Back to the beginning, every child is an individual and goes through multiple stages and phases of emotional and behavioural growth. So, what makes a child tantrum or act in ways that are not appropriate? Any answer is going to change as quickly as a 4 year olds mood; everything and anything from not enough sleep to their emerging understandings of relationships, and power with peers and with you the parent.
Sure, it could be chemical related from a testosterone surge, and a lot of behaviour may be short lived and grown out of, but likely as not small children are subconsciously testing boundaries, learning their rights and exploring what and how to cope with the expectations of others. Children cannot be spoiled with too much hugs and attention, they do need to learn how to cope when we don’t have the time to do all that they request and they do need to learn appropriate timing; such as not interrupting when others are talking or repeatedly trying to sit on a parent’s knee during meal times.
Raising children requires setting boundaries and expectations and helping them to practice getting them right. They will forget, they will test your resolution to follow through, they will try to see who is the boss and they may get angry or frustrated when they don’t get their own way. Sometimes this is how we all learn to self-regulate and create our own working social theories – Remember that children like a lot of adults haven’t learnt what battles to pick and will without self-regulation ability fight on regardless of how futile. Be patient and wait for them to calm and make sure you are clear in what you expect if possible get them to tell you what the positive behaviour would look like.
The way children behave is largely how they have forged their own ideas from watching and being around the important people in lives, they are constantly learning; social expectations, boundaries and what is acceptable in your family and culture – these are not inbuilt and will be learnt over time with every child picking up different concepts at different times.
My strong belief is in the adage that “you get more from bouquets than brick bats”, focus on positives e.g. “you really helped so well this morning getting your bag ready for school or brushing your teeth when I asked” or “I loved the way you said please and thankyou at the café today” (not mentioning or briefly mentioning the current situation). Paint a picture of what the child can do right, get them to see themselves as champions of the behaviours you want to achieve. Proximal praise can be a helpful strategy, where you lavish praise upon another child close by for their positive ways of doing, once again helping the challenger to see what is preferred with the bonus that they will want to be the one on the end of a teacher or parents glowing praise next time.
Sticker charts and rewards may induce change and could be a good part of a short term strategy if a child is really resisting. My understanding is that role modelling positive behaviours, checking there is nothing physically wrong, – you may have heard of the baby that wouldn’t stop crying? It turned out there was a strand of hair wrapped around her little toe – agony! Hair gone = happy baby. Does your challenger have a splinter, wiggly tooth or ear ache? Sometimes you need to ask what’s bothering them, building social relationships with peers or even siblings can be a minefield for young players. Changes in surroundings, misunderstandings or low confidence with peers might manifest in angry outburst at unrelated times such as a tantrum over meal choice or what clothes to wear, so try to find out what else their minds are trying to contend with not just the outburst of the moment.
Be consistent, be confident with what you want the child to learn and be patient. You can be firm and caring. You may never get thanked for laying down the law and it may hurt you more than it hurts them, but being clear on what you want your 3, 4 or 5 year old+ to understand will support positive change.
Being timely with dealing with negative behaviour, getting down to the child’s level and keeping your voice as calm as any stressed parent can, are all important techniques for diffusing the bubbling “DOH What are you doing!!” moments, and help give you time as the adult to see that there are reasons why everything occurs.
Take a deep breath, wait for the pint-sized challenger to calm enough to listen, a few minutes at most so they won’t lose the reason you are talking with them, then work on the why’s and where too’s.
The smallest of our society face the biggest challenge of learning to be just like us. Make their challenge your challenge and guide them