Why is My Child Behaving This Way? (A Checklist)

I’m blessed to work with mindful parents, most of whom have ‘sensitive’ and ‘respectful’ down.  They’ve made a concerted effort to develop a quality connection with their children, and their behavior usually reflects that. So they’re understandably thrown when resistant or defiant behavior occasionally crops up anyway. The good news: getting back on track is simple, because all that’s usually needed is a bit of minor tweaking of their approach and responses.

Which is why I thought a parent-response checklist (based on the difficulties parents most commonly share with me) might be helpful.

1. Prevention

An ounce of prevention can save us tons of aggravation. We take preventative measures by structuring our environment and daily life in a manner that limits possibilities for off-track behavior.

Remember: Children learn by exploring and testing their environments. They also express uncomfortable feelings through limit-pushing behavior. So, if we don’t want children jumping on the couch or playing roughly with the baby — and we don’t want to be a broken record constantly saying “No” and becoming increasingly annoyed — we’ll need to minimize or remove certain options (the ones that are going to put us on edge).

  • Does my child have a completely safe, “Yes” place to spend the majority of his or her day? This not only limits opportunities for testing, it also provides kids with the abundance of freedom they need to be able to accept the boundaries we do create.
  • Does the new baby have a protected, age-appropriate place in which to “play” freely and safely? (A playpen or crib is enough for the first  4-5 months.)
  • Is our home life relatively peaceful, our daily routine somewhat predictable? Predictable routines create comfort and foster a sense of security. Routines also make it easier for children to accept our boundaries and directions, because they learn to expect the tooth brushing (for example) that always happens after dinner. Young children greatly appreciate being able to predict what will happen. “After breakfast, my mom (or dad) goes to the bathroom and then the kitchen while I stay in my play area. Then she comes back and watches me play.” Or “When we walk near the road, we either hold hands or my parents carry me.” Of course, there will still be complaints and resistance from time to time, but not as much.
  • Do I spend time observing and understanding my child, give positive attention? 
  • Do we allow, even encourage our child to express uncomfortable feelings?

2.  Confidence

Confidence is crucial and very, very often what’s missing when our responses and directions aren’t working. Confidence is decisive, and often upbeat, not angry or stern. Children sense our feelings and can easily detect whether we believe in our decisions, directions, and limits. And if we don’t, there isn’t a chance in the world our kids can feel comfortable, which means they are far more likely to cry, whine, protest, object, or keep pushing limits.

This is a universal law of parenting: Children can’t approach situations with confidence unless we do first.

A parent I consulted with recently provided the perfect example. We’d spent 55 of our 60 minutes together addressing her three year old twins’ sleep difficulties. They had been resisting and stalling bedtime, employing some classically brilliant toddler tactics designed to stab parents in the heart or, at the very least, create tremendous doubt: “I’m hungry…I’m thirsty… I need to go pee.” And most harrowing of all, “I’m scared.” One of the twins was once startled by a shadow and mom had been concerned, so fear had become a credible and potent addition to their list of complaints. Since there were two of them, they could pass these complaints to each other like an infectious disease and create a double whammy for their poor mom.

With just a couple of minutes left on the call, it suddenly occurred to me to ask, “What about naptime? How does that go?”

“Oh, I just let them know it’s naptime, and I have to go do my work. I close the door, and they go to sleep.”

When I got up off the floor, I sputtered, “Well… Do that at bedtime!”

Truly, it’s all about confidence.

Back to the checklist… So, what does confidence look and feel like? Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  • Am I being direct, clear, simple, decisive, firm, upbeat, matter-of-fact, even somewhat bored (rather than tentative, ambivalent, wavering, uncertain, or anxious)?
  • Am I feeling calm, capable, unruffled, and on top of this (rather than urgent or emotional)? Remember, toddlers are tiny, impulsive, but non-threatening people.
  • Am I refraining from running when I could stride, shouting when I could be matter-of-fact?
  • Am I being brief and nonchalant rather than pointed? Am I coaching and reminding rather than lecturing? Sometimes it’s just that extra split second we give to correcting unwanted behaviors that can turn them into an interesting experiment for children to continue. They might be feeling, “Hmmm…why is my hitting such a big deal? Can’t they easily stop me? Why such a pointed lesson? I definitely got a rise out of them. Interesting, but also a little unnerving (which, by the way, is why I’m smiling!). Better try that one again to see if these big people can get a better handle on it.”
  • Do I believe in my decision or direction? There’s no reason not to, because if we’ve been too rash, we can change our minds (confidently) later, and that’s great modeling. For example, we might say, “You know what? It is actually fine for you to play for a few more minutes, and then it will be bedtime. I’m sorry I didn’t think that one through carefully.”

3. Early Action

Children understand our words but need more from us when their impulsive, emotionally fueled behavior gets the better of them. This might mean calmly shadowing a child who is hitting; or taking a child aside for a “time in” when her behavior is out of control; or being totally fine with helping a preschooler get dressed in the morning (even though he is fully capable of doing this on his own).

  •  Am I ready and willing to take the actions necessary to help looonnnnng before I even dream of becoming irritated or annoyed by my child’s behavior?

 4. Acceptance

Accept and acknowledge: both of these actions are important, but the one to focus on is accept. Accept is not an urgent, active verb. It is a relaxing one. Instead of struggling to say or do the “right” thing to soothe or calm our child down, accept means letting go and letting feelings be. We are accepting disagreements with the understanding that with toddlers and teens, especially, disagreement is a daily, healthy, developmentally appropriate occurrence, a way of being to allow, acknowledge, even embrace. But not literally, because in our haste to embrace children to make it all better, we unwittingly send an invalidating, squelching (though quite understandable!) message: I’m not comfortable with your feelings and would like them to stop as soon as possible.

  •  Am I fully accepting my child’s feelings and perspective? Just letting them be?
  •  Am I letting my child know I hear the power of her message? Acknowledging is one of the best ways we can do that (more about that HERE), but the acknowledgment must be real, not a tactic we impatiently use to try to soothe children’s feelings.
  • Am I emotionally available, not distant or cut off? It can be tempting to distance ourselves — close off from our child’s emotional outbursts — for the sake of self- preservation, but the problem with this response is that it can make children feel like they’re opening their souls to a brick wall. So they need to keep trying…and trying… to be heard. “I’m scared and angry about sharing you with my baby brother! I feel out of control! Are you hearing me yet?” might be the real reason our toddler explodes when his peas are touching his mashed potatoes. But all he needs is for us to accept his need for this “overreaction” and allow his feelings to safely run their course while we acknowledge, “You really didn’t like that! That bugged you so much.” Children are relieved of their need for limit-pushing behavior when they consistently learn through our words, tone, and actions that we hear them, are unfazed, ready to help, and that we understand, or are at least open to trying.

  ***

I offer a complete guide to understanding and addressing common behavior issues in

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

 

(Photo by RageZ on Flickr)

23 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. GREAT!!! Love this, thanks so much Janet. This checklist really sums it up for me: this is what I (try to) do. This is what parenting is for me. AND it feels like a list to print out and hang somewhere in my hide-out, the place I go to if you don’t know what to do anymore (with my kids, my husband, neighbor or mother(in-law)). I’ll just read the list and I’ll know what was missing. Easy peacy!

    Thanks so much!

    1. 🙂 That makes me so happy, Karin! I love that this feels helpful to you.

  2. Now that our 2 year old is seeing things that he’s scared of, he’ll tell us “I’m scared” and will point to the cat laying in the corner, the frog statue on the shelf, or the (early) darkness outside driving home in the evening. I try to actively listen by repeating back to him what he’s scared of, he agrees, and I try to address it. I’m trying to figure out if I should treat his fear like it’s no big deal, if I should reassure him/explain it to him, or what the best action to do is. Usually I say “It’s okay to be scared.” Any advice?

    1. Is he agitated when he says these things? I’m also wondering what you mean by “addressing it”.

      I would stay right where he is, rather than either diminishing or resolving his feelings. Just acknowledge, “You’re saying the cat scares you.” Keep your tone matter-of-fact and your approach calm and maybe a tad curious. Let that feeling be, and then wait to see what, if anything, happens next. Try not to jump ahead of him or to conclusions… He might simply be sharing passing thoughts with you. Oftentimes, we are the ones who end up escalating these situations.

      1. Thanks for your reply! Let me clarify, when I “address it”, I remove what is scaring him, sometimes it’s as simple as turning on a light, shooing the cat from the corner, or agreeing with him that it’s dark outside and we’ll be home soon. I wouldn’t say he’s agitated, but he does act scared, hiding, running away, and using a high-pitched voice. I will be careful to remain calm and not escalate his fear! thanks again!

  3. Dear Janet,

    Thank you so much for your blogs, they were a godsend to me!
    Coming from an AP approach and being unaware of setting limits almost at all(!), I got more and more annoyed and angry with the little person I love the most in the whole wide world, which broke my heart.
    After an extensive and sometimes desperate search for answers about his behaviour and what to do I finally found your blog a few months ago! Especially ‘following through’ and ‘independent play’ were two of the many eye-openers. Thank you so much!

    My son and I both already started benefitting from these new insights in only a (surprisingly!) short amount of time!

    Despite the initial succes, however, we now seem to enter a more difficult fase again. And I struggle with determining whether I need to set a limit or not, and if so, what would be the ‘natural’ consequence.

    Lately, my 3,5-year old stopped playing independently again and started to be very clingy, wanting to sit on my lap, being around me and wanting to be physically connected to me almost constantly and saying things like ‘I want to play with you mommy/I have nobody to play with/I’m all alone/I’m afraid if I am not with you (standing one foot away from me:))’. (For clarity: he plays with other children at least 3 times a week, there have not been any (obvious) transitions/new situations)

    I read your post on clinginess and accepted and gave in to it. Unfortunately, I ‘m getting overstimulated and quite annoyed again, and I’m wondering whether it is possible that my son is actually testing me here 😉

    Especially since I had an authoritarian upbringing, and used to be a very lonely and fearful child, which of course would be the last thing I want for him. So it could be not just a coincidence that’s exactly what he is saying…

    Reading your post above I think I feel unsure what to do and lack the confidence to really go for my approach, whether it would be setting limits here or giving in to the clinginess and ‘sitting it out’. Do you have any advice for me?

    1. You’re so welcome, Maggie! I’m thrilled to have been helpful to you.

      Hmmm… I have the feeling many misunderstood my “Calming your clingy child” post. My point was to allow children the choice of sitting with you, if that was a perfectly acceptable choice. The example I used was taking your child to a party or playdate and allowing him or her to sit with you rather than socialize. I recommended not trying to coax them to go play, etc. This does not mean becoming a slave to your child. Remember, it is your child’s job to find the limits in his environment. Yours is to be very, very clear and confident about those limits. Your son cannot release you to take care of yourself or do chores, etc., YOU must be the one to do that. And, yes, children usually do know our buttons and soft spots, because they are sensitive and highly aware.

      1. OMG, I did misunderstood your clinginess post, or I guess my child-pleasing radar seems to have picked out only that particular part…

        Don’t worry, I still did my chores 🙂 (although I must admit mostly to get a bit of ‘rest’)

        I hear you loud and clear now, thank you again, appreciate your quick response very much! It’s already working while I type this post! 🙂

  4. Hi Janet,

    I came across your blog and am so happy I did. We have a 19 month old boy who refuses to say any variation of mom. His first word was mama and he used it for a while but suddenly it stopped. He says every possible variation of daddy though. He does not speak as much as some boys his age but his vocabulary is improving daily. He communicates well with sign language, pointing and even uses a few spanish words. When those fail he has a melt down. He is very interested in books and My Baby Can Read along with select PBS programs.

    1. avatar isabelled says:

      Hi Jaimey, you know what my 17 months old doesn’t say any variation of “mom” either (and one of his first words was mama too and he stopped saying it, and yes he says papa and lots of variation of it too). I have never seen it as a refusal but now.. i wonder!

  5. avatar isabelled says:

    Hi Janet,

    Your blog has been so helpful since i have discovered it, a few months ago. And this article was just what i needd. Thank you so much! I will buy your book “No bad kids”.

    I notice that your work is not translated into French. Some authors here have the same kind of approach you have, but their work is different enough for yours to have its place on our bookshelves too. Have you considered finding a publisher in France? Let me know if i can help. I’d love to write your books’ translation!

  6. Hi Janet, I have just started reading through your blogs and have your elevating child are book. Can you point me in the right direction or tell me how we should approach bath time or shower time? Our 20 month old use to be fine and once in the bath or shower he loves it but the last week he has had the biggest tantrums about getting in. The only time he is ok is when he gets in on his own terms which can take ages. Tonight I tried just putting him in anyway and we got the biggest tantrum! Not sure what to do! I ignored his tantrum and let him scream until he came out and had calmed down…

    Thanks
    Courtney

  7. This afternoon my 3-year-old totally freaked out on me when I flushed his poop. He was furious with me, yelling and raging that he’d wanted to do it and I was a bad mama. He’s been potty-trained for a long time now so my first reaction was to laugh it off: “haha, toddlers are so weird!”

    After thinking about it while he raged and screamed, I started to wonder if something else was at play. We’d just dropped off my grandmother (GG) at the airport after a week-long visit and he had developed a meaningful bond with her. I suspected that he was angry she’d left but that he didn’t know how to express it.

    He wouldn’t let me near him so I gave him space but stayed close. When he was ready, I helped him clean up his tear-streaked face and gave him lots of hugs as we talked about missing GG. He was able to accept and manage his anger and grief at his own pace and with the help of a parent who was calm, soothing, and respectful of his big feelings.

    Thank you for this blog and for your guidance, which is helping me to learn how to be the parent my child needs.

  8. another slam dunk for great parenting. thank you for the check list!

  9. I love your work Janet, thank you for showing me the RIE way, we try to follow many of the guidelines every day..
    Now though, after a really good stint with my 3yo boy…I am not coping very well at the moment. He seems to express everything as an emergency (good and bad minor events through the day) and my nerves have had it…I try to acknowledge, allow feelings and i generally have a calm nature.. but lately i am very reactive, threaten rewards/punishment and just generally controlling and in a serious mood. where has my lightness gone? i am most definitely ruffled!
    I feel like i am spending my whole day holding boundaries that he is just pushing and pushing with massive intensity that i can’t handle, leaving no time to enjoy each other.. something needs to change, but right now i feel very lost.

  10. Hi. I am wondering how to approach tooth flossing and brushing. My 2.5 yr old daughter either screetches, says, “no no no”, tries wedging her body between me and the wall (hiding, face down), etc etc. I have acknowledged her feelings and tried giving her time to feel heard. It’s not helping. I feel conflict with her saying, “I don’t want to” and me saying, “we have to brush and floss every night”. It’s her body and it doesn’t feel right to make her ‘give in’ to my demands. (my head goes to scary pedophile ideas of someone forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to do with her body). What am I missing?! Please help! Thanks!

  11. dear Janet,

    I love reading your posts and have been trying to apply your principles. The area where I have a problem is that my son of 16mths won’t sleep when it is me putting him to nap or sleep. He goes to sleep or nap with his father without any drama or crying. But when it’s me putting him down for a nap or bedtime, he cries his heart out. I have tried all the techniques of calming him, telling him it is naptime but to no avail.

    I don’t know what to do as I am the primary caretaker at home.

    Please advise.

    thank you.

  12. Hi Janet!

    I’m struggling with my 3 year old saying the F word (yes because he’s heard us say it). I say to him “that word isn’t available for you” or I try “let’s say fudge Rucker instead” I tried taking away toys he likes. I’ve tried time outs. I’ve yelled. I’ve begged. I’ve asked him why he’s saying it. I’ve tried ignoring him. It seems like nothing works. I know it’s our fault because we say it and he’s just mimicking us. He seems to do it until one of us snaps just to get a reaction from us. My husband has a bad temper (and I do too sometimes) and yells and swears and I’m sure that’s where he’s getting the behavior from. I try to be calm but when he keeps doing it over and over and laughs at our attempt to stop him it’s very frustrating. My husband takes it personally like an act of defiance and disrespect to him as a father and gets really angry. He tries time outs and being very stern but it doesn’t work. I feel lost and hopeless and like we are failing as parents. Help!

    1. Hi Maya! Sounds like you’ve given this word a whole lot of power. Yes, this is what happens: “He seems to do it until one of us snaps just to get a reaction from us.” So, the answer is not to react. Just let the word go. It’s going to take some time for the power to diminish, because of the reactions he’s gotten in the past… but be patient, let it go, and this word will mostly disappear.

  13. Hi Janet. I lover your work and feel grateful I’ve come across it as my girl entered toddler years (now 26 months) I’m applying a lot of your guidance which works really well most of the time and struggling with this one I’m not sure where to go with. My daughter spends lots of time with grandma at her house, they have a lovely relationship where she loves the big garden with lots to do. Often times after she has been there for more than several hours (where I have not been there) is furious I have come to join or collect her and yells and in a rage demands ‘go away mummy!’, pushing me towards the front door. I have applied approaches like, I can see you’re angry with me right now but I don’t want you to push me. Or have I interrupted your fun with grandma, I’m just going to sit over here while you guys play your game but my presence infuriates her more and I’m not sure perhaps on a different level she is angry with me I have left her at grandmas, even though she loves going there and is usually quite happy to say bye bye to me (sometimes she gets a bit sad but we talk through it and she quickly settles) could she prefer to be alone with grandma and not have me around?. She is very alert sociable and talks a lot for her age and understands everything I say, can also be defiant loving and also can be very patient. We also have many lovely moments playing and doing daily activities where I try to make it explorative fun and she seems happy when she is with me most of the time. Although grandma is a lot more ‘grandma’ with her spending more undivided attention and has Different approaches to my parenting, I feel that my daughter knows it’s just a little different at home to what it’s like at grandmas. Nonetheless I feel like I’m not providing something and I would love your thoughts. Thanks so much jemma

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