The Tot Q&A: How to manage your child’s disruptive behaviors - TheTot
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The Tot Q&A: How to manage your child’s disruptive behaviors

Professional Counselor & Play Therapist, Laura McLaughlin, answers your questions on how to manage your child’s disruptive behaviors.

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Photo by Syrie Wongkaew

Q: I have a 2.5 year old boy. He becomes very territorial over his toys whenever another child comes over to play. He grabs the toys out of the other child’s hands, will only want to play with whatever toy the other child wants, he will hit and shove to get what he wants (behaviors he usually doesn’t display). I have stopped inviting new friends over to play. Should I hold off on play dates until he is older, or should I try to keep having them so he can learn the appropriate way to behave? He goes to school and plays well there, our issue is when the play is in his own home.

A: Two-and-a-half is a rough age, and for most children it is the primary age of the “Terrible Twos.” At the age of 2 ½, most children are working on the skills of regulating their extreme emotions and rigid behaviors in an attempt to self-soothe. Two-and-a-halfs are demanding and need to make all the decisions and be in control at all times. It sounds like your son is possibly being territorial and attempting to control the play date and have the other child conform to his demands. It is also common to see this occur more in the child’s own home, as they have come to view the toys as their toys (and hence not to be shared with others). Children at this age simply do not have the growth and maturity to focus on pro-social behaviors or have the ability to share their prized possessions with others. Most children will develop these skills around 3 to 3 ½ years of age, which makes it much more developmentally appropriate for play dates with other children after the age of 3. For the time being, I would hold off on play dates until your son is able to grow and mature a little more as he gets closer to 3 years old.

In the meantime, you can help him work on emotional regulation and impulse control, so that he is able to control his frustration when he wants a toy that another child is playing with. Identifying your son’s frustration and anger and labeling it for him will help him continue to practice emotional regulation. As he gains maturity in handling his emotions, it will be easier for him to be able to share his toys with other kids. Another great way to help him practice is to model appropriate sharing behavior when you play with him at home. When he reaches for a toy that you have, making a statement such as “You wanted my toy” or “You took that right out of my hands” will help him gain awareness and bring his attention to his behaviors. Once he realizes that what he is doing is causing you to feel hurt or sad, he can begin working on correcting his behavior. Sometimes children struggle to make the connection between their actions and the effect on others, so the more you are able to verbalize it, the better.

Q: How do I deal with a 3 year old interrupting conversations?

A: Young tots love being the center of attention. They can be demanding of all of your attention, all of the time. Three year olds are not always able to control their impulses or have the skills for delayed gratification, which means they will interrupt your conversations when they want your attention. One skill I teach parents about to help with this is the 30 Second Burst of Attention. This involves temporarily excusing yourself from your conversation, bending or squatting down to get on your child’s eye level, giving your child your full attention for 30 seconds, then firmly setting the limit that you are going to go back to your conversation and redirect the child’s behavior. This method allows the child to feel heard and connected with you – which is the primary goal of the interrupting behavior. Once this goal is met, usually the child is able to continue playing on their own or redirect his or her behavior to what they are supposed to be doing.

Q: My 15 month old has been hitting us on the face and he laughs every time. We say ‘no no’ and he does it again like it’s a game. Any help would be super appreciated!

A: Hitting others is something for which I will always set a hard and fast limit. To state it simply so that even young children can comprehend, I state that “People are not for hitting” in a very firm voice. No other explanation needed, especially for a 15 month old – they simply will not be able to process any more words than the simple limit. It can be very common for 15 month olds to move in the opposite direction of what the parent desires, so it is possible that he may continue to hit you just because you tell him no! It most likely has become a game for him and is his way of testing his power in the relationship and testing out his own individuality.

While we do want children to develop individuality and independence, hitting is not an appropriate way of doing so. Try setting the limit of “people are not for hitting” and grab his hand and hold it firmly in yours, showing him that you will not allow him to hit you again. Sometimes parents may need to hold onto their child’s hand until the child is able to calm down and become regulated again. If he is calm and resorts back to hitting a couple minutes later, remove him from the current situation or environment so that he can not continue to hit. This may mean putting him in his chair after he hits you, or putting him in his play pen so that he can not hurt you. As a rule of thumb, if children are hitting then most likely they are showing they do not have the maturity or skills to continue engaging in the current activity and need to be removed.

Q: My 17 month old gets extremely angry when things don’t go his way. He pinches, scratches and tries to bite his dad and me. We usually say “no no” or “be gentle” but that seems to make it worse. Any advice on how to handle these situations?

A: Similar to the question above, a child that is displaying this type of behavior is showing that they are not physically regulated and that he needs the help of a parent to calm him down. Start by reflecting his feeling back to him when he gets angry and then setting the limit that people are not for hurting. An example would be “You are angry, but Mom and dad are not for hurting.”

This enables your son to feel understood since you are able to validate his anger, but also keeps everyone safe by communicating to him that you will not tolerate anyone being hurt. If he shows that he can not control his physical body and he begins pinching, scratching, or biting, remove him from the situation. Once removed from the situation, you can use nonverbal techniques such as rocking, holding, sitting with him, rubbing his back, or gentle facial expressions to help get him physically regulated to where he will not resort to hurting others. Once he is calm, he can try returning to the activity. With enough repetition, he will learn to trust that you will be there to get him regulated and that it is not ok to hurt others – no matter what he is feeling on the inside.

Q: I feel like everyday is a battle with my 30 month old. We have the same arguments. She sits at the bottom of the stairs and won’t walk up until I’ve sweated 20 minutes (I can’t carry her, I’m holding the newborn), won’t wash her hands until I have to force her to do so, etc. I’m so torn between keeping this firm ground and just thinking I’m doing it all wrong!? Is it really so normal for us to be arguing every single day?

A: In simple terms – yes, its normal for that age for everything to be a battle. Your daughter is still in the midst of the phase of disequilibrium and rigidity that hits from roughly 2 ½ to early 3 years of age. Most likely she will grow out of it with added growth and maturity, but there are ways to help navigate these rigid behaviors while you wait for the maturity with age to come. The first way of working around the rigid behaviors common for this age is to not engage in any type of power struggle. Knowing that she is most likely going to say “NO” to whatever you say, find creative ways to state your commands. Statements such as “hands are to be washed after playing outside” or “It’s time for a nap.

Time to come upstairs” are short, precise, and easy for young kids to comprehend. Stating it as a limit or rule removes you from the power struggle because it is not something you are trying to get her to do, it’s simply the limit (this sounds very different to a child than yelling “I said to come upstairs right now! or “I told you to wash your hands”). Staying calm and removing the emotions out of the limit will help you to not escalate with your daughter. And remember – she is still growing and working on gaining skills and maturity in this area, so you may have to repeat the limit simply and robotically 5-10 times before she is able to follow it on her own. Stay patient. With enough practice and consistency she will come to love the structure and predictability of the limits.

Q: My 22 month old has started banging her head at times when things don’t go her way. She throws herself on the floor and then bangs it on the floor. Not too hard but it is still distressing. She has also started biting when she is excited or frustrated (just me so far). Other than that she is a happy girl. We would love some support on how to manage these behaviours. Thank you.

A: From my experience, head banging and biting are both seen as tensional outlets, meaning they are behaviors intended to soothe a child when internal tension or anxiety begins to build. The bodily sensation of excitement feels very similar to anxiety, so it makes sense that the biting is also occurring when she becomes excited. For immediate relief, try to make sure she is safe and prevent her from banging her head. Recent studies show that brain damage is cumulative, so even minor head banging can add up and take its toll if it is not stopped or prevented. When you see her engaging in the head banging, sit on the floor with her and constrict her so that she is physically unable to bang her head. If this is impossible due to her size, some families have found relief from using helmets.  Sometimes children are kicking and thrashing their body around too dangerously, and the only thing you may be able to do in the moment is place a pillow between her head and the surface on which she is banging.  If you are able, try holding her from behind and rocking her body back and forth to self soothe. Same goes for the biting – help to soothe her and regulate her excitement or frustration and lower her tension by comforting her in nonverbal ways.

In terms of prevention, try to see if there is a common pattern or triggering event that leads to the head banging (such as when she does not get her way). Watch her body, and as soon as you see the tension begin to build (the moment right before she usually begins head banging), get right at eye level with her and connect deeply with her by reflecting her feelings back to her. Saying something like “You are frustrated that you did not get your way” or “you are mad because you wanted to keep playing and we had to leave” helps decrease the tension because it provides an outlet for her emotions in an appropriate way. This will help you regulate her strong emotions and hopefully prevent them from escalating and resulting in the outlet of head banging. It will take a lot of supervision from you, but if you are able to consistently step in and regulate her emotions before she loses control, then you are able to help her practice regulating her own body and emotions and creating neural pathways that will enable her to develop more self-control in the future.

Q: I have a 4 -year-old boy who is sweet to us by nature and is also well-behaved in school. The only trouble is he absolutely dislikes his younger 1 ½-year-old brother. He doesn’t let the baby touch him, his toys, or even go near his surrounding play area. He has a fondness of kicking his little brother and pinching him several times per day, even if his little brother stays out of his way. I am at my wits end because I tried both the soft method of counseling and dedicating more one-to-one time with my older boy, and the hard way of reprimanding etc, but the behavior still continues. It has been this way since the little one was born. I would love to hear what kind of approach will be possible as I just want my 2 boys to grow up happily together. Thank you so much!

A: This is a tough one, as sibling difficulties can be some of the hardest issues to tackle (as you have seen – no approach has helped before!). One of the hardest things as a parent is seeing your children fighting and not getting along, especially if they are being hurtful to each other. Most siblings fight (a lot), and unless it is getting dangerous or aggressive, it is best to let them try to work it out on their own and find solutions to their problems.

One thing that can help is figuring out why your older son pinches or kicks his brother, and then prevent that from happening as much as possible. Some of the reasons siblings fight are simple and straightforward and can be easily handled. Separating siblings more often helps settle a need for privacy, personal space, or separate play areas. Other reasons that siblings fight can be deeply rooted – such as hatred or desperate jealousy. These take longer to sort out and often do not have a one-size-fits-all-solution. Finding a family therapist or play therapist that can help siblings process and work through these deeper feelings regarding each other can help alleviate the tension between them (even 4-year-olds can be experiencing these intense feelings).

In the meantime, limit, limit, limit! Be consistent with your limits that people are not for hurting, and remove your older son from the situation when he kicks or pinches his younger brother. When he chooses to hurt his brother, he also chooses to have a natural consequence (whatever consequence works for your family can be used here- whether its losing a privilege, having a toy taken away, going to bed early, missing their favorite tv show, etc).

In addition, I would also recommend giving the one-on-one attention approach another go. It’s good to do even if there are no disruptive behaviors, as connecting with your child and being attuned to your child is the most valuable gift you can give them. Showing both of your sons that they are special and giving them each their own, consistent one-on-one time with you will go a long way in terms of developing secure attachments and helping them to feel safe, accepted, understood, and valuable. The more your child feels securely attached to you, the more his brain is able to develop in the most optimal way helping him to make good decisions when it comes to interacting with his brother.

Q: My 12 month old has started screaming super loudly in the last few weeks and nothing we’re trying seems to be working- we’ve tried asking him what’s wrong, telling him it’s too loud and to use his gentle voice, and even just ignoring it but it is escalating. Initially it was about getting our attention but now it’s with everything whether we take something dangerous away from him, stop him from eating the table corners, or when in class I don’t let him grab another kid’s toy. I’m worried he is starting his terrible 2s early and I just don’t know how to help him and us as he can’t speak yet and I’m not sure he fully understands us either (aside from basic commands). 

A: There are often so many changes and advancements happening physically with 12 month old tots, that it can be common for them to lose the ability to regulate their emotions a bit. At 12 months, most children are still primarily using the pre-verbal area of their brain, which is the emotional part of the brain. They do not have access to higher brain functioning to process logic and language. Asking a child what is wrong or attempting to soothe them by talking to them will be ineffective. Interventions with children of this age need to be aimed at a level they can understand: nonverbal communication. Using nonverbal methods to comfort, soothe, and regulate your 12 month old will have the best results for children of this age. When your child begins screaming, try holding him, rocking him in your arms, or giving him comforting touch. Compassionate, calm, and understanding facial expressions can also help soothe a screaming baby.

Learning to recognize the underlying meaning behind your child’s screaming can also be helpful. Try to think of the screaming as a distress signal. It’s your child’s way of saying “help! I am sad because I wanted that toy and I don’t know how to tell you in words, and all I know how to do is scream so you will get the message!” Being able to comfort your child through nonverbal means sends a direct message to the child’s primitive brain that he is safe, and that the crying can cease as the message has been received by a caring caretaker. When you are able to view screaming as a sign that your child is needing help and needs you to calm him, it is much easier to remain in an open, empathic, and compassionate state of mind.