Sneak peek: Parenting tips to help you understand the “why” behind your child’s behavior. Positive parenting tips and ideas to try when nothing else seems to work.
I thought I was a fairly good, patient parent until my youngest son reached toddlerhood. Although I have a Ph.D. in Human Development, his behavior baffled me. The typical parenting tips I rely on rarely worked; I even pulled out all my parenting research books but couldn’t quite figure him out. Even at this age, he rarely engaged with toys for long. He would rather play with real-life objects like our pod-style coffee maker or cooking utensils.
Beyond that, he craved independence and the phrase, “me do it” was heard endlessly. He liked things a certain way and was not easily swayed. In the irony that only toddlers can show, this craving for independence only emerged at times. Other times, he seemed to need my attention constantly. I’d spend time playing with him, but it never seemed enough.
When he was 2-3 years old, many days ended with me in tears (and sometimes him too) or with me yelling.
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In the years since, I have learned that this experience is not all that uncommon. Fairly frequently I hear from parents that they feel they and their child are like “oil and vinegar” or that their child is “defiant” or “short-tempered.”
This is what the conventional societal view of parenting tells us. Oftentimes these typical parenting tips are based on the belief is that either there is something wrong with our child or that they are intentionally “pushing our buttons.” I get that. At times, I too felt that my son was intentionally making life difficult for me.
But over time, as I’ve broadened my understanding of positive parenting and child development (beyond book knowledge), I’ve begun to see that some other factors are usually at work.
Factors that Impact Your Child’s Behavior
Parenting tip #1: it’s not always about you.
This is probably one of the most useful ideas I’ve heard in relation to parenting lately. In other words, our children’s behavior/misbehavior does not always stem from anything we are doing (or not doing). Children are on their own path of development and it is a bumpy ride.
We often think of growth spurts for babies or teenagers, but in reality, they can happen throughout our children’s development. After I did some reading about the growth spurt timeline and how this roller coaster of development affects our children’s behavior, I could see my son’s behavior much differently.
Young children go through frequent (as often as every 6 months) physical or cognitive spurts of development during the early years of life. These growth spurts can influence their eating habits, sleeping, irritability level, focus, and more. If your child’s seemingly “defiant” or “short-tempered” behavior seems to have come out of nowhere, consider the possibility of a growth spurt.
Seeing your child’s behavior as a sign of a growth spurt does not, of course, change the behavior. However, I think it does give parents a way to make meaning of the behavior and this in itself can be helpful. When we and our kids are going through a rough phase, I think many of us try to diagnose the situation and find some reason for the behavior. If you’re like me, this often takes the form of me blaming myself for their behavior (please tell me I’m not the only one who does this!). Understanding children’s behavior through the lens of developmental processes (like a growth spurt), helps us lighten our mental load just a bit.
Parenting tip #2: you can’t change your child’s essential nature.
We sometimes hear the term temperament mentioned in parenting tips but its implications on your relationship with your child are often overlooked. Temperament goes beyond just simple ideas of introverted or extroverted. It can include factors such as sensitivity to stimulation, attention span, persistence, and more. Sometimes children with more sensitivities or who are less adaptable are thought to have a “difficult” temperament. What recent child development research has taught us, however, is that these are real temperamental needs. If we can sensitively meet these needs, kids thrive.
When you and your child are going through a rough phase, it’s often helpful to consider what, if any of the issues might be related to temperament. Is there a temperamental need your child has that isn’t being fully met? For example, is your extroverted child in need of more social interaction with friends (not uncommon in our pandemic-era times)? Or is your sensitive child need more one-on-one time with you that has been hard to find lately?
From a wider perspective, the interplay between your temperament and your child’s is also a factor to consider. Is your child’s temperament very different from your own? This can often be a source of challenge if it is not recognized. Finding ways to help meet your child’s temperamental needs, while still meeting your own needs can be a tricky balancing act, but it’s possible. The first step is to simply recognize your child’s needs and look for ways to meet them in your typical routine.
Behavior as Communication
Parenting tip #3: see behavior as a form of communication.
This is such an important factor. Conventional parenting tips would tell you that every time your child has a tantrum, resists a boundary or becomes emotionally overwhelmed, that it’s a sign of disrespect. This view is based on an antiquated understanding of how little brains work. Now, in the 21st century, we know that kids’ brains get overwhelmed by big emotions very easily. It’s not usually because they dislike you or are disrespecting you, it’s simply because they don’t have the emotional regulation skills that adults have developed (most of us at least😊). It takes years of practice to learn how to manage big emotions effectively without lashing out or completely breaking down. I think many adults still struggle with this (I do too!) and we have mature brains. Imagine how hard it is for little kids whose brains aren’t yet fully developed?
One of the first principles of positive parenting that has benefited me the most is the idea that children’s behavior is a form of communication. On the surface, their behavior may exhibit itself with yelling, tantrums, defiance, etc. but the underlying issue that it is communicating is often much deeper. These behaviors can represent a variety of needs like hunger or sleep, fears or anxieties, or a deficit in certain skills like emotional regulation or executive functioning. The more we can get to the core issue underlying these behaviors, the more we can meet their needs or help them gain the skills to approach the situation more appropriately in the future.
Parenting Tips to Try (When All Else Seems to Fail)
Filling your child’s emotional bucket at least once a day can often preemptively avoid some emotional breakdowns. If you have multiple kids, one-on-one time is sometimes hard to find. However, if you can establish a routine so that each child knows they get “special time” with a parent for even just 10 minutes a day, then they might be more likely to play independently while it’s another child’s turn.
Just a few minutes of focused time to do an activity the child wants to do can help reconnect them emotionally to you. Need ideas? Try allowing your child to pick a favorite activity (even if it’s one you dislike) or pull out something like these Conversation Cards to give you some ideas.
Connection Before Correction
You may have heard this phrase tossed about in parenting articles and wondered what it really means. At its core, is the idea that kids learn best when they are calm and feel secure. When we discipline kids, we want them to learn a new way of behaving or a new strategy for handling a situation. Kid’s cannot learn these new skills if their brain is flooded with stress hormones because we just yelled at or shamed them. This is huge.
If we can center our disciplinary strategies on this one idea, a lot of tension can be avoided. We often get into a cycle of yelling and punishing (myself included) and wonder why it doesn’t work. This is why—kids cannot internalize lessons when they are in emotional overdrive.
Related reading: The Scientific Reason Why Yelling at Kids Doesn’t Work
What do we do instead? We still need to set boundaries with our kids. Positive parenting is not about being permissive. Positive parenting is about setting boundaries on behavior, not emotions. If kids do not abide by the boundaries, then we calmly discuss the consequences or (even better) how they can handle this situation differently in the future.
Positive parenting tips based on research:
- Respond with empathy. Say something like, “It looks like you are feeling sad about having to leave the park. I know you are having fun, but it’s time to go.” This parenting tip helps kids feel that their feelings are validated but still sets boundaries.
- Offer a positive alternative. For example, you could say, “I know you want the toy but it’s not okay to hit your brother. Use words to ask him for what you want.” This, once again, allows for emotions but puts the boundary on their behavior.
- Get down on their level (make eye contact). Be open to hearing their feelings, “I see that you are really upset. You can tell me about it if you want.”
- Set up a time-in area or calming corner. This gives kids the space to work through their big emotions in a safe space. You can be with them in this space if they prefer that. It often helps to provide some sensory items or posters to remind them how to calm down. Over time, this builds emotional regulation skills, which will ultimately prevent many tantrums in the future.
I know it feels like we’re being too “soft.” I can totally relate. I have felt this way too. The key to remember is that kids do not internalize lessons when they are dysregulated and feeling fearful. This is why most punishments do not work. The idea that kids actually learn best through connection with us is a parenting game-changer.
When going through a rough phase with your child, I think it’s helpful to keep the big picture in mind. Hopefully, these parenting tips will help you raise kids who will grow up to be adults who we like and who hopefully will still want to hang out with us.
The best parenting tip of all:
Be mindful of the story you tell yourself (or others) about your child. Stories help us make sense of our world and our experiences (if you want to hear more about this I highly recommend the work of Susan David and her recent podcast). If we regularly tell the story to ourselves that our child is “defiant” or “disrespectful” then that will become what we believe about them.
With my son, I had to re-write my story about him. He’s not the “rebellious youngest” or the “mischievous one,” he’s spirited, funny, fearless, and clever. My son is now 7 and although we still have rough phases from time to time, I have gained a lot of insight into his behavior by looking beyond the surface to these deeper issues. Is it time to look beyond the surface and tell yourself another, truer story about your child? Perhaps it’s that “my child needs to work on emotional regulation” or “my child has a spirited temperament.” You can change the narrative with your child and it might just change your whole relationship.
Need help with ideas for how to change the narrative with your child and establish a better relationship? Download these FREE Discipline Scripts. They provide real-life examples of tips to try for boundary setting: