Addressing Your Children’s Challenging Behaviors
Apr 25, 2023
“As young children grow and develop, behavioral challenges are to be expected,” said Dr. Lauren Starnes, senior vice president and chief academic officer, The Goddard School. “That said, just because these behaviors are often normal doesn’t mean they are easy for the parents addressing them or the young children experiencing them.”
While eliminating undesired behaviors like defiance, tantrums and biting is likely unrealistic, it’s not a lost cause for parents. Understanding why certain behaviors occur and the appropriate techniques to address them can help parents mitigate their impact and lessen their frequency, duration and severity.
Starnes recommends these ways to understand and address challenging behaviors in young children.
Infants often bite when teething. Young toddlers bite out of excitement, exploration or in response to inconsistencies in their environment. Older toddlers and 2-year-olds frequently bite as a communication method, such as when they fail to have the language to communicate frustration.
For children who are 3 years of age or older, biting is typically an aggressive behavior. Understanding the root cause can help tailor the response more appropriately to curb the behavior. For example, giving infants various textured teething toys can lessen the likelihood they will bite. For 2-year-olds, modeling how to use words and phasing out oral soothing items like pacifiers can also reduce the likelihood of biting.
Raising young children means preparing to hear them say, “No.” One of the primary developmental milestones of early childhood is emerging independence. The overt exertion of independence tends to peak at or around age 2 and can continue at varying degrees of intensity, depending in part upon the personality of the child.
One important factor about defiant behavior is that while it is independence exertion, it is also attention-seeking. Behavior is communication and some defiant actions may simply be a means of obtaining attention and situational control. By giving children more independence – for example, asking “Can you please put your shoes on for me?” or “Can you pick which one of these dresses you want to wear today?” – you may be able to help them become compliant.
Logical consequences can also help. For example, if children refuse to sit in their chair to eat, have them stand for dinner or remove their snack until they sit.
The American Academy of Pediatrics defines tantrums as a behavioral response by young children who are learning to be independent and desire to make choices yet lack the coping and self-regulation skills to handle frustration. Whether a tantrum is triggered by communication gaps, frustration or a reinforced behavior to control a situation, there are specific techniques that can be used to deescalate the behavior and help children regain emotional composure.
Your reaction to a tantrum is a direct predictor of its intensity and longevity. Taking an opposite position to children in terms of volume, speed of movement and pace of speech can be enough to counterbalance the tantrum.
Another effective technique to curb a tantrum is sportscasting. Using a soft tone of voice, sportscasting is the verbal, non-biased account of what is happening in the moment retold in third-person as though telling a story or broadcasting a sport. While this may feel awkward at first, it often catches children’s attention and deescalates their reaction. For example, “Lou wanted more gummy bears. Mom said no. Lou is yelling and crying.”
There is no silver bullet to stop biting, defiance and tantrums. These behaviors, for better or worse, are expected parts of early childhood. However, by gaining an understanding of their root causes and employing appropriate techniques to address these behaviors, parents can mitigate their impact while helping children develop and grow socially and emotionally.