As a therapist for young children and families, I often receive questions from new parents about a number of behaviors, usually ending with “Is this normal?” Chances are, the behavior you’re worried about is part of normal child development. Below are typical behaviors for infants, toddlers and preschoolers that can cause parents to fret, but are actually developmentally appropriate.
- Thumb-sucking (Ages 0-3): It is completely normal for babies and toddlers to suck their thumbs and fingers. Parents are often concerned about germs or the effect on teeth, but it is a very natural and healthy way for little ones to soothe themselves. Thumb-sucking is normal up to age 3 or 4, but parents can assist their child in breaking the habit once he reaches 12 months as long as other self-soothing behaviors are introduced and encouraged.
What can a parent do? Practice positive parenting. Never punish or nag. If you remove the activity or object associated with thumb-sucking, the behavior will likely stop. Replace and distract with a new toy, new pillow, or new lovey or stuffed animal.
- Clinging and crying at times of separation from Mom and/or Dad (Ages 1-4): Separation anxiety is a normal developmental occurrence. While some children suffer from it more than others, all move through this first stage of “individuation.” As young children start to realize that they can move and express independently, they also realize they can lose contact with Mom and Dad – leading to feelings of anxiety.
What can a parent do? Reassure your child you will be back. Read The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn together and develop your own reassuring ritual. Don’t linger at goodbye time; give one last hug and leave. With enough repetition, your child will outgrow the anxiety. For more information on how to deal with separation anxiety, check out this blog post.
- Tantrums (Ages 1-4): There is a reason for all child behavior, and there are typically only two reasons for tantrums. The first is that your child is exerting her power and has learned that if she’s loud enough, she will get what she wants. The second reason is that your little one is over-stimulated and/or exhausted and is melting down. Sometimes it’s a combination of both.
What can a parent do? If the tantrum is the result of a power struggle, ignoring it is the most effective response. The calmer and more disinterested you seem, the sooner she will drop the behavior. If your child is overstimulated or exhausted, try to view the tantrum as a sign that she needs your love and comfort instead of punishment. Soothe her with a soft voice, hugs, a blanket, a drink of water or a snack, or a quick walk together away from the area of loud noise and overstimulation. You may want to read Dr. Laura Jana’s blog post on Simple Solutions for Toddler Tantrums for more guidance.
- Picky eating (Ages 1-5): Sometimes it can be difficult to know if your child’s pickiness about food is a real problem. Generally speaking, it is very normal for young children to be choosy about tastes and textures as their taste buds are changing and their independence is evolving. Picky eating only becomes a concern if your child is not eating at all or if he is eating very limited things (such as white bread and potatoes only) for more than a few months.
What can a parent do? Continue to introduce healthy, colorful varieties of foods to your child regularly and encourage him to taste new things. Involve him in the kitchen by giving him fun, age-appropriate jobs during meal prep, or enlist his help at the grocery store. Primrose consultant and dietician Ann Dunaway Teh provides more tips on feeding picky eaters, or you may want to check out Dr. Laura Jana’s book, “Food Fights,” on overcoming the nutritional challenges of parenthood. If you are concerned your child is not getting enough nutrition, consult your pediatrician.
- Not sitting still (Ages 1-6): It is completely normal and healthy for young children to be in motion until they fall asleep at night. Some need to move more than others, but all young children are naturally driven to move their bodies. They are growing and developing rapidly, and near constant motion is part of that experience. Young children are not wired to sit still and it is often too much to ask and expect them to do so for long periods.
What can a parent do? If you are going to a restaurant, place of worship or another place where a child’s high energy seems inappropriate, go prepared with quiet toys, crayons and paper, or picture books. If your child needs to be more active during these times, it can be best to leave and go outside where there is ample space to move around.
If you were worried about one or more of the above behaviors for your little one, hopefully now you can breathe a sigh of relief! It’s good to know when behavior warrants concern, so never hesitate to seek support from your pediatrician, a licensed play therapist or a children’s counselor if you are ever in doubt.