When your young child’s behavior is out of control or unpredictable, it can be frustrating and even overwhelming. It’s hard to deal with outbursts, arguments, and calls from your child’s school. But there are ways you can make things better.
Follow these steps to help figure out what the problem is, how to handle it, and whether to look for outside help.
1. Take a breath.
When kids act out, we may get irritated, sad, or angry. We might even feel ashamed.
The first step is to make sure you’re not so upset about what’s happening that you can’t work to find a solution. If you need to, take some time for yourself before thinking about your child. Remember that kids act out for all kinds of reasons. It often has nothing to do with you or your parenting.
2. Get specific about the behavior problem.
Before looking for a solution, you have to get specific about what you’re trying to solve. Kids might struggle in a few areas. So start with the thing that’s the biggest challenge.
Maybe your child is having tantrums every day after school. Or your child might be angry and lashing out at siblings, or even you. It may be that your child is disrupting school.
3. Try to figure out what’s causing it.
Over time, you might notice patterns. It may be that your child is irritable and angry on an empty stomach. In that case, keeping snacks handy could be enough to manage the problem.
Sometimes, the cause is straightforward. Other times, it’s a puzzle. You may need to connect with your child’s teacher and other trusted adults. With more information and help, you can start to figure out why your child is acting this way. (If you’re ready for it, you may want to look into an evaluation.)
4. Try a different approach.
When kids misbehave, our first instinct may be to punish them right away. That might be by taking away something your child likes. The problem is that punishing kids like that often doesn’t work the way we want it to. It could lead your child to resent you or misbehave even more.
Instead, give things a moment to cool off. Then help your child understand the consequences.
Say your child gets angry at you and purposely spills juice on the floor. Say that spilling juice on purpose isn’t OK. Then, when things are calm, have your child clean up the mess. (This is an approach called “logical consequences.”)
5. Get help if you need it.
How do you know if you need outside help? The best approach is to trust your instincts. If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s behavior, seek help. Getting support doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.
You can reach out to the school. Use these conversation starters to talk with your child’s teacher about behavior. Or you can talk with your health-care provider about what’s happening. They may suggest behavior therapy or another approach that works for your family.
You can also talk to friends or other families. Just keep in mind that while they may point you in the right direction, it’s important to take what other parents say with a grain of salt, and trust your gut.