Many parents experience challenging behaviors in their toddlers. Young children experience many emotions and can express themselves in many different ways. Know that throwing tantrums and breaking rules are both normal as children’s social and emotional skills are developing.
It’s important to remember that this is your child’s first time experiencing emotions, and does not know how to handle them – YET. As parents, our job is to guide our children, model appropriate behaviors, and encourage positive behaviors so they learn appropriate ways to behave.
What’s Not Normal?
So tantrums and breaking rules are normal. What about other challenging behaviors, such as defiance, fussiness, hurting other people, and excessive anger? These behaviors are a bit more extreme, and are sometimes due to your child not having the social and emotional skills they need to behave the way you want them to.
What Causes Challenging Behavior?
There are many reasons children act out. Young children are easily distracted and have short memories. They may not follow the rules or do what you ask them to because of this – remember this is their first time around, so they may need to be reminded a few times.
Children may also display attention-seeking behaviors in an attempt to gain attention from the adults around them. Remember, children need attention from their parents and caregivers in order to feel secure and thrive emotionally. For some children, even negative attention is better than no attention.
Some of the things that might affect your child’s ability to control reactions, emotions, or behavior could be:
- Not feeling well
- Being overly tired
- Feeling hungry or malnourished
- Having too much screen time
- Experiencing change within living circumstances or family unit
- Experiencing a change in routine
It is important to consider a child’s current situation or environment and how it may be affecting their behavior. Don’t be afraid to seek out other people (teacher, doctor, counselor) or other resources to help you and your child navigate these behaviors.
What Can I Do to Encourage Positive Behavior?
Using positive reinforcement encourages parents to seek out and encourage positive behaviors as they happen. When a parent “catches” their child displaying a positive behavior, name it and reward it in some way (a hug or high five, an extra story at night, a trip to the park). Children are motivated to keep doing well – or even better. This method requires consistency, encouragement, and kindness.
Parents can also encourage overall and consistent positive behavior by tracking positive behaviors, such as a sticker chart, or token system. When all of this comes together, the behavior(s) become a habit, and both parent and child are happier!
Ignore Negative Behavior
…as long as the child is safe. This strategy can be effective for minor attention-seeking behaviors. When a parent does not respond to screaming, whining or clothes tugging, for example, it teaches the child that this is not the proper way to receive your attention. When they use their words and you respond right away and with a smile, it teaches the child how to get your positive attention.
Develop a Secret Message!
Another easy and unobtrusive way for a child to get your positive attention could be to discuss and develop a signal you both can use. This allows the child to get your attention, and you to acknowledge the child – quietly. It’s like a secret message! For example, the child can get your attention by putting their hand on your arm. If you are in the middle of a conversation, put your hand over your child’s hand to acknowledge them, and then give the child your full attention when you are finished with your conversation. Always be sure to praise their positive behavior.
While the above paragraphs discuss specific strategies for working with challenging behaviors, these next two sections describe parenting philosophies that are effective at any age and for all children.
The American Society for the Positive Care of Children (SPCC) outlines the key points, goals of parenting, as well as tools for successful positive parenting. Current research, articles, and resources for parents and teachers can also be found on this site.
“Parent-child relationships have a powerful effect on a child’s emotional well-being, basic coping and problem-solving abilities, and future capacity for relationships.” The SPCC discusses that it is the parents’ responsibility for the healthy development of their child and to act as a positive role model. They mentor their child from childhood to adulthood.
4 Key Points for Positive Parenting:
- Effective Parenting: Your words and actions influence your child’s own actions and behaviors
- Consistent Parenting: You follow similar principles or practices in your worlds and actions
- Active Parenting: You actively participate and are involved in your child’s life
- Attentive Parenting: You monitor and pay attention to what goes on in your child’s life
3 Major Goals of Parenting:
- Ensuring children’s health and safety
- Preparing children for productive adult lives
- Proper transmitting of cultural values
5 Tools to Successful Positive Parenting
- Responding to your child in an appropriate manner
- Preventing risky behavior or problems before they arise
- Monitoring your child’s environment
- Mentoring your child to support and encourage desired behaviors
- Modeling your own behavior to prove a consistent positive example for your child
Love & Logic
Love and Logic is a research-driven philosophy founded by Jim Fay and Foster Cline. They, along with Jim’s son, Charles, have dedicated their lives to making parenting and teaching rewarding and fun, instead of stressful and chaotic. The Love and Logic Institute provides practical tools and techniques that “help adults achieve respectful, healthy relationships with their children.”
Children learn the best lessons when they are given a task and allowed to make choices (and fail) when the cost of failure is still small. Children’s failures must be coupled with love and empathy from their parents and teachers. The philosophy uses humor, hope, and empathy to build up the adult/child relationship, and emphasizes respect and dignity for both children and adults. It provides real limits in a loving way and teaches consequences and healthy decision making.
Here are the basics of Love and Logic:
Rule #1: Adults set firm limits in loving ways without anger, lecture, threats, or repeated warnings
- Adults set firm limits using enforceable statements (“I will read stories when your teeth are brushed”)
- Adults regard mistakes as learning opportunities (remember – this is your child’s first experience growing up!)
- Adults resist the temptation to nag (you’ll have a chance to prove your point…wait for it!)
Rule #2: When children misbehave and cause problems, adults hand these problems back in loving ways
- Adults provide strong doses of empathy before describing consequences (“I’m sorry you missed your story tonight”)
- Adults use very few words and consistently loving actions
- Adults delay consequences, when necessary, so that they can respond with wisdom and compassion (“Your behavior was not something to be proud of tonight. There is going to have to be a consequence, but I don’t know yet what it is. Try not to worry about it – we will talk about it tomorrow.” )
- Children are given the gift of owning and solving their own problems (“What do you think you could do about that?”)
The Power of Empathy
When delivering consequences with empathy, many great things happen:
- The child’s brain stays in “thinking mode” instead of “fight or flight mode”
- The adult can remain calm
- The child must own their pain rather than blaming it on the adult
- The adult sees more cooperation – and less revenge
- The child can learn from their mistakes rather than resist or resent
Many adults tend to react negatively to challenging behavior, so know what you will say, practice it, and be consistent with it. For example, you could say “this is so sad,” or “what a bummer.” Try to keep it simple and pick one response you can use every time. And make it yours. When children hear your response repeatedly, they learn two things:
- This adult cares about me
- This adult is not going to back down. No use in arguing!
A couple more things: be careful to not be sarcastic when responding to behavior. Showing true empathy is the key to making this work! Also, remember that non-verbal cues are important, so check that your own body language and facial expressions also offer empathy.
The Process – and an Example:
When my daughter was around 2, I was having trouble getting her to put her clothes on in the morning. It made for a stressful morning, and I was getting to work late. This is when I realized the magic of Love and Logic!
- Empathy – “How sad. I bet this is stressful for you.”
- Send the Power Message – “We need to leave in 5 minutes. What do you think you could do about this?”
- Offer Choices – “Would you like to carry your clothes with you, or put them on now?”
It was a snowy day when this happened. What a great learning opportunity for my girl!
***A note…be sure that you offer choices you can live with. There’s power in giving your children opportunities to make choices and work through the consequences. Be sure to keep your child safe, and to give them great opportunities to learn. ***
- Have the Child State the Consequence – “How do you think that will work?”
- Give Permission for the Child to Either Solve or Not Solve the Problem – “Let me know how that works for you.”
I was actually excited when my daughter chose to carry her clothes with her! This was going to be a great learning experience! When we got in the (very cold) car, she quickly realized that having no clothes on was going to be uncomfortable, so I asked her what she could do about that. And she promptly put on her clothes!
Don’t worry. If the child is fortunate enough to make a poor choice, she has the chance to double her learning opportunity! Using Love and Logic helped my daughter and me to have calm mornings from that day on. She learned that if she wasn’t ready, she could carry her clothes with her when it was time to leave. Two lessons: we leave on time, and we leave with clothes on.
Other Tricks of the Trade:
When using enforceable statements,
- Always say what you are going to do, not what you think the child should do
- Only speak from your perspective because you are the only one you can control
- Make sure you can actually enforce the statement you are making
I like to think of Love and Logic as a bank account. When parents give their child choices, they are adding to their account. When it comes time for me to make a decision, the child is more willing to comply (and parents thank her for understanding). We want to give children as many choices as we can while the price tag is small. This allows the child to begin to understand consequences, and allows you to gain control when the stakes are higher. If you give your child a choice, you can never be angry at their decision, so be sure the choices are ones you will be happy with, no matter what.
The Love and Logic philosophy is all about developing a loving relationship with your child using choices, natural consequences, empathy, consistency, and LOVE along the way. It is something you can use for the rest of their life, and the results are a respectful and loving relationship between you and your child.
Be sure to check out the Love and Logic Institute for more information and resources!