Is My Child Acting Out or Is It Age-appropriate Behavior?

If a child melts down, talks back, or ignores you, it could be because they're still a little kid. Consider this change of perspective.

Angry Toddler Wearing Red Overalls
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

Being a parent is hard, but being a child is even harder. Children have to learn how to be and grow and navigate the world, and they do so through trial and error. Children make mistakes, and act out. But before you attribute your child's bad behavior to maliciousness or poor temperament, stop, step back, and realize your child's behavior may actually be age-appropriate.

"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.

Here are the most frustrating kid behaviors and how you can curb them.

Angry Toddler Wearing Red Overalls
Priscilla Gragg

Not Listening

When you ask your child to put down the iPad and get into the tub, it might seem like they're 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 their 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 a choice: "Do you want to hop like a bunny or slither like a snake on the way to the bathroom?"

If they continue 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 them a say in other things during the day, whether it's letting them pick out their clothing or choose between two different activities.

Acting Wild

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. The more tired or overstimulated a child is, the more difficult it is for them to control their actions.

Since rowdiness is developmentally normal, give your kid the freedom to run—whether it's outdoors or in a room set up for this purpose. Allow plenty of time for physical activity and, if you are our and about, improvise. "Try to give your kid an assignment, like picking out apples or loading items onto the checkout counter," suggests Faber.

Getting Restless

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 them busy and have their meal come out when yours does—not earlier or they'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, or as soon as your child gets antsy. And 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 of course.

Talking Back

Once your kid enters preschool, they may pick up a sassy attitude from their peers. Then one day, when you tell them it's time to put away their toys and come to dinner, they may put their hands on their hips and says, "You're stupid!" Really?

Don't take it personally. "Your child may be angry with you, but they're merely copying what they heard some other kid say," explains Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. While you should remind them that "We don't call people names in our family, because it hurts their feelings," you should also help them decode what they're feeling. Say something like, "I can see that you're mad. You wish you could keep having fun." Later, when they are calm, suggest some nicer ways they can let you know how they are feeling.

Throwing Tantrums

While it may seem like your child is being dramatic, the truth is they can't help their 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 they become even more upset.

Your goal is to be less reactive and more supportive. "Give your kid the space to have their meltdown, even if it means taking them into another room," says Dr. Eliot. Crying is therapeutic and releases stress hormones. Try never to give in to their demands when they're having an outburst or they'll learn that pitching a fit is an effective strategy to get what they want. But stay compassionate and understanding, and reassure them that you're right there when they're ready for a hug.

Being Aggressive

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.

You might also suggest some acceptable ways to express his frustration. If they are unhappy about having to share on a playdate, teach them it's okay to say, "I don't want to play with you" and walk away. And let them know they can always come to you for help.

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