Thursday, March 3, 2016

Behavior Problems in Preschoolers and Kindergarteners

We get calls from parents all the time asking if their preschool or kindergartener's acting out behaviors are "normal." Today, we are going to share some tips for helping to calm disruptive behavior.

Most young children have "behavior" problems. It is their job. They are growing and developing by leaps and bounds. There are new expectations of them and the rate at which they are learning new skills, new rules, how to socialize, etc. can be pretty stressful and confusing sometimes. They are still figuring out how to handle their emotions and still need the help and support of their parents. When young children feel overwhelmed, those feelings come out in their behaviors.

Young children's moods can run hot and cold and go from happy and content to rageful and distraught and back in a matter of minutes. When they are upset, it is not uncommon to see yelling, screaming, hitting, kicking, throwing, etc. So, what can you do to help?

Tips for Helping Calm Young Children:

1. Try to stay calm. This is so much easier said then done, especially when parents are tired and worn out too. Children pick up on their parents' emotions and their upset will escalate if they feel their parents' anger and frustration. All you can do is try your best.

2. Acknowledge children's feelings. Young children still need help understanding and regulating their emotions. They need their parents to give words to their feelings. Not only does this help them recognize different emotions and connections to behaviors, an empathic response from parents helps them internalize coping skills.

3. Look for the reason(s) behind your child's outburst. While it is really challenging to do in the moment, when parents can stop to think about what might be causing the child's upset, that can be talked about and worked through. Acknowledging feelings then talking about what happened and why helps children feel understood and gives them a space to learn from their behavior instead of simply feeling bad about it.

4. Model healthy coping skills. Again, this can be a challenge when parents' nerves are frazzled. Even though you may lose it in the moment and get frustrated, angry, upset, loud, etc., it is always possible to go back and talk about what happened. This is a good way to teach self regulation too.

What about when children's behaviors seem really intense and out of control and cause problems at school or extreme disruptions to family life? Something is clearly going on that is intensifying the more "typical" struggles of this age. It could be related to something a bit more obvious like the transition of going to school, a new sibling, a change in the family situation, etc. Or, it could be some combination of earlier experiences, the child's temperament, and current life circumstances. Every child and family is different and there are hundreds of combinations of variables that could bring out challenging behaviors. In this case, seeking professional support from an expert child psychotherapist is a great option. Parents have their hands full. There is no reason to deal with this stressor alone. The earlier help is sought, the better children learn to work through and manage emotions, which is a life long advantage.