Behaviors are simply means of communication. Young children have not yet developed the cognitive ability to identify and express verbally what it is they need and want. They have not yet mastered the ability to handle the emotional energy of frustration or fear. So, they act out. They may pout. They may scream. They may throw a toy across the room. While the actual behavior must be addressed, it is imperative that parents seek to understand the reason underlying the behavior. Here are a few common messages your young child may be expressing through undesirable behavior:
1. “I am over-stimulated and exhausted!” When a child has not gotten adequate sleep, has been in an unfamiliar place, has been exposed to loud sounds, bright lights or other sensory stimuli, or has simply had a long and busy day, sometimes he is just tuckered out and can’t find the words to tell you.
- What to do? Try to keep your child on her routine as much as possible and ensure she has plenty of quality sleep, healthy meals at the same time each day and be extra patient with her if you know she’s had a long day. This is a time to soothe her, not punish the behavior.
2. “I feel anxious and out of control!” Sometimes young children are experiencing anxiety about separation, new places, new people or strange situations. They feel out of sorts. The feeling of vulnerability in these cases can be overwhelming and anxiety floods their bodies and minds. When feeling out of control, sometimes children’s demonstrative behavior is a cry for security and reassurance.
- What to do? Once you identify what your child is feeling anxious about, acknowledge that a lot of people feel worried in that circumstance and help your child take some deep breaths. Reassure her she is not alone and there are grownups there who care about her and will help her.
3. “I need someone to pay attention to me!” All children need and want to be noticed and acknowledged. If they don’t feel they are getting that attention, children will often act out because negative attention feels better than no attention.
- What to do? Pay attention to your child when he speaks to you. Get down on his level, look him in the eye, hear what he is trying to tell you and show him you are listening with your body and your words. If you can’t show him with your body (maybe because you are driving) — then tell him, “I hear you and I really want to give you my attention, but right now I have to drive the car.”
The next time your child surprises you with some unusual acting-out behavior, remember, there is a reason. Be a detective and try to figure out the underlying reason so you can address it at the root rather than simply reacting to the undesirable behavior.
What behaviors has your child exhibited that have you stumped?
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