If you ask ANY parent what one of the major challenges of parenting is, their child's behavior and how to discipline them will certainly top the list of answers. Learning how to understand children's behavior and how to find a behavior modification strategy that actually works has been researched and studied by experts on child development for decades.
Parents of children with special needs have an added struggle in this process (kind of seems like a theme for us, huh?). I often find myself wondering if my child's unwanted behaviors are due to "bad behavior" or his diagnosis. Are his sensory triggers being set off or is he choosing to behave that way?
Well, I am not a behavior expert by any means, but over the years, I have done a TON of research on the matter. What I have learned is the reason a child is misbehaving generally boils down to one simple reason: they have a need that is not being met. Whether or not a child has a diagnosis, whether or not a child is struggling with sensory overload, whether or not a child has a history of "bad" behavior-honestly, none of that really matters.. What matters is finding out what need your child has that is unmet and how to approach fulfilling the unmet need.
I hope you will read this next sentence twice. When I say a child has an unmet need-I am not trying to promote the idea of parents being the "problem" or that we should only subscribe to the strategy of "gentle parenting." Often what a child who is misbehaving needs is simply consistency in a discipline method. Children need to know what to expect from you. They need to know what will happen if those expectations are not met. Of course, we do not want children to live in fear of consequences or being "punished," but we do want them to know healthy boundaries, clear expectations, and what happens if those expectations are not met.
Some of you may be reading this, and saying "yah, yah, blah,blah-that sounds AMAZING, but how do I do that?"
I have compiled several wonderful talking points, strategies, and thoughts to ponder below. These come from the experts, and they are gooooooood.
TRY TO IDENTIFY SIGNS OF BEHAVIOR DYSREGULATION BEFORE IT BEGINS
IDENTIFYING THE UNMET NEED
STAYING CALM IN THE STORM
TAMING A TANTRUM
Managing a tantrum is HARD. It’s not easy to keep your cool when your kid is losing it. BUT it might feel better to know that your toddler isn’t having a tantrum because they’re “spoiled,” “manipulative,” or “bratty.” Tantrums are actually a sign of HEALTHY brain development.
Here’s WHY toddlers have tantrums:
🧠 Their brains haven’t formed the areas that help manage emotions.
🌪️ They don’t have strong language skills to express their feelings verbally, so they express them physically.
⏰ Their concept of time hasn’t developed yet, so they don’t understand why they can’t have what they want RIGHT NOW.
😭 Toddlers have a lot of emotions + energy, and they need a HEALTHY release, aka a good ol’ CRY.
And the good news? We don’t just have to live with super intense tantrums all the time. The way that WE respond can shorten the duration + intensity of the tantrum.
The trick to taming those tantrums:
Telling them to “Calm down” or “Stop crying” is only going to make them cry longer + harder. Imagine if someone said that to you when you were upset!
“I hear you really want more screen time right now.”
3️⃣OK THE FEELING
“It’s OK to feel sad that screen time is over for the day.”
You might be shocked at how far simply acknowledging their feelings can go for tantrum management - a real game changer in and of itself!
4️⃣HOLD THE BOUNDARY
“We can watch another episode of Elmo tomorrow.”
☝️This part is key. When you give in to the tantrum, your kid has just learned that if they scream and cry louder, they'll get what they want. “Allowing” your kid to have a tantrum DOES NOT equal them “getting whatever they want.”
You can support them through big feelings and hold a boundary at the SAME TIME.
Holding boundaries can be HARD but FIRM boundaries are the key to stopping the power struggles with your toddler.
Your kid might feel upset about it. That’s OK! In fact, allowing a healthy release of emotion will help them move through the feelings quicker and even builds trust in your relationship. They learn that you're a confident adult who makes the big decisions and takes care of them.
HAVE COMPASSION AND PATIENCE FOR YOURSELF
One of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
We can only do what we know and what we've been taught. So if no one has taught us how to regulate our own emotions, how can we be expected to know how to do it? How can we be expected to then teach young children how to do it?
Instead let's give ourselves the self compassion that we deserve and just get curious about how we can show up in a new way that works better for us and for the kids that we're caring for.
You are not alone.
Parenting is HARD. Most of us are just doing the very best we can. We aren't experts and we don't have endless hours to research the best strategies for taming unwanted behavior. Give yourself grace and compassion. Keep calm in the storm and if you cannot, make sure your child is in a safe environment or ask another adult to take over for a moment, and walk away. Breathe and come back when you're ready. Keep doing your best-you are doing a great job.
All my love and support, Anna