Behaviour is a form of communication. All behavior has meaning and purpose. Most often it is to either escape something unpleasant or express discomfort and fear, gain attention and acknowledgement, or to gain something tangible. Sometimes the purpose of a behavior may not be clear.
Often adults react to challenging and disruptive behavior with the aim of stopping and preventing it from continuing. While this is quite reasonable, it is equally important to try and understand the reason why the child behaves in that particular way at that particular time. What is the need they are trying to meet using this particular strategy?
You will need this information when you attempt to change a child’s behavior by teaching them a more appropriate way to respond to a situation or meet a need. Without this information – all we would be able to do is suppress a child’s attempt to meet a need or express themselves inappropriately. It does not solve the problem.
Teaching children an alternative behaviour is the most important part of behavior change. It takes patience and the management of your own emotions as a parent.
Infants form their earliest attachments based on their parents and caregiver response to their expressed needs. During infancy and early childhood, while the skills for spoken language are still forming, needs are expressed through facial expressions, sounds, crying, gestures and movements. Many parents experience the challenge of learning to interpret what these expressions mean. They sometimes worry that they may not be interpreting the child’s needs accurately, especially when it could be related to the child’s health.
Psychologically what is most damaging and distressing to an infant is that their cries and needs go ignored or when their expressions draw negative or unpredictable reactions from a parent or caregiver who may also be sick, tired or overburdened by their own personal challenges. At all other times, the closeness and efforts to sooth a child by their parents are, by themselves, a significant contribution to the child’s sense of security despite their discomfort.
By the age of 2 years children are learning to regulate their emotions and needs. They are no longer as vulnerable as infants. However they are used to the indulgence of their parents and caregivers during infancy. Relationships are based on repeated patterns. When these patterns change through delays in having their needs met it can be very confusing and frustrating for the toddler. “Tantrum behaviours” must therefore be understood as a normal part of development where the child is expected to adjust to delays in their caregivers meeting their needs. Tantrum episodes can vary, depending on the child’s temperament, the manner of parenting to which they are accustomed during their infancy and the way parents feel and respond when the little 2 year old “protests”, or when conditions are placed on the child in order to meet their needs. For example “If you finish eating your rice, then I will give you a chocolate.” or “If you bite your little sister, then you can’t sit on my lap.”
As you can imagine this negotiation of conditions is new to the toddler brain. The child previously knew that a demand, if escalated, would almost always be met with a favourable response. Because that is how parents respond to infants! But now suddenly the parenting system has changed its rules and the toddler cannot make sense of the reasons. So parents- fasten your seat belts this is an important developmental milestone for your child, i.e.: learning to wait, and learning to delay their needs (the negotiable ones). If a parent avoids engaging in this work – because it is difficult, unpleasant and exhausting – the child will miss learning a very vital competency which they will need through their lives, the ability to regulate their emotions and the ability to persevere towards a goal by delaying the immediate gratification of needs.
Behaviour is also a part of experimentation and learning. Some experiments can make parents feel uncomfortable. For example dressing up in clothes of the opposite sex, playing with their genitals, exploring other children’s genitals. Parents often feel afraid and embarrassed by these behaviours. Show curiosity and make it safe for the child to tell you what they are doing, without letting your own worry or embarrassment put them on guard. These behaviours are often a result of curiosity. It could also signal that a child has learned some new information or witnessed something, which they are testing or acting out. Avoid embarrassing and shaming the child, as this will prevent you finding out the need and purpose of the behavior. Other behaviours of concern could be aggression, isolation and withdrawal from relationships, refusal to go to school, difficulties with attention and focus (being easily distracted), for which further assessment is recommended.
Overview of behaviour during school-age (5-10 years)
Your school-age child is now exposed to formal schooling and this can be a very different experience from pre-school. Your child is expected to be more independent in school and reliant on their own abilities. She will most likely face exams and homework. These added activities could be overwhelming for some children.
She will most likely have a set of friends that she identifies with and plays with at school. She can both lead and follow in play activities but might also tease and be critical of others. She is likely to make rules and bend rules to suit her needs when playing. She can now play simple board games and group games.
As your child explores her widening horizons she needs routines and limits to guide her. Routines will make her more secure as she knows her boundaries. Talk with your child and where possible agree with basic guidelines that can make your day smooth, “On school days we get up at 6.00am”, “Everyday we’ll do homework from 4.00pm to 5.00pm” or “On school days you have to go to bed by 8.00pm.”
Your school-age child might show signs of anxiety as she faces new challenges. This is a normal part of development and can be overcome by acknowledging their fears and concerns and gently encouraging her to engage in activities that she is anxious about. When your child knows that she has a secure base in you, she will be more likely to explore and become less anxious. Give her specific praise when she engages in something that she is normally anxious about. However if you are concerned and feel that her anxieties are getting in the way of her daily activities you might want to get more information about the situation and if needed seek some professional advice.
Your pre-teen is at the threshold of rapid physical development. During this stage children might feel awkward about their newly developing body and could develop concerns about their body image. This is especially true of girls who might be influenced by ultra thin body images in the media. Some might try to engage in restrictive eating habits to conform. These physical changes can have a direct impact on the behaviour of your child. It may influence her peer circle, her interactions with grown-ups and her interests.
Your child may start to question her relationships. She may notice that relationships are flawed and might also see you in a less ‘perfect’ light resulting in occasional outbursts. She may begin to develop a sense of self-identity, and to have increased feelings of independence. As her peers begin to increase their influence on her, your child might complain that you are interfering with her independence.
Your child may start to question her home life and surroundings around this time and they may also start to form opinions that may differ from their upbringing in regards to issues such as politics, religion, sexuality, and gender roles. Additionally your child may start to question the rules and boundaries you have set. As your child develops independence and responsibility they will try to do things their own way and even take substantial risks. While this behaviour would be very stressful for you as parents this is a normal part of growing up and this phase will also pass. Some of the risks and actions of teenagers can be explained by the way that your pre-teens brain develops. The part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control doesn’t fully mature until the age of 25 years.
During this period, work with your child to develop rules and guidelines on which you can agree. Help your child to adhere to these rules and guidelines and emphasize that she learns independence through accepting responsibility. Reminded your child of what is expected of her. For example you could remind your pre-teen that you address each other respectfully and that it means that there is no name calling in your family. Remind your child that she was involved in the rule making and that she agreed to keep them. By modeling your behaviour on these rules you emphasise to your child that you mean what you say. Avoid talking to your child about their rude or disrespectful behavior while you are also angry. Once you are calm, help your child to link how she felt at the time to the manner in which she responded. Brainstorm other ways in which anger, sadness and other unpleasant emotions can be expressed in less destructive ways, (these emotions are unavoidable so enabling children to manage them responsibly is important). Creating a warmth and safety within your relationships will ensure that your pre-teen turns to you for advice and guidance in times of uncertainty.
This is possibly the most significant period of transition with a need for greater autonomy and discovering personal identity. This is also the time teens become more aware of their own sexuality. It is not something you should (or can) suppress, as this is a normal part of human development. Be willing to talk to them about relationships and how to be safe and respectful. Some parents feel that sex is a topic off limits. However, if they don’t learn about it from you, they will learn about it from someone else who does not have their best interests at heart. A large number of teenagers are learning about sex by watching pornographic sites, which are easily accessible via a smart phone. This significantly alters attitudes causing difficulties in maintaining realistic and mutually respectful relationships.
Additionally increased access to the internet and mobile technology have created both opportunities and challenges, especially among this age group. There is a danger of promoting or limiting a teenagers’ independence without sufficiently informing them about how to recognise and manage potential risks and threats. While many teenagers use mobile technology today, not all of them are informed about how to stay safe. Your child is more likely to turn to you for advice and support if you are approachable and resourceful.
Disciplining your teenager could be especially challenging. Strict restrictions may be temporarily effective but will not equip them to cope or manage challenges when they are older – or when you are no longer able to impose these restrictions. Instead, be willing to listen to them and brainstorm strategies together with them. Offer honest information. Your behavior towards them and your relationship with them are both very strong protective factors if you are able to keep these positive.
Cyberwise. Get Digital: A Free online cyber safety awareness for parents. Retrieved from: https://www.cyberwise.org/get-digital-c16jb
Great Schools. (2008). A parent’s guide to behaviour basics. Retrieved from: https://www.sd51.bc.ca/parents/pdf/Parents%20Guide%20to%20Challenging%20Behaviour.pdf
Harvard Health Publications. (2011). The adolescent brain. Beyond raging hormones. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-adolescent-brain-beyond-raging-hormones
McNeely, C. and Blanchard, J. (2009). The teen years explained: A Guide to healthy adolescent development. Retrieved from: https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-adolescent-health/_includes/_pre-redesign/Interactive%20Guide.pdf
Sodha, S. Kidulthood: life as a pre-teen in the UK today. Retrieved from: https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/media/3291/kidulthood_life_as_a_pre-teen_in_the_uk_today.pdf