When Small Children Act Out

When children are small, every thing is a game to them. They are curious and like to test all the boundaries. When you take them to a place where this curiosity is encouraged, like a playground, it can be an awesome event to behold. But when you are in a situation where this curiosity is not supported, like to eating out at a restaurant or when you are on a tight schedule, it can wreck havoc with your life.

So, there are two things to consider here: how to prevent a situation where your child will act out, and what to do when you’ve failed to prevent it. Dealing with your child’s tantrums can be a major source of parents feeling inadequate. You could have it all together, and then your child screams in the grocery store and you suddenly feel judged by all the patrons.

So, the first thing to adjust, like in most cases, is your own attitude. While it may be your task to go about your business as an adult in an orderly fashion, it is your child’s job to test out their world and push their boundaries. Being able to recognize that your child is not trying to misbehave, or be counterproductive, they are trying to accomplish their own agenda, which can include items like investigating what happens when they pull the apple out of the bottom of the apple pyramid at the grocer, researching people’s reactions to them throwing their food in a restaurant and using trial and error to figure out how best to get you to buy them candy. So, all in all, they are just doing their job.

I believe that understanding this fundamental piece of information can go a long way to remove some of the negative emotion from when we fail to prevent a tantrum. When you understand it isn’t personal, you can begin to see how to engage in a way with your child that is more positive.

Now, as a precursor to this advice, please realize this will not help you get a toddler to behave through a marathon of adult activities. Children can only pay attention to so much throughout any given day. Marathon events can include things like weddings, flying on a commercial airliner, to their very own birthday parties. The fact of the matter is they don’t have the stamina we have, even though we may admire their energy. I will write another post about how I get my kids through those events, and believe me, it is possible.

So, without further ado:

How to prevent situations where you child will likely to act out:

Toddlers are extremely independent souls, that are oddly so dependent on you.  They want to do things by themselves, but they need your help to navigate our society. Balance can bring you leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. So, it follows that if you want your child to sit for a long period of time, have extra active time for them, because children are filled with energy, and that energy has to go somewhere. Make a space for them to perform their experiments and make a mess. Make sure they have a proper appetite at meal time, by limiting pre-meal snacks.

Often we may take the easy route, like hand them a snack to keep them out of our hair while we make dinner, but then how is that same child supposed to focus on their dinner when they have no appetite. Without that focus, you have basically handed them a plate full of projectiles and squishy experiment projects. The easy route leads us down a path to our own detriment. It may be easier to let the child take a longer nap so we can finish our house chores before we go out, but you are then leaving the house with a fresh child ready to terrorize the world.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Plan your child’s day as you would your own, and plan your day with your child in mind. How about an example?

Let’s say on any given weekend, I need to do 4 loads of laundry. I can schedule my day in any number of ways, but some favor more time saving for myself and other schedules prioritize positive interactions with my kids.

As a busy adult, it would seem to make sense to get the laundry over and done with as quickly as possible. At my quickest, I could finish all 4 loads in 3 hours in all. Run down to the basement, start a load, it’s easy, right? But when I go downstairs, my toddler always wants to come with. So, while I may be able to get the washing machine loaded quickly when I do it on my own, 9 times out of 10 I come back upstairs to a toddler tantrum. So, this works out to 5 minutes to load the machine and 25 minutes to calm the child and get them back to their activities.

Instead, I can take him downstairs with me. It may take me 20 minutes to load the machine, but I’m still saving 10 minutes and I’ve been able to have some teachable moments. Toddlers love to explore and going down the basement steps is good practice. Anyone with stairs in their home, will know all too well how much energy is expended in keeping stairs secure from exploring toddlers. At least, I feel if my littlest was to somehow access the stairs without my knowledge, that he is physically able to get up and down them and is less likely to have an accident, than if he had no experience with them. When I separate the clothes, I can teach him his colors, or let him feel the fabrics (this is smooth, that is rough) building his vocabulary.

Also, it is important for us to keep the outcomes of our toddler’s actions in perspective. I needed to walk our two dogs, and once again I was faced with doing the quick adult way, or slowing my pace to incorporate my toddler. So, I let him come along and he presented me with a challenge. HE wanted to hold the leash. One of our dogs is less than 10 pounds, so I knew he was strong enough to do it, but what would happen if he couldn’t? The dog could pull loose and run away.

Now, I use a leash to keep my dog from running away. But if I’m honest, the toddler is the only person that hasn’t accidentally let the dog loose, simply due to a lack of opportunity. So, if he were to let the dog run off, it would be no worse than any number of times I had lost the dog. Our small dog, is a Pomeranian, and she will come when she is called. So, I handed my 22 month old the leash with confidence, and he didn’t let me down.

So, it really comes down to making space in our busy modern lives for these little ones. So then, what about when you’ve done all this to accommodate your small child, but then they throw a tantrum anyways.

System Failure. Child Tantrum Imminent. Now What?

You’re at the bank, and you are using this as a moment to teach your toddler numbers, but they get upset. The denominations of the currency doesn’t match the numbers they learned on Sesame Street. 2 comes after 1, not 5. Where is the $2 bill? You try to explain, but it’s too late. Unless you can produce that $2 bill now, a full blown tantrum is on it’s way. Your child is already raising their voice in excitement.

At this point, the energy has already built up in their tiny little bodies, and now it needs to be released. Whatever it was that has pushed them over that edge, keep in mind that you can’t bring them back from the edge they just flung themselves from, the energy release has already begun. Your job now is to limit the stimulus your child is experiencing. So get them into a calm quiet environment and ride it out.

Remember that they can’t keep up that amount of energy required for kicking and screaming, so soon they will calm. Once you reach this break, don’t introduce new stimulus to the situation, or they will act up immediately. I see this happen sometimes with my husband, when our little one wants a toy, and he can’t find it. The baby proceeds to have a fit, and as soon as he stops to catch his breath, my husband will present the previously missing toy. The baby will erupt once again.

Keep in mind that it probably wasn’t the toy that pushed the baby over the edge, maybe he was tired, or hungry or had a a dirty diaper and the missing toy only provided a catalyst to release the pent up energy he felt about the situation.

Don’t feel bad about your hasty retreat if this happens in public. These things happen. I’ve had meals hastily boxed up so we could quickly leave a restaurant, or even laid in the bedroom in the dark with my son, so he could calm down.

What have you found has helped with keeping your small children from acting out?

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