Understanding a child’s difficult behaviour

All behaviour has meaning and is an important communication between parents and children. Understanding a child’s difficult behaviour rather than managing it can be a very useful tool for parents and can help them understand their child’s inner world and emotional needs.

Thinking about children’s feelings and emotions and what they may need, however, takes time and effort and requires parents to step back and think about what is going on. This is especially hard if you are in a social situation and under pressure to fix what is seen as troublesome behaviour.

Emotions are closely linked with behaviour and a lot of children’s distress comes out in their behaviour. Toddlers have limited ability to articulate how they feel or what they want or need. Rather, toddlers show us how they are feeling through their behaviour that all is not right in their world. They show us that they are struggling by the way they behave. For example, some children will bite, throw tantrums, scream, cry, hit, demand attention and become angry. Others indirectly communicate their feelings by whingeing and clinging.

In social situations, like a Playgroup session for example, these behaviours may be exacerbated as children begin their journey of socialisation and negotiation.

It is normal for children to have difficulty sharing, taking turns and getting on with their peers. Many fights can ensue over toys and activities.

There are factors that can influence a child’s behaviour, such as temperament, for example some children are easy, some active and some difficult. Age is also a factor. Children who have temperaments that make them more difficult to look after place more demands on their parent’s time and energy.

There are stages that are characteristic of typical behaviours. To understand why your child may be acting in a certain way you need to be familiar with these stages of behaviour. We have all heard of the ‘terrible two’s’ and the three year old who is struggling with autonomy.

Often parents feel embarrassed- as if their child’s behaviour is a sign of poor parenting and reflects badly upon them. Some parents may feel that their child’s behaviour is purposeful, that they are deliberately setting out to annoy or provoke them. Driving parents crazy is not often a motive for kids. They are just doing what kids do to get their needs met. If you assume that your child is having a tantrum to manipulate you, you may not want to soothe and comfort them. However, if you see your child as struggling, not coping or sad, you will want to help them.

Some questions you can ask yourself:

Is my child tired, overwhelmed, insecure?
Is my child dealing with toileting issues?
Is my child responding to external stressors, such as the birth of a new sibling, recent home move, illness or marital discord- all of which can interfere with a child’s current emotional functioning?

Take heart, children are very resilient and with your help and understanding can bounce back fairly quickly.

Here are some ideas to help you and your child:

Be responsive: Respond quickly and consistently to your child’s distress. This communicates that their feelings matter. The longer your child is upset the harder it will be for them to calm down.

Label feelings: Put into words what your child cannot. For example, “I can see that you are sad, angry or scared.” This helps to validate children’s feelings. It helps you to gain control of their emotional distress and helps them make connections between their thoughts, feelings and actions. Remember, in the heat of the moment your child may not respond to words alone.

Set boundaries: Setting boundaries and limits helps children feel safe and secure and learn what acceptable and appropriate behaviour is. Allowing children to display anger in inappropriate ways can be disastrous.

Good role models: The way parents deal with their own conflict and expressions of anger, sadness and other emotions, will be a model to their kids.

Do not explain too much: Children do not have the reasoning capabilities of adults. Children need emotional support and lots of hugs.

Time out: Time out for parents is essential. It helps to recharge the batteries and cope with the ongoing demands of parenting.

Get help: Certain problems are of genuine concern. If you are worried about your child’s behaviour and it is interfering with his ability to learn or make friends, for example, it may be advisable to seek professional advice.

Do not take your child’s behaviour personally: Remember, it is better that they cry rather than you.

Article by Debbie Carney, Psychologist.
Sourced from Playgrouper, Copyright ©
Playgroup Victoria