When preschool children display poor behavior, we often try to figure out the cause so we can support better social skills. But this can be frustrating. Some children are consistently misbehaving, while others have sporadic episodes and meltdowns. I’ve found that by taking some time to observe, I can usually pin the behavior on one of six common culprits. Contrary to what it appears, the child isn’t deliberately trying to be hurtful or annoying, but instead may be...
1. Testing the rules of a parent or caregiver. They are trying to figure out how the world works and are trying to see where the limits are, or if they exist at all. It is frustrating for adults but normal for a child to behave this way. They naturally seek boundaries, because that is what provides them with security, predictability, and balance.
2. Trying to figure out the expectations in different places There are bound to be different rules at home, at school, at Grandma’s, at the neighbor's. They may feel uncomfortable until they learn what is expected where. It’s best to express rules in positive terms, so children know what it is they can do, rather than dwelling on what they can’t.
3. Trying to become independent. The preschool years can be a difficult time, as children are torn between wanting the security of trusted adults, but also want to be their own little person. They want to know you’re there and paying attention to them, but don’t necessarily want to listen. They alternate, unpredictably, between compliance and resistance, as the mood strikes them or their needs change. What they don’t need is unrelenting push back from adults, but rather, consistent expectations with logical consequences.
4. Not feeling well. A fever or onset of illness can cause a child to feel out of sorts, cranky, and have little patience with himself and others. It’s always smart to check for this if a child is acting differently than usual and there doesn’t appear to be any other good reason for it. He may just need a cuddle and some time at home to feel better.
5. Hungry or tired. When either of these basic needs aren’t met, we can expect outbursts and loss of control. They do not quite understand how to express what’s wrong any other way, at this age. They may have missed breakfast because everyone was in a hurry to leave the house or maybe it was a late night without much sleeping. A snack and a nap can make all the difference.
6. Mimicking the behaviors of their parents or older siblings and not understanding which is acceptable and which isn’t. In a preschooler’s stage of cognitive development, deferred imitation is common and appropriate. They will need guidance in making good decisions about the behaviors they choose to bring to school.
Helping children deal with difficult situations is part of what we do. It takes time and patience, but well worth the effort. Smoothing out the rough spots and calming the storm makes everybody feel better.