Children who bite and pinch are crying out for help!

Kinders wat byt en knyp roep uit na hulp!
September 19, 2023
Mamma, help my asseblief lees!
September 20, 2023

By Retha Bloem

Two ‘weapons’ that babies and two-year old toddlers easily use are biting and pinching. These actions can be traumatic for the victim and in some cases even dangerous. As with almost all negative behaviour that occurs with young children, it is advantageous for the wellbeing of the child, not to ignore the problem, but to address it from the first incident.

With ignorance comes fear – from fear comes bigotry.

Education is the key to acceptance.

Kathleen Patel

The biting or pinching actions usually take place when the child reacts impulsively or when they are feeling frustrated and powerless.  The age and development level of the child plays an important role in the use of these two ‘weapons’.

Biting and pinching are often the instinctive reaction of fight, flight or freeze, in this case fight, which is controlled by the survival brain.  Once the child’s emotional brain develops, this type of behaviour should cease.  It therefore occurs less frequently in pre-school children than in toddlers.  As the child learns how to react to emotions from their cognitive brain, they grow towards emotional maturity and biting and pinching will not be used as a ‘weapon’ anymore.  Words that describe the child’s emotions are then used.

If you’re horrible to me,

I’m going to write a song about it, and you won’t like it.

That’s how I operate.

Taylor Swift


Seeing that there are so many reasons why young children bite, only ten general reasons will be discussed:

  • Teething can be a painful part of development that can cause unspeakable frustration for the child. The need to bite or chew on something can then develop.
  • The most common cause of biting and pinching is the level of emotional immaturity that the child is in at that stage. Primary emotions, for example the child feels done in, which is not processed in the cognitive brain, leads to secondary emotions, for example anger.
  • According to De Jager (2013) the mouth and hands are on the same neurological pathway in the brain and the inability to express emotions in words can be correlated to this. The message of the child’s emotion is expressed or communicated by the ‘tool’ of language, namely the hand and mouth, tangible as a team.  The message of their emotions cannot be processed, due to a lack of vocabulary and therefore it cannot be discussed and sorted out.
  • The inadequate development of the proprioceptors and the sense of touch can cause the child to be oversensitive to physical touch or the proximity of friends. In order to protect their personal space and to explain this to friends, the quickest way is to bite or pinch.
  • Impulse control is acquired at different stages by each child, as each child possesses their own, unique dominance composition. A child who has not learnt this skill, can act impulsively by biting or pinching before thinking what they have to do.
  • When children feel powerless, the need arises to manipulate the situation or person who is causing this feeling. This also often happens in a chaotic environment, where there is no structure or inconsistent reaction to situations.
  • Children who are overstimulated or not stimulated enough, can quickly become frustrated and biting or pinching then provides them with a way to get rid of the negative feelings.
  • Trauma in the family, for example a motor accident, break in, hijacking, family violence, divorce, moving, death and others, to which the child is exposed, can cause stress for the child. This stress is often translated to frustration, sadness and a powerless feeling.  The child tries to express these negative emotions by biting or pinching.
  • When children are sleep deprived, they are often tired for days thereafter. Some children do not sleep well and often have a permanent tired feeling.  Nowadays we find that participating in too many activities or too much physical stimulation can cause exhaustion for the child.  Children cannot word this exhausted feeling and do not realise what the cause (sleep patterns, activities) of the exhaustion is.
  • Although there are schools that realise that the intake of sugar, starch, colourants, preservatives and so forth should be restricted in the child’s diet, there are still pre-primary schools that sell these ‘sins’ to the children in an unbalanced manner. It has been proven numerous times what a negative impact hyper- or hypo-activity can cause with children.  Out of frustration due to this negative behaviour, the child bites or pinches to express their feelings. In addition to this, the danger of undernourishment (hunger) should also be investigated, because children often do not have a balanced intake of Omega 3 and 6.

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much

unless you do what’s right.

Theodore Rooseveldt


As indicated in the introduction, the problem of biting can only be solved if the earliest incident is dealt with in an appropriate manner.  Attention should be given to the victim, as well as to the child who bit or pinched.

Seeing that the victim usually gets attention first after the incident of biting or pinching and the problem hardly started with the victim, the focus should be on the guilty child.  Negative behaviour like biting and pinching should not get so much attention that the offender feels empowered by the negative behaviour.

Firstly, the child should be made aware of the emotions that they are experiencing.  This awareness unfortunately does not happen overnight and therefore the child should get lots of opportunities to project these emotions.

Emotions should now be named, so that the child can identify them.  Vocabulary should be expanded so that the child can be empowered by language.  Words like nice can now be replaced by words such as happy, excited, cheerful, and angry can be replaced by words such as disappointed, unhappy, sad etc.

When the child is aware of their emotion, they can identify it in order to manage it constructively.  The age old advice to count to ten before reacting is very much applicable. The child has to learn to control himself and to first think about the incident that could lead to biting or pinching before reacting.  With each need to bite or pinch that is controlled, the child will feel more empowered and intrinsic motivation to show positive behaviour will be developed.

The child has to be guided to identify the emotions of the victim, so that they can understand the cause and effect of their actions.  Children have to be encouraged to recognise each other’s emotions, so that they can comprehend the cause and effect of their actions.  Although they are encouraged to recognise each other’s emotions, the offender and the victim should never be forced to play with each other directly after a biting or pinching incident.

The following saying:  “you can’t fight fire with fire,” is so applicable and a child who bites must NEVER be bitten in response.  The correct and positive behaviour should at all times be modelled to the child.  It is of utmost importance that children be exposed to healthy, positive, and meaningful relationships over a long period of time.

People who love themselves,

don’t hurt other people.

The more we hate ourselves,

the more we want others to suffer.

Dan Pearce


Due to the fact that children are unique and should not all be treated in the same manner, the following solutions should not be viewed as the only solutions. Mind Moves® (De Jager, 2009), a movement programme that can be utilised on a daily basis – 3 times per day in a controlled manner – to address biting and pinching, can also be recommended.

  • The child must experience himself as loved and valuable. It is therefore necessary to build a positive, balanced self-image.  Children also want to feel that they belong.  Children have to know what behaviour is socially acceptable, and what is not.  A loving environment in which the child grows gives them a sense of belonging and helps to positively develop their self-image.

Mind Moves:  Rise and Shine

Simulate the reflex by flinging the arms wide open while breathing deeply and slowly, and then closing the arms over the chest in a hug, breathing deeply and slowly. The learner can hug himself, or the parent may hug him simultaneously. This move boosts relaxation, rhythmic breathing and a sense of well-being.

  • Sucking is the predecessor of speaking; therefore the Rooting and Sucking Reflex has to be adequately developed in order to stimulate the speaking organs. Syrup or honey can be rubbed around the mouth and then the child has to lick it off with big tongue movements. The fine motor development of the hand, especially the independent functioning of the right thumb, is a predecessor of speech and language development. Use play dough to form small balls, firstly with the left hand’s fingers and then with the right hand’s fingers. The correct vocabulary is of utmost importance in the growth process towards emotional maturity. It is therefore important to empower the child with words that accurately describes their emotions, instead of just ‘nice’ or ‘bad’. For example, the child can be taught that there is a difference between sad and angry.

Mind Moves: Jaw dropper

Open the mouth wide by dropping the jaw, feeling the jaw joint just above the molars and all the way up in line with the ears. Gently massage the joint from top to bottom to loosen tension and promote muscle control and expression. This promotes both verbal and written communication, since the hands as well as the mouth are involved in the movement.

Mind Moves: Tongue Workout

Give the tongue a workout by lifting it high in mouth, pulling it back as far as possible, sticking it out as far as possible and moving it from left to right. This workout develops and stimulates the muscles necessary for speech, saliva control and neat eating.

Mind Moves: Hand Massage

Firmly massage the hand by applying pressure to the muscles between the bones of the hand to relax the hand from wrist to fingers. Apply pressure to each finger from the base of the finger to the nail. Spread the palm of the hand wide open and hold it for eight seconds. Repeat with the other hand. This move improves muscle tone, proprioception, pencil grip, fine motor control and speech.

  • Children enjoy movement and rhythm from an early age. Dance often with the child, so that their sense of direction and position in space is developed from an early age. By massaging the perimeters of their bodies, as well as their hands and feet, the proprioceptors and touch senses are stimulated. The child then experiences better sensory development.

Mind Moves:  Mind Moves Massage

Child must stand upright and hold both arms 90 degrees to the side of the body. Stand behind the child and firmly trace the outline of the body from head to toe. Hold the feet and push down for a moment as if planting the legs before repeating three times. This move develops tactile awareness, gravitational security and a positive sense of self.

  • The boundaries within which the child must stay, must be explained to the child at their own level. Boundaries should be consistent, as it is normal for children to test the boundaries. When children realise that the cause also has an effect, which is consequently applied, it provides them with security. The child can also be taught the robot-technique, whereby they have to stop before they act. Then they think about the situation that just took place. Lastly, they take positive action in order to emerge from the situation as a self-confident victor.

Mind Moves: Confidence Booster

Cross the feet and arms in a hugging fashion. Rest the tongue high against the palate, in the sucking position, in order to activate the part of the brain that calms emotions. Breathe slowly. The eyes may be closed. This move calms the body, heart and mind. It also boosts the immune system and enhances rhythm.

  • Manipulation happens when there are no consequent rules and where the adults in the household are not in agreement about how the house rules should be enforced. Empty promises and discipline threats from parents can also lead to manipulation. The child must believe their parents and trust them, whilst exceptions are restricted to the minimum.

Mind Moves: Power On

Rub the indentation just below the collar bone in line with the left eye to re-establish the electrical flow via the vagus nerve (to the speech organs and stomach) to help relax butterflies and talk with ease. Rubbing both indentations to the left and right of the breastbone supplies oxygen-rich blood to the brain and relieves the staring habit. It literally switches the brain ON for improved concentration without anxiety.

Mind Moves: Bilateral Integrator

Move the arms in a mirror image as though conducting a choir. This is a fun way to develop rhythm, eye-hand coordination, focal and peripheral vision, left and right integration in preparation for fluent speaking, reading and writing.

  • Children must be stimulated according to their level of development. There is no set correlation between level of intelligence and development levels that are reached in advance. A two-year-old will not be able to work at a potter’s turn table, if they are just at a stage of experimenting with clay.
  • Children often relive their family trauma through role play. Play therapists are equipped to guide young children through the emotions that accompanies family trauma. People often wait until children show signs of stress before they seek help. The healing process is much better the sooner attention is given to the situation, which drastically reduces stress.

Mind Moves:  Leg Workout

Sit on a chair and straighten both legs in front while resting the heels of the feet on the floor. Raise both legs off the floor. Flex and point both feet and be aware of any tightness in the calf muscles. Rest the left leg on the floor and flex the right foot. Hold for a count of eight in the flexed position. Relax the foot. Now raise the right foot and flex for a count of eight. Repeat this move at least three times with the right foot. Raise both legs off the floor. Flex and point both feet and be aware of any difference in the calf muscles. Repeat this move at least three times with the left foot. Horse-riding or walking on the heels could also help to lengthen the calf and hamstring muscles, reduce hyperactivity and improve impulse control.

  • See to it that the child’s bed is comfortable and big enough. The applicable sleep routine must be conscientiously followed, and the child has to sleep the adequate amount of hours. Resting time in the afternoon often helps children to sleep more peacefully at night. Set sleeping rules, so that the child knows what to expect and can go to bed calmly.

Mind Moves: Homolateral Walk

Slowly lift left arm and leg together, with head turned to look at the hand. Relax….. then lift the right arm and leg with head turned to right side. Always follow this with a Bilateral walk. This move develops hip flexion, the left and right brain, it interrupts reflexive movement and relieves impulsive and hyperactive movement.

Mind Moves: Bilateral Walk

Touch the left knee with the right hand, twisting the trunk to bring the opposite shoulder and hip towards each other, extending the other arm and leg. Now touch the right knee with the left hand, extending the other arm and leg. This movement stimulates left-right integration by crossing the lateral midline and is best done first lying down and then standing up. Repeat at least 10 times. The exercise can also be done while singing or doing some form of rote learning. This move integrates the left and right parts of the brain and body, while crossing the midline. When eyes are moved into visual, auditory and kinesthetic positions, this move also crosses all three midlines.

  • Ensure that the child has a balanced daily intake of all the food groups in the food pyramid. A low GI diet can provide the child with sustainable energy throughout the day. Replace snacks with colourants, sugar, and preservatives with healthier options like nuts, fruits, or carrots, to name a few. It is important that children eat during mealtimes at the table and not throughout the day because they were not hungry earlier. The value of a sociable mealtime, instead of a hurried one is of great value.

Mind Moves:  Lip Massage

Simultaneously rub the areas above the top lip and below the bottom lip in a horizontal direction. In a baby this triggers the Sucking Reflex, but in an older learner this movement promotes perception skills and thought and lowers impulsive expression or the need to eat or suck.

  • Use a baby toothbrush to rub gums. Salty snacks, such as biltong and young corn cobs can sooth the painful part of teething


In order to understand the child better, it is important to first distinguish between punishment and discipline. Punishment is often a reaction to the offence of biting or pinching which is applied due to the emotion that the educator has after to the incident. It does not address the emotions, cause or effect of the negative behaviour on the people involved. Discipline is applied as a result of pre-set rules that the child comprehends. The offender has to carry the weight of their actions when they break these rules, with which they are familiar, by making the wrong choices. Discipline supports the development of a sense of responsibility because the offender is guided to look for independent solutions to problems in the future.

A last word to the educator/parent: rather handle the offence of biting or pinching from a cognitive brain, as opposed to the emotional brain. Control the reaction and take action.

1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10 and calm down first!

I would rather be a little nobody,

than to be an evil somebody.

Abraham Lincoln


De Jager, M. 2009.  Mind Moves – Wikkel die brein wawyd wakker. Johannesburg:  Mind Moves Instituut.

De Jager, M & Victor, L. 2013. Speel Leer Slim. Welgemoed: Metz Press.

Orffer, H.  2010.  Wen teen boelie.  Pretoria:   Hettie Orffer.

Richardson, A.  2012.  Koester jou Kleuter.  Kaapstad:  Metz Press Publishing.

Ervaring vanuit gevallestudies gedurende spelterapie in die praktyk van J. M. Bloem


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