Children develop skills and awareness as they grow. Babies learn to sleep without you soothing them, young toddlers experiment with food (perhaps making quite a mess!) and they begin to play cooperatively with other children. It is sometimes easy to expect quite young children to be more independent, or better able to manage their feelings than is possible. It is normal for toddlers to have tantrums, especially when they cannot do something they want. They need you to help them learn how to cope with strong emotions, support and encourage them to do new things and give them confidence in themselves. People have very different ideas about good and bad behaviour. What is bad behaviour to you might seem normal to other parents, and vice versa. Sometimes it’s a question of what you are used to. Sometimes it’s a question of circumstances. For example, it’s much harder to put up with mess if you have not got much space, or with noise if the walls are thin.
Parents also react to their children’s behaviour in different ways. Some are stricter than others, some are more patient than others, and so on. It’s not just a matter of how you decide to be. It’s about how you are as a person. It’s also to do with your child’s individual character. For example, some children react to stress by being loud and noisy and wanting extra attention, others by withdrawing and hiding away. You will probably find that you deal with your child’s behaviour in your own way and set rules that fit the way you live and the way you are. But there will probably be times when your child’s behaviour worries you or gets you down, and when nothing you do seems to work.
Understanding difficult behaviour.
Sometimes it can help to take a step back. Is your child’s behaviour really a problem? Do you really need to do something about it now? Is it just a phase that they will grow out of? Would you be better off just living with it for a while? It’s also worth asking yourself whether your child’s behaviour is a problem for you, or for other people. Behaviour that might not worry you can become a problem when other people start to comment on it. Sometimes, taking action can actually make the problem worse. At the same time, if a problem is causing you and your child distress, or upsetting the rest of the family, you do need to do something about it.
Identifying the reasons for difficult behaviour.
There are a number of possible reasons for difficult behaviour. Here are a few suggestions:
- Any change in a child’s life, like the birth of a new baby, moving house, a change of child minder, starting playgroup, or even something much smaller, can be a big deal. Sometimes children show how they are feeling in the only ways they know how.
- Children are quick to pick up on it if you are feeling upset or there are problems in the family. Their behaviour may be difficult to manage just at the time when you feel least able to cope. If you are having problems, don’t blame yourself – but don’t blame your child either if they react in a difficult way.
- Sometimes your child may react in a particular way because of the way you have handled a problem in the past. For example, if you have given your child sweets to keep them quiet at the shops, they may well scream for sweets every time you go there.
- Could you accidentally be encouraging difficult behaviour? Your child might see a tantrum as a way of getting attention (even if it’s angry attention!) or waking up at night as a way of getting a cuddle and a bit of company. Try giving them more attention when they are behaving well and less when they are being difficult.
- Think about the times when your child’s behaviour is most difficult to manage. Could it be because they are tired, hungry, over-excited, frustrated or bored?
Changing your child’s behaviour.
- Do what feels right: It’s got be right for your child, for you and for the family. If you do something you don’t believe in or that you don’t feel is right, the chances are it will not work. Children are quick to pick up when you don’t really mean what you are saying.
- Stick at it: Once you have decided to do something, give it a fair trial. Very few solutions work overnight. It’s easier to stick at something if you have someone to support you. Get help from your partner, a friend or another parent. At the very least, it’s good to have someone to talk to about what you are doing.
- Try to be consistent: Children need to know where they stand. If you react to your child’s behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it’s confusing. It’s also important that everyone close to your child deals with the problem in the same way.
- Try not to over-react: This can be very hard! When your child does something annoying, not just once but time after time, your own feelings of anger and frustration are bound to build up. It’s easy to get wound up and end up taking your feelings out on your child. If this happens, the whole situation can start to get out of control. Of course, you would have to be superhuman not to show your irritation and anger sometimes, but try to keep a sense of proportion. Once you have said what needs to be said and let your feelings out, try to leave it at that. Move on to other things that you can both enjoy or feel good about. And look for other ways of coping with your feelings.
- Talk to your child: Children don’t have to be able to talk back to understand. And understanding why you want them to do something can help. Explain why, for example, you want your child to hold your hand while crossing the road, or get into the pajama when it’s time to go to bed.
- Encourage your child to talk: Giving your child the opportunity to explain why they are angry or upset will help reduce their frustration.
- Be positive about the good things: When a child’s behaviour is really difficult, it can come to dominate everything. What can help is to say (or show) when you feel good about something they have done. You can let your child know when they make you happy by just giving them some attention, a hug or even a smile. There doesn’t have to be a reason. Let your child know that you love them just for being themselves.
- Rewards: You can help your child by rewarding them for behaving well, for example by praising them or giving them their favourite food . If your child behaves well, tell them how pleased you are. Be specific. Say something like, ‘I loved the way you put your toys back in the box when I asked you! Well done!’ Don’t give your child a reward before they have done what they were asked to do. That is a bribe, not a reward, and bribes don’t work!