As parents, we have all been there at one time or another. Whether it is the tough twos or just a terrible Tuesday, our children at times display behaviors that make us question our parenting skills. Being aware of what your child is capable of at different age levels will give you a better sense of whether his behavior is out of line or not. Research shows most children develop the capacity to control their emotions between the ages of 3 and 5.
Young children are unable to control their behavior or communicate their feelings and frustrations in the same ways adults do. However, they are constantly struggling to deal with what’s going on around them. Our job as parents and teachers is to teach and guide them so they learn self-control and how to express their feelings in socially acceptable ways like asking for help when frustrated rather than having a tantrum.
Without meaning to, parents can often create feelings of frustration and worry that can trigger negative behaviors by asking a child to do something he is not able to do. For example, a tired and hungry 2-year-old at the grocery store is likely to display behavior that annoys you and fellow shoppers. Before chastising and blaming your child, it’s a good idea to first understand why he is behaving the way he is. You may have to play the part of a detective to figure out what your child is trying to tell you with his behavior. Once you “listen to the behavior” and understand why, you can determine if your expectations were out of line and try a different response, if needed.
Each stage has its unique challenges—for children and parents. Here are a few tips that help promote positive behavior at any age.
Think before you respond – You can only control what you do and how you respond. Think about why your child’s behavior is pushing your buttons. Step back and look at the situation before you react. Don’t take yourself too seriously and know when to laugh at yourself. Children, however, do tend to take themselves seriously, and it’s important to be sensitive and not laugh when they are trying to communicate their feelings.
Give them choices – This can be as simple as, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt?” Children often act out because they are given few opportunities to make choices in their daily lives and have their choices respected. Rebellious behavior often arises when adults try to exert too much control. To learn to self-regulate, a child needs opportunities to practice having control over some things in his life such as what to wear, what to eat or how to accomplish a task.
Provide emotional support – Children’s misbehavior is often a way of saying something is not working for them, but they don’t have the words. Sometimes they are confused or just don’t feel a sense of belonging and they need your attention, connection, time, and support.
Practice what you preach – The age-old saying, “actions speak louder than words,” is essential to remember when thinking about how you can influence your child’s social-emotional development. Children need to know that you mean what you say and that you will follow through with kind, yet firm action.
Pose questions – Questions that typically start with “why do you think” or “how might you” can spark a conversation rather than a lecture. Children are naturally curious and when you prompt them to think about a situation, you can help develop their problem-solving skills. For example, encourage your child to think about what prompted his behavior, how he thinks he might be able to fix it and how he would choose to react in the future to prevent the hurtful behavior or situation from happening again.
When you find yourself in tough situations with your child, it is helpful to remember that all behavior that persists serves a purpose; every child is unique and the best way to help change a behavior is to first understand it.