The other day, I completely overreacted to some typical preschool behaviors. It had been a busy few days thanks to holiday celebrations, and my preschooler’s exhaustion was getting the better of her. My youngest needed to breastfeed, but I couldn’t find a quiet moment with my daughter following me around the house, bubbling over with emotions about this and that.
With a crying infant in hand and sobbing toddler on the floor next to me, I snapped.
“If you don’t cheer up, I’m putting you to bed.”
It wasn’t among my proudest of moments and, of course, threatening a 3-year-old is a highly ineffective strategy for managing their emotions. Even worse, I knew she wasn’t misbehaving. I knew she was tired but my lack of patience ruined a chance to show her love and affection when she was having a really hard time.
This whole exchange has been on my mind a lot. How often do I react harshly to my children when I’m feeling challenged by their behavior? It’s often not that they’re being willfully disobedient; they simply need a little extra help dealing with a difficult moment. How often do I see my children acting a certain way and assume they’re being “bad” when, really, they’re just being kids?
These questions sent me on the hunt for more developmentally normal behaviors that often appear to be bad behaviors. Here’s what I found.
Whether you are reading a book or simply trying to get through a family meal, when your child is fidgeting and having trouble sitting still, it can be incredibly disruptive to everyone involved. As it turns out this behavior is pretty typical for toddlers and school-aged kids.
A normal amount of fidgeting can be seen in most kids if they are being asked to sit still during a boring activity or if they’re upset or anxious about something happening in their life, according to research from the University of California.
When does fidgeting become a reason for concern? If your child regularly has difficulty sitting still while doing something they enjoy (as opposed to something they think is a snoozefest), it may be a good idea to talk with your child’s pediatrician about how to address this behavior.
When you are a parent of very young kids, tantrums and tears become an element of everyday life. It can be incredibly difficult to remain patient with your children on especially emotional days when meltdowns seem to happen once an hour, but don’t be quick to assume your child is spoiled.
Extreme expressions of emotions, whether it’s tantrums or tearfulness, are par for the course for young children. In fact, you may even notice that your child has become more volatile right about the time they reach preschool. This is because, as your child grows, their emotions become more complex and more pronounced, according to Psych Central.
While a newly walking toddler may react with extreme anger, they quickly swing back to happy when presented with a distraction. Preschoolers, on the other hand, have a better understanding of how their world works and who they are and may struggle with anxiety over relatively small changes or feel intense jealousy of a sibling.
To the dismay of most parents, preschoolers experience these extreme emotions but they have yet to mature to the point of expressing them in a socially acceptable way.
There is good news, however: Letting your child experience their feelings and even helping them name them is a simple and effective approach for preschool-aged children.
Young children can act in the most surprising (and confusing) ways. If you are observing impulsivity and a lack of self-control in your young child, know that this is expected behavior for toddlers and young school-aged children.
Kid’s impulsivity can be blamed on their developing brains, according to non-profit parenting resource Zero to Three. After age 3, the areas of the brain responsible for exhibiting self-control begin to develop. As they get older, their brain will mature, and you will begin to notice they are better equipped to think through their decisions and control their impulses.
Hunger- or Exhaustion-Induced Behaviors
If you have ever kept a toddler out past their bedtime, you’ve probably noticed how they turn into a completely different child when their basic needs aren’t met. Kids know when they are hungry, bored, or tired and when they don’t have those needs met, it is difficult for everyone involved. According to Pennsylvania State University’s research-based online resource, PennState Extension, this is a developmentally appropriate reaction, not bad behavior.
You may experience tantrums, extreme hyperactivity, or tearfulness in a child who simply needs a nap or a snack but isn’t mature enough to express those needs well. There is good news for parents in this phase of their child’s life: You can do something about it! The simplest solution for avoiding meltdowns over unmet needs is making sure those needs get met.
Whenever possible, bring a snack along to avoid hunger, a toy to avoid boredom, and try not to keep your child out through naptime or past bedtime.
Changing up a child’s normal routine can bring out a wide range of behaviors and emotions. One of my children gets incredibly anxious when she isn’t sure what is happening next, while another gets distressed when we break up our normal breakfast rotation.
For a parent who needs some flexibility or simply enjoys changing things up from time-to-time, rigidity in toddlers can be an exasperating experience. Of course, like most difficult behaviors in children, this attachment to routines is simply a part of child development.
Toddlers begin to notice that their lives follow certain patterns and routines. With time, they begin to expect those routines and when things don’t happen as expected it can cause them distress, according to an article by Jenna Ewing and Dr. Gregory S. Chasson of Towson University.
Most children will start to show a little more flexibility around 3 or 4 years of age. Rigid or repetitive behavior is only cause for concern if it continues in school-aged children and is paired with extreme anxiety.
Every parent has been there. You have someplace you need to be, but your 3-year-old is determined to put his shoes on himself. The minutes pass by and your child stubbornly insists they can do it by himself and erupts into a tantrum anytime you try to assist. When you’re in a hurry, a toddler’s demands for independence can be infuriating, but this, too, is a developmentally appropriate behavior.
In fact, a child’s insistence on being granted a level of independence from a young age is a healthy part of getting older. By first grade, your child should be able to perform most of their self-care. In order to help our children reach that milestone, we have to be willing to give them the independence they so desperately desire.
For many families, this may mean building a few extra minutes into the morning or bedtime routines or allowing their children to practice these life skills in low-pressure situations.
As children mature, it is perfectly normal for them to test the rules and boundaries you have set for them. For many children, boundary testing is a way they check to see if you will give them the consistency they so desperately need.
In fact, the boundaries we set for our kids are directly related to how well they learn to practice self-control in the future, according to parenting resource AHA! Parenting. So, when your children push back against your rules, know they this is a part of the learning process and a consistent response to this developmental behavior is the best approach, no matter their age.