The responses, behavior and even looks of another often determine the responses and behaviors of young children. In learning how young children develop social behavior, we must first look at the socialization process. This includes parents, siblings, and others and how they respond to children and the impact of the responses (Gander and Gardiner, 1981).
Temper tantrums, biting, bullying, breath holding, anger or aggression – all are unwanted childhood behavior. With these and other negative actions, it helps to understand why your child is doing it. This article focuses on the problems, solutions and how parents can help.
Problem: "It was only a simple thing that brought on the tantrum—like she wanted to ride the mechanical pony at the shopping center," recalled her dad. "At first, she started begging, but we were really in a hurry and I didn't have time. Then, she fell down on the sidewalk and started screaming. This was so embarrassing—everyone was looking. This has happened before—and I admit, I gave in. But this spell was much more intense than the first time."
Solution: Tantrums are difficult to ignore and young children often do not respond to reasoning. Giving in only causes the child to remember what they had to do in order to get their way. The next time, they believe this same technique will work again. If parents resist, the child must beg, cry or scream harder.
If out in public, return immediately to the car with the child and drive home. Designate a "tantrum" chair that is reserved for such temper outburst. Tell the child they may sit here and cry, but you will not notice. Soon, the child realizes this does not work. Problem: "When my child doesn’t get his way, he holds his breath. Of course, this scares me and I do what he wants. Is this normal behavior?"
Solution: When this happens the first time, talk with your child's pediatrician to rule out any medical reason. Usually these spells occur about two and stop by age five. Holding their breath is a way for the child to exercise control when they fail to have their own way.
Problem: Tiffany, a two-year-old enjoyed playing with Megan, a next-door neighbor. One afternoon as they filled containers in the sandbox, Tiffany's mother heard a blood-curling scream coming from the yard. Quickly, she ran out to see Megan holding her arm and crying. "Tiffany bit me!" she yelled between sobs.
Solution: Comfort both the victim and aggressor. Each child needs reassurance they are both loved and valued. Check for any broken skin from the bite and treat accordingly. Get involved in their play by showing how to have fun without resorting to biting. Ask yourself: is the aggressor overtired, hungry or sleepy? Is this a behavior that happens often, or is this a first time offence?
Problem: "On Alan's second birthday, we planned a huge celebration," said him mom. "We're from a large family so we couldn't leave anyone out. This included grandparents, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins. Several of these live out of state and Alan has never met many of them. In addition to family, we invited children of our friends and those in our neighborhood. However, instead of the wonderful day we planned, the party turned into a disaster. Alan was too excited to have his usual afternoon nap; therefore he cried and whined whenever I stepped out of his sight. And instead of sharing his birthday toys, he refused to allow any of the children to even touch one. We were so embarrassed at his behavior? If this typical of other children?"
Solution: Most children are egocentric and believe the world revolves around them. A two-year-old child lacks communication skills of older children. Once language skills develop their level of communication and behavior improves.
Birthday parties should be planned with the child's interest in mind. Instead of a huge family reunion of people unknown to the youngster, try inviting two or three playmates for cake and ice cream. Studies suggest parents should invite the number of children equal to the child's age. For example, if the child will be four years old, invite four friends. Continue the child's regular schedule as to naps and other routines. Skipping a nap or regular mealtime changes behavior in young children.
Questionnaire for Handling Negative Behavior
Often young children display negative behavior only in front of family members. With strangers, they may display more positive behavior. Perhaps this is true because children feel safer showing their feelings to people they trust.
Understanding this concept, you will still not be able to prevent all negative behaviors, but the following ideas may help reduce the chances of this conduct.
1. Can the child use simple words that express their feelings, such as "I’m really mad?"
2. Is the child hungry? Being off schedule for a meal makes a difference.
3. Did the child have an afternoon nap? Make sure the child is well rested.
4. Are the rules too strict or too advanced for a child of this age? Know what is appropriate for each stage of development.
5. Is the situation too stressful for my child? Avoid too many children or toys when choosing activities.
6. Did I bring a book or toy to amuse my child if we have to wait or sit quietly?
7. Did I remember to pack healthy snacks when away from home?
8. Learn techniques for distracting a child when an activity is likely to lead to a tantrum. Often, changing locations, telling a joke, being silly or playful changes the mood and allows the child to stay in control of his/her emotions.
What Can Parents Do?
No two families are alike. Children, even those from the same biological parents, possess individual personalities. What works for some--will not work for others. However, there are general rules for helping young children become a happy child and a person others will want to be around. Could some of these suggestions help you discover ways to change negative behavior?
· Focus on one or two negative behaviors you want to change by identifying the most dangerous or bothersome. Don't try too many at once. (Say: This week we will focus on biting. Next week, on sharing.)
· Provide the child with positive choices and allow some decision making on their part. (Say: After your bath, we can read a book together or play a card game. Which do you prefer?)
· Use natural and logical consequences for problem behavior. Guide children to make the right decision. Realize this may require time to change.
· Show kindness and firmness. Follow through on consequences of cause and effect.
· State rules in a positive way. Explain the "why" of such rules.
· Help your child comprehend the results of disobeying the rules. Praise good behavior. Look for ways to catch the child following the rules. (Jennifer, I noticed how you shared your new doll with your friend. I'm proud of you. Friends share with one another.)
· Redirect behavior by finding a safer place or a more appropriate site for the activity. (Child plays in a fenced backyard instead of near a street.)
· Either remove the child from the cause of the behavior, or remove the cause of the problem from the child. (Covering electrical outlets with safety caps in your home.) Note: Check with your child's pediatrician for further concerns or if conditions continue.
Carolyn Ross Tomlin writes for educational publications. She is a former kindergarten teacher and university professor of early childhood education. A recent book, What I Wish It Hadn't Taken Me So Long to Learn is available at www.1st.books.com.
Gander, M. & Gardiner, H. (1981) Child and Adolescent Development. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.