There are a few basic things to remember in understanding children’s behaviours that can help keep things in perspective. These include:
Remembering that young children are still developmentally immature. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to recognise that young children are inexperienced and sometimes they just don’t have a sophisticated understanding of how the world works.
It's also important to recognise that what parents and adults are asking young children, with limited life experience, is hard work for children.
It shouldn’t surprise us then when children become overwhelmed with what we are asking of them and of the way they are feeling, when confronted with complex social situations. Asking a three-year-old to share a much-loved toy with someone else is a really hard thing for some children to do. Yet many adults don’t take the time to recognise just how difficult this is for young children.
Put into adult perspectives, how many of us would readily hand over our car keys to a complete stranger, simply because we were asked to?
That doesn’t mean parents just need to accept challenging behaviours. There are a few things to understand and some simple strategies that help children (and parents) navigate those wonderful turbulent years between toddlerhood and middle childhood.
Check basic needs aren’t the problem.
Make sure your child’s behaviour is not because their basic needs are not being met. Children who are tired, hungry, or unwell cope less well than when these things are not an issue.
A basic need that children also need is ‘time in relationships’, and connecting with the important people in their lives, like parents.
Sometimes children’s acting out behaviours are the unhelpful ways that children will use to meet this need. It is helpful to ensure parents are taking the time just to 'be' with their children rather than wait until they 'have to be' present to deal with a challenging behaviour.
Children’s need, to be in connection with their families and loved ones, vary from one child to the next, but certainly it is worth reflecting to make sure you are being present and engaged in the moments with your children when ever you can be.
Have realistic expectations.
Have you considered what type of young adult you hope your child will become? Of course, most parents say they want their children to be independent, resilient, responsible etc.
These are all learned skills; skills that take lots of practise to become good at. Have you ever considered what independence looks like at three? What does responsibility look like at four?
As children experiment with the very skills and attributes their parents want most for them, it can look quite different to what it will eventually become.
When your three-year-old is frustratingly demanding “Me do it, me do it!” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is the building block of independence.
Your four-year-old’s attempt to clean their room, tidy up their own belongings or feed the cat, may not look exactly the way you intend them to look, but their initially clumsy attempts at managing such tasks, will assist in developing the skills for managing much more complex forms of responsibility, independence and resilience into their future.
The good news is there are a few simple things that you can do to help ‘teach’ your child the finer points of the socially responsible behaviours that most parents want for their children.
If we change out the notion of controlling or managing children’s poor behaviour to one of getting in front of the game, and actively teaching your children the skills to manage social situations well, we are well on the way to great outcomes for children and parents.
Make sure your expectations are made clear to children.
Often parents slip up when they assume children understand the expectations they have of them.
It is very common for children to have a different understanding of expectations than parents assume.
For example, a parent’s idea of tidying up the room can be very different to a child’s understanding of what ‘tidy’ means.
Making sure that parents are very clear and precise about what they mean can make a really big difference. For example, instead of asking a child to, “Tidy up their room”, be explicit. “Matthew, can you go into your room and put your toys in the toy box, your dirty clothes in the wash basket in the laundry and your shoes in your wardrobe; thankyou.”
This gives the child a much clearer picture of what you actually want them to do and a much better chance of them being successful.