Is Your Child Acting Out—or Just Acting His Age?
If your child melts down, talks back, or ignores you, it could be because he’s still a little kid! Consider this a reality check.
As a work-at-home mom of 4-year-old twins, let me tell you: This past year was rough. Was it as “terrible” as the twos? Uh, worse. Were they moody, impossible-to-please “threenagers”? Big time.
But then I had an epiphany when we were at a family party at my sons’ preschool. When it was time to leave, Miles and Danny ran away as I tried to wrangle them, threw toys, and grabbed cookies off the unmanned bake-sale table. Seeing my situation, one of the teachers said, “What do you expect? They’re 3.”
Later, when I asked the boys why they hadn’t listened to me, one of them responded, “Because we wanted to stay at the party.” I couldn’t argue with their explanation. At that age, children are all about instant gratification, and the concept of behaving is still a work in progress. So really, what could I expect?
“Toddlers and preschoolers aren’t behaving maliciously; they’re trying to get their needs met, whether it’s attention or a later bedtime,” says Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. Her point: We need to cut them slack by keeping our expectations reasonable. I asked experts to weigh in on the age-appropriateness of kids’ most frustrating behaviors—and offer fresh ideas for curbing them.
When you ask your child to put down the iPad and get into the tub, it might seem like she’s pretending she didn’t hear you. “As parents, we often jump to the conclusion that our children intentionally aren’t listening to us. But often, they’re just distracted or having too much fun to pay attention,” explains Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., author of The Awakened Family.
Help your kid see the benefit in listening. Start by showing that you understand her perspective. You might say, “I see you’re in the middle of building a block tower. It isn’t easy to stop playing. The problem is, we need to fit in a bath before bedtime.” Then put the power back in her hands. “All day long, kids are told what to do, and no one likes that,” says Joanna Faber, parent educator and coauthor of How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen. Try offering her a choice: “Do you want to hop like a bunny or slither like a snake on the way to the bathroom?”
If she continues to ignore you, it may be a red flag that your child needs a chance to feel in control. Look for more ways to give her a say in other things during the day, whether it’s letting her pick out her clothing or choose between two different activities.
I gave up on taking my kids with me to the grocery store. My breaking point came when they raced down the aisles and pulled canned goods off the shelves, and then one of them peed on the floor in the checkout line. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) The reality is that young kids have energy to burn yet lack the ability to inhibit their body, says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, in North Chicago, Illinois. And the more tired or overstimulated a child is, the more difficult it is for him to control his actions.
Since rowdiness is developmentally normal, give your kid the freedom to run around freely—whether it’s outdoors or in a room set up for this purpose—and allow plenty of time for physical activity. When his actions are inappropriate for the environment (such as in the supermarket), chalk it up to boredom—and then improvise. “Try to give your kid an assignment, like picking out apples or loading items onto the checkout counter,” suggests Faber. If that doesn’t work and you can’t get him settled down, you have two choices: Put him in the cart or leave the store.
While it’s nice to go out to dinner as a family, taking young children to a restaurant usually isn’t exactly a relaxing dining experience. “They have a short window of attention, and once you get beyond that, they can’t sit still or wait patiently,” says Dr. Tsabary.
Still, you can take steps to set your child up for success. “Bring coloring books or little toys to keep him busy, and have his meal come out when yours does—not earlier or he’ll just be waiting for you to finish eating,” suggests Dr. Tsabary. Ask for the bill as soon as your food arrives so you can exit quickly as soon as he gets antsy. If you’re with family or friends and can’t dash off, it’s fine to hand over your tablet or smartphone after your child has finished eating.
Once your kid enters preschool, she may pick up a sassy attitude from her peers. Then one day, when you tell her it’s time to put away her toys and come to dinner, she puts her hands on her hips and says, “You’re stupid!” Really?
Don’t take it personally. “Your child may be angry with you, but she’s merely copying what she’s heard some other kid say,” explains Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. While you should remind her “We don’t call people names in our family, because it hurts their feelings,” you should also help her decode what she’s feeling. Say something like, “I can see that you’re mad. You wish you could keep having fun.” Later, when she’s calm, bring up her back talk—and suggest some nicer ways to let you know that she’s upset (“Mommy, I’m mad that I have to stop. Can I please have a few more minutes?”).
While it may seem like your child is merely being dramatic, the truth is she can’t help her big emotions. “Kids this age can’t brush off feelings of frustration like most adults can and don’t always have the vocabulary to express them,” says Dr. Eliot. Often, this leads to a vicious cycle: Your child has a tantrum, you respond angrily, and then she becomes even more upset.
Your goal is to be less reactive and more supportive. “Give your kid the space to have her meltdown, even if it means taking her into another room,” says Dr. Eliot. Crying is therapeutic and releases stress hormones. Try never to give in to her demands when she’s having an outburst or she’ll learn that pitching a fit is an effective strategy to get what she wants. But stay compassionate and understanding, and reassure her that you’re right there when she’s ready for a hug.
Seeing your child shove or even deck another kid can be truly heart-wrenching. Sure, there’s the embarrassment of it, but a small part of you also can’t help but wonder whether it signals some sort of deeper emotional problem. Not to worry: Most kids learn not to be physically aggressive by the time they start kindergarten. In the meantime, you can model gentle behavior with pets and dolls to demonstrate how other people should be treated.
If your kid hits someone, walk him away from the situation, and say, “We don’t hit our friends. It hurts them.” Acknowledge his feelings (“I know you’re angry because Jackson didn’t give you a turn with the truck, but hitting is not the way to get it”). Don’t shame your child; you want to send the message that he’s a kind, gentle kid who simply needs some guidance, says Faber.
You might also suggest some acceptable ways to express his frustration. If he’s unhappy about having to share on a playdate, he can say, “I don’t want to play with you,” and walk away. And, of course, he can always come to you for help. That’s an age-appropriate response he’ll call on for years to come—so get used to it.