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Understanding and Resolving Challenging Child Behaviors

written by Dr. Jennie Gary

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Hi. I’m Doctor Jennie Gary, and welcome to Kid’s Corner where I discuss the top childhood development issues facing parents.

Today, I’ll be discussing a real challenge for many parents out there, and that’s overcoming difficult behavior in young children. Does your child act out? Have tantrums? Not listen?

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.

All parents have to address challenging behaviors in their children at times. Sometimes those little bodies can produce some big feelings.

It’s important to know that these difficult behaviors are actually a part of normal child development. Children can have many strong emotions. They don’t always fully understand their emotions or know yet how to control them. So they don’t always listen to you or behave in the best ways.

Children need guidance, clear limits, and patient parents to help them get through their struggles with behavior and emotions. But has your child ever acted out in ways that surprise you or concern you? That’s okay. I have spoken with countless parents who feel the same way. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to help your child learn to navigate their big feelings. Before we talk about ways to help teach children to manage their feelings, it’s always a good idea to consider if any underlying factors might be contributing to poor behaviors.

Is your child tired? Hungry? In need of attention?

Sometimes poor behavior can be a sign that a child isn’t getting enough sleep, has inadequate nutrition, feels uncomfortable or out of their routine or is just craving your attention.

Try to address any of these underlying issues like poor sleep or poor eating habits before tackling any behavior problems that your child may have.

Let’s review some of the ways we can help our children learn to manage their big feelings. Teach your child healthy ways to express their anger. For example, tell your child they can take a deep breath or use their words to express their anger or frustration.

Let your child know that it’s okay to feel angry, but it’s never okay to hurt other bodies.

Praise your child when they use words instead of hitting, biting, or throwing.

Try to relate to your child. Try saying something like, “You seem like you feel upset. That’s okay. I feel angry too sometimes.”

Just remember that sometimes these teaching moments are best done once your child has already calmed down.

Starting at age three or four years old, play board games with your child to help them learn how to play with others, take turns, and be patient.

Be consistent with your rules and boundaries. Setting limits helps a child know what to expect and helps them feel safe and secure.

Once you’ve made the rules and boundaries clear to your child, try to follow them as much as possible. The less that you give in to bending these boundaries, the more quickly your child will learn to follow the rules. Likewise, try to be true to your word when it comes to consequences. If you don’t follow through with any of your warnings, then your child might slowly learn not to take them seriously.

Use logical and natural consequences. For example, If your child draws with crayon all over their wall, have them help you clean it up, then put the crayons away for the rest of the day.

Monitor what your child is watching. Try to avoid shows or videos that show verbal or physical aggression. And co-viewing is recommended whenever possible so that you can talk about any bad behavior of bad words if they ever come up.

Model the good behavior you want your child to have. Children learn best by modeling. So display healthy and calm ways of managing your anger, the best that you can.

Try not to yell, threaten, or display physical signs of anger. And don’t worry. No parent is perfect. If you ever lose your cool or yell at your child, it’s best to later apologize and discuss that with them.

You can say things like, “Mommy was feeling really frustrated earlier, and I made a mistake in yelling at you. Next time when I’m frustrated, I will try to remember to take a deep breath and speak to you calmly instead.”

Build your child’s self-esteem. Make it clear that it’s their behavior that you don’t like, not them.

Try not to use phrases like “bad boy” or “bad girl” and help your child know that they are still a good boy or girl. They just made a bad mistake or had a bad behavior.

Let them know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes and that you will love them even if they make a mistake. Use positive reinforcement.

When your child is behaving well or managing their anger in appropriate ways, tell them that they’re doing a good job, reward good behavior. Rewards can be simple, like hugs, praise, or stickers.

If you’ve already tried many of these methods and you still find that your child’s behavior is overly disruptive or aggressive, then please make an appointment with your child’s doctor to talk about it more.

Sometimes excessively difficult behavior may be a sign of an underlying developmental issue. So always talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have.

Finally, let’s talk about time out.

This is an older method of behavior management that most pediatricians no longer routinely recommend. It can make children feel isolated or teach them that their behavior is too much for the parent to handle or deal with. Time out should be very rarely and only for violent behaviors.

If you are going to give a time out, it should happen immediately after the behavior. And it’s preferred that the parents sit with the child during this time out and that it be instead used as a break time to allow space and time to cool off.

For this break time, keep it short and use it only for children aged three years old and up. The number of their break time should be equal to their age in years. So for a four year old, it should be four minutes old, a five year old, five minutes old, and so on.

Make it clear to your child that you’re using this break time to allow time for their body to calm down and to prevent hurting others.

Similarly, physical punishment like spanking is never advised. It inadvertently teaches a child to solve problems with violence or physicality, and extensive evidence and studies show that while it may work in the short term, it makes no long term impact on stopping the undesired behavior.

Additionally, this type of physical or corporal punishment can humiliate your child and lead them to distrust you.

Instead, focus on positive reinforcement and good discipline.

You may be wondering why using good discipline is so important. That’s because effective discipline can help teach your child responsibility.

It also builds your child’s self-esteem and strengthens your relationship with your child. With discipline, no single technique works for all situations.

It is best to try a variety of approaches that we have discussed today to see what fits best for your family.

Whatever you do, try your best to be patient and be consistent about the limits that you set.

I’m Doctor Jennie. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

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