also scratch my face, particularly when she was tired. One afternoon when I was cradling her in my arms before sleep, she started scratching me. I moved her hands away and then began to initiate a game. I would say in a playful tone, ‘’you are my lovely sweet baby, so sweet and gentle,’’ and I would look into her eyes, and gently stroke her face or her foot. Then she would attack me with her arms grabbing or her legs kicking. I would respond by moving in close and giving her a hug to ‘protect’ myself. This elicited a lot of giggles. She really got into this game, and understood that my words and gentle stroking where a signal for her to attack! She was laughing much more than with our earlier playlistening games, and I could see her becoming more and more relaxed as we continued. She was peaceful and joyful. We were making a lot of eye contact. I felt like I had finally found the right game to help her release tension. It was a beautiful moment of connection where she could bring up her aggressive feelings, and I could respond with affection and love. We finished the game and she fell asleep within seconds. That is a rarity!
The next day when we were getting ready to go out, my daughter bit me. I did not have time to play games, so without thinking I gently set a limit. I picked her up and told her ‘please don’t bite me’. She started to cry, very suddenly and powerfully. I sat on the floor and cradled her in my arms. Listening to our children cry is what Wipfler refers to as Staylistening. We don’t try and stop our children crying by moving them away from the situation, trying to distract them, or saying things such as ‘you’re okay,’ or ‘there’s no need to cry.’ We simply stay with them as they express their feelings. Crying is the natural way that we heal from stress and upsets. When we are in fearful situations our body releases stress hormones called cortisol and adrenalin and when we cry these hormones are released through our tears. If we listen and don’t interrupt this healing process our children can then recover from difficult and traumatic experiences.
Since that day my daughter has stopped biting completely! I am also seeing other signs that she’s discovering her natural confidence. Whereas before she would often be clingy and want to be picked up all the time, she now plays independently, at least some of the time. And I feel more at ease and accepting of what’s happened.
Her birth may have not been what I wanted, but she can recover from this early trauma, using the natural healing process of laughter and tears. I’m letting go of my regrets about her birth because that was a time when I didn’t have many choices. As she grows up, I can make the choice of how I parent her, ensuring that she will grow up without violence, only love.
Kate is a freelance writer, traveler and mother to daughter, Ruby. Living in Switzerland she is training to become a Parenting by Connection Instructor with Hand in Hand Parenting.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
handinhandparenting.org offers resources for helping crying infants sleep, managing toddlers tantrums.
WHAT TO READ
Parenting from the Inside Out Daniel Siegel
Playful Parenting Lawrence Cohen
Becoming the Parent You Want to Be Laura Davis