The toddler and preschool years are some of the most exciting. Children are growing and starting to develop a sense of independence, like picking out their own outfits, brushing teeth, or choosing a bedtime book; however, these years also bring unique challenges as they learn how to express themselves.
Keep these important tips in mind for managing challenging behaviors in children, no matter how old they are:
- Set realistic expectations. Realize that children have different emotional and behavioral capacities depending on their age. Focus on what is achievable, and prioritize which behaviors need to be addressed.
- Know what is normal. What is considered “normal” changes with each stage of development. Behavior that is expected of a one-year-old is very different from the behavior that is expected of a three-year-old. Remember that children are driven by emotions, not logic.
- Listen and empathize. It is important to listen as children express themselves. Be sure to empathize and let your little ones know that you understand how they’re feeling.
Because children experience different challenges depending on their age, you will often need to approach the situation with different strategies. Here are some tips for appropriately managing behavior at various ages.
It is difficult for one-year-olds to communicate because they have not fully developed their language skills yet. This inability to express themselves often leads to emotional outbursts when they are upset or frustrated. While it may be alarming to you, it is completely normal for your child to bite and hit at this age because he or she doesn’t know how else to express emotions.
Here are some tips to manage your child’s behavior at this age.
- Help him or her put words to feelings. When your child is experiencing emotions, talk through them. Help them put a simple name to what he or she is feeling: happy, mad, sad. This will help your child feel a sense of control and relief. Avoid using more complex vocabulary like frustrated, annoyed or upset.
- Redirect your child’s actions. For example, if your child feels angry because you’re limiting what he or she can play with, suggest a new activity that would be acceptable.
- Be consistent. This age is all about teaching, as a one-year-old is learning self-expression. Be consistent as you manage your child’s behavior.
At this age, children are learning how to assert themselves. They are developing independence and starting to have their own ideas and opinions. Children at this age may experience strong emotions and have issues with self-control and patience, particularly when asked to do things differently than they would like to.
Here are some strategies you can use to manage your two-year-old’s behavior.
- Offer limited choices. Give your child the chance to choose; however, make sure to only offer limited choices. If you give too many options, your child may become overwhelmed or picky.
- Prepare your child for stressful situations in advance. If you know you will be in a challenging situation, prepare beforehand. You might bring along some games and toys to keep your child occupied in the waiting room, or give a five-minute warning before asking your little one to put away the toys.
- Set firm expectations and be consistent in following through. Make sure your two-year-old understands your expectations but keep it at a simple level without using large vocabulary. At U-GRO, we use the terms “thumbs-up choice” or “thumbs-down choice” rather than “poor decision” or “that’s disappointing.”
- Validate feelings. It’s okay for your child to stomp his or her feet when leaving a playdate. As a parent, an appropriate response for this age would be something like, “I see that you’re sad we are leaving. Can I give you a hug to make you feel better?” Then, remind your child why you are leaving and give him or her something to look forward to like snack time or your next play date.
Preschoolers (Ages 3+)
Preschoolers are developing more advanced language skills, so you can start explaining to them in detail the reasoning behind your rules. They are also continuing to develop their independence and may test the boundaries.
When managing a preschooler’s behavior, keep in mind these tips.
- Reinforce positive behavior. It’s important to recognize and praise positive behavior in your child, such as following instructions or being kind to siblings. He or she will respond well to this and start to learn what is good and acceptable.
- Model desired behavior. Your child will benefit from seeing you model appropriate behavior. Also, be sure to explain the reasoning behind your actions. For example, explain that cleaning up toys makes the house neater for everyone.
- Stay calm and use a neutral or firm tone. It is important not to let your emotions take over when you are speaking to your child about his or her behavior. You may use a firm tone to emphasize what you are saying, but never become visibly angry or lose control. Encourage your child to use his or her anger toolbox, which should consist of techniques to explain their feelings, problem solve, and reset calmly.
No matter what age your child is, be sure that you focus on managing the most important behaviors. Children are naturally curious, which can lead to behavior that adults deem to be unacceptable; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are being willfully disobedient. If you are constantly correcting your child’s every behavior, it will become tiring and frustrating for both of you.
Although the toddler and preschool years present new challenges, they don’t have to be a struggle. With these behavior management techniques, you can work through your child’s developmental challenges as they age.