In my last article, I wrote about mouthing. At the end of it, I explained that mouthing is not to be confused for biting. Mouthing is an exploratory activity. There are people who feel a need to bite. This type of biting is not the boundary testing little nip of a child exploring what they are, and are not allowed to do to others. It is an instinctual biting done in response to something inside the person who is biting, rather than out of any intended malice towards the other person.
A person who feels this need may bite themselves, or toys, or other people. Like the person who mouths, they are doing a very sensible thing. When we bite hard, and when we chew steadily, a hormone is released in our brains that helps us to feel calm. Someone who is feeling stressed or anxious can access a calm feeling through biting. It is a practical self-help strategy. But obviously, it can be problematic.
It is easy for us to get focused on the biting and not focus on the bigger picture, which is that this person feels anxious, stressed, unsafe in some way. The best thing we can do is try to work out why they are feeling like that and tackle the cause of the problems rather than the symptoms of them. In the meantime, we can offer toys that are safe to bite.
We can also offer alternative ways to trigger sensory feelings of safety.
- Jump - the shaking through the body lets you know you are present and the jiggle shakes out tension.
- A firm hug, a weighted blanket or cuddly toy, a heavy backpack, or pulling, carrying a heavy object - the weight and pressure of all of these things should be proportional to the person. Each is a way of finding out through proprioceptive and tactile input that you are here.
- Hot buttered toast - a nutritious food that is sweet reassures us that we are safe and secure. Of course, this strategy should be deployed sparingly, if we always rely on food to calm that can lead to other problems.
- Music, singing, especially songs that contain the person’s name - music triggers the language processing centres of our brain but does not rely on our ability to use language ourselves. We are social animals, this sort of stimulation indicates to us that we are connected to others. We feel protected when we are together, threatened when we are isolated.
- Breathe out - any activity that encourages children to take a deep breath and then release it slowly will act on the vagus nerve triggering an in-body response that is calming. Pretend your fingers are birthday cake candles (children often associate candles with the need to take a deep breath) and ask a child to blow them out one by one. If they are able to understand, ask them to do it in slow motion so that you get a slow outward breath rather than a burst of air.
- Go outside - If you have access to a patch of green, a little bit of grass, a glimpse of a tree, get outside in nature.
- Hideaway - offer the person a little den to hide out in, this could be as simple as a blanket to hide under, or something more elaborate like a little tent or a quiet corner of the room screened off by display boards.
- Familiar smells - smelling the scent of a familiar person can be deeply reassuring. Smell is the only sense processed by your limbic brain so it is particularly powerful at delivering an emotional response. If you are supporting someone who regularly struggles with stress or anxiety when they are with you, then you can consider asking one of their loved ones to provide you with something that will carry their scent. You do not need anything pongy, something like a t-shirt they’ve worn for a few hours, or the pillowcase they slept on the night before, will do. Keep this item in a sealed bag or container and offer it to the child as a comfort item when they need it.
None of the above are magic wands but by exploring them with children, you may happen upon a strategy that works for them. Some children will have specific things in their lives that are causing them to feel anxious and stressed, we are not always able to solve these struggles for them but by sharing the strategies above, we can help them to cope with what life throws their way.
Children who have sensory differences may find particular environments stressful. If you think that a child’s biting might be triggered simply by being in your setting rather than by particular concerns in their life, then it can be helpful to think of sensory adjustments you can make to your environment. This is what I will be talking about in my next article.
P.S. All of the strategies above will work for you too, (if you’re a woman make sure you’ve done your pelvic floor exercises) - have a bounce for a minute or so once the children have gone home and notice how it affects the tension in your body!
About the author:
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”. There is new book coming out soon called ‘”The Subtle Spectrum” and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, “My Mummy is Autistic”.