Understanding and coping with behaviour that can stretch your patience
If you look at all behaviour as communication, ask yourself, 'What is my child trying to tell me?'— Elaine Hall and Diane Isaacs, co-authors of "Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom"
Toddler behaviour can be much like that saying about summer weather in the UK: If you don't like it, wait a minute, and it will change. With all the joy your child brings with his ever-evolving opinions, words and actions, there also comes a flip side: learning to deal with “no.” Though your toddler can bring extreme joy to you as he begins to explore and learn about the world, those same developmental milestones can easily mean deep frustration -- for both you and your child. Learning what to expect and ways to cope can help both parties.
When a cooing baby turns into a whining toddler, parents can find themselves questioning what behaviour is normal, since it often seems the child has transformed into a completely different person. The good news is that toddlers -- children age 1 to 3 -- exhibit a range of behaviour classified as normal. Hitting, biting, refusal to share and even full-blown tantrums can be part of a typical day in the life a healthy toddler.
While parents might interpret these displays as poor behaviour, many so-called "negative" actions stem from frustration and a child's growing abilities to communicate and make his feelings known. In addition to being part of normal development, these moments actually present opportunities for learning and growth, say Elaine Hall and Diane Isaacs, co-authors of "Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom." By reacting appropriately, parents have the ability to help the child understand why he is feeling a certain way, and find positive ways to express those feelings.
Understanding the behaviour
Toddlers are testing boundaries constantly as a way of navigating the world. Acting out is not just a way for them to express new, and sometimes conflicting, feelings -- it also is a child's way of finding out what is acceptable. Finding out why your child is acting out not only helps you react properly, but it can also do wonders for your peace of mind.
A toddler's emerging sense of independence does not always work hand-in-hand with her verbal ability and emotional maturity. Rather than reacting and giving into your own frustration, Hall and Isaacs say, "If you look at all behaviour as communication, ask yourself, 'What is my child trying to tell me?'" Since toddlers are still developing language skills, "voicing their feelings without reacting can be extremely helpful. Saying 'Wow! You are mad that you can’t have that biscuit right now!' helps your child to understand the emotions that are in their bodies and helps them learn the words to express how they feel."
How to deal
Understanding the behaviour does not mean you accept it. In fact, quite the opposite can be true. Figuring out why your child is behaving a certain way can give both you and your child tools to cope.
Set reasonable boundaries and clear consequences. By doing so -- and by not giving in to a tantrum -- you teach the child that certain behaviour is unacceptable and does not result in getting his way. This translates into a world that makes sense to a child and fosters a sense of safety and consistency.
Hall and Isaacs recommend finding your own sense of calm before dealing with the situation. Accept your child for who he is individually and where he is developmentally. If he acts out in public, don't react; rather, remove him and deal with it privately, calmly and sternly. For example, if your child hits another child, take your child aside and explain that hitting is not acceptable. Teach empathy by giving attention to the other child and asking if she is all right. This may minimise the effect of the unacceptable behaviour.
Realise that while rules and structure are good, there will be times when they don't work the way you had hoped. For example, if your child is getting sick, consequences that normally work may have no helpful effect. In order for your rules to work, they must be appropriate. If you bring your toddler who has not napped to the supermarket at dinner time, you should not be surprised if he behaves inappropriately.
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