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How Do I Know If My Toddler Has Behavioural Problems?

Behavioural problems, also known as disruptive behavioural disorders, are the most common reasons parents are told to take their kids for mental health assessments and treatment. Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs. 

Behavioural disorders are also common in adults. If left untreated in childhood, these disorders can negatively affect a person’s ability to hold a job and maintain relationships. 

Challenging Behaviour – Toddlers and Young Children

Young children experience a range of emotions and express themselves in many different ways. It’s normal for toddlers and young children to have tantrums and break the rules while developing their social and emotional skills.

You and other caregivers must provide support while your child is developing and learning to manage their emotions. Guiding your child and encouraging positive behaviours will help them learn appropriate ways to behave.

Signs and Symptoms of Challenging Behaviour

Different families will have different expectations about what is acceptable and what is considered problematic behaviour. Some behaviours that families commonly find challenging include:

  • defiance (e.g. refusing to follow your requests)
  • fussiness (e.g. refusal to eat certain foods or wear certain clothes)
  • hurting other people (e.g. biting, kicking)
  • excessive anger when the child doesn’t get their way
  • Tantrums.

What Causes Challenging Behaviour?

Challenging behaviour is sometimes due to your child not having the social and emotional skills they need to behave the way you would like them. Often when a child misbehaves, it responds to feeling anxious, angry or overwhelmed, and struggling with processing these feelings.

Children need attention from their parents and carers to feel secure and thrive emotionally. Children may show challenging behaviours to gain attention and responses from adults – for some children. Even negative attention is preferable to no attention at all.

Young children are also easily distracted and have short memories, so sometimes they don’t do what you ask them to.

Several other things might affect your child’s ability to control their reactions, emotions or behaviours, including:

  • being unwell
  • not enough sleep or being tired
  • too much screen time
  • poor diet or feeling hungry
  • A change in family circumstances or routine.

Sometimes, ongoing challenging behaviour can indicate other health issues or an underlying developmental, social or emotional problem. It is also essential to consider a child’s current situation or environment and how it may be affecting them. If you are concerned about your child, see your GP. 

As part of healthy development, toddlers will slowly learn to control how they react to different situations. As your child gets older, they will understand more about what behaviour you expect of them and be better able to control their behaviour.

How to Deal With Challenging Behaviours

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Setting rules is essential so that your child knows what behaviour is expected of them. Keep your instructions short and straightforward (e.g. “No hurting other people.”), and make sure your child understands what you have told them. It’s also essential to give a short and simple instruction about the behaviour you would like to see (e.g. “be gentle with your brother”).

There are many options for discouraging challenging behaviours, such as:

  • Ignoring – for minor attention-seeking behaviours, it is best to ignore the behaviour (e.g. turn away from your child and respond only when they stop doing it). Constantly responding to negative behaviours can teach a child that this is an excellent way to get your attention.
  • Distraction – young children might stop the negative behaviour if given an appealing alternative.
  • Encouraging empathy – point out how your child’s behaviour makes another person feel (e.g. sad, hurt) and ask your child how they would feel if someone did the same to them.
  • Dealing with ongoing, more serious negative behaviour can be very stressful. It is best to guide your child’s behaviour by using a positive approach.

Positive Reinforcement

A positive approach to managing your child’s behaviour involves rewarding good behaviours often and focusing on positive aspects of your child’s behaviour, rather than directing attention to negative behaviours.

Reinforce positive behaviours before they become negative (e.g. “I think you’re doing a great job at playing gently with your brother”). This encourages your child by giving attention to their positive behaviour rather than waiting until they become too rough and focus on the negative behaviour. Make sure you are specific about what behaviours you really like and want to encourage.

Consider implementing a positive behaviour system in your home. A reward chart for younger children can add incentive for your child to increase desirable behaviours. This strategy can help you focus on the times when your child is behaving well.

Be a role model for your child. Children pick up clues about how to behave from watching others. It’s essential to act and talk in a way that you’d like to see reflected in your child’s behaviour – if you want to discourage your child from shouting at you, it is essential to keep a calm voice are becoming frustrated.

Consequences for Negative Behaviour

If your child is breaking the rules, communicate to them that they are doing the wrong thing and, if appropriate, give them a second chance to correct the behaviour.

If the negative behaviour continues, there should be a logical, age-appropriate consequence that you are willing and able to carry through with (e.g. “If you don’t stop snatching from your friend, you can’t play with the cars anymore”). Immediate consequences are fairer and more effective than delayed consequences. 

Time-out is a common way to deliver an immediate consequence, but it needs to be used appropriately to work well. Keep time-out due to more challenging behaviours (e.g. deliberately hurting others, dangerous behaviours or slowly breaking things) rather than behaviours that can be ignored (e.g. whinging, swearing).   

Time-out should not be used to make the child suffer (e.g. isolating them for long periods) but can be used to remove your child from the situation for a few minutes and allow them to change their behaviour.

Generally, it is recommended that your child stays in time-out for a maximum of one minute for every year of their age and that you allow them out of time-out when the time is up, even if they are not yet calm or quiet. Leaving your child in time-out or isolation for long periods is likely to cause them to become more distressed.

If your child continues to misbehave after the time-out has finished, they can be put back into time-out for another session or two if their inappropriate behaviour continues.  

Be consistent with your approach to consequences, and your child will be more likely to understand what is expected of them. You can also read our article about How to Improve Your Toddler’s Behaviour.

Negative Discipline Can Be Harmful

Physical Discipline

Physical discipline is done to a child to cause physical pain or discomfort in response to their behaviour. Physical punishment includes smacking, hitting, spanking, slapping, pinching or pulling.

Many studies have found that physical discipline can have long-lasting adverse effects on a child, including:

  • increased aggression and antisocial behaviour 
  • teaching children that violence is OK
  • low self-esteem
  • mental health problems
  • A poor relationship between the child and parent.

If there is violence or aggression in your family, you feel unsafe, or you or your child is at immediate risk of harm, contact your emergency services.

Shouting or Shaming

Shouting or yelling may be an understandable response when parents are frustrated; however, studies have found that repeated shouting at children can have similar harmful effects to physical discipline.

Being shouted at – especially by someone much more significant than them – is very stressful for a child. Shouting does not improve children’s behaviour, and it can lead to more behavioural problems (e.g. increased aggression) and mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, depression) in the future.  

Shaming, belittling and humiliating children for their actions is also very damaging to their long-term mental health and not an effective way to improve their behaviour.

Isolation as Punishment

Spending extended periods in isolation without explanation or emotional support can be harmful to young children. Being isolated (especially at a time when they are upset) can be perceived as rejection, which can cause distress and confusion for your child. It can sometimes be practical to take your child away from a challenging situation and have a subtle change of scene, but it is not helpful to keep them away for longer than the recommended period of one minute per year of age. 

When to See a Doctor

Sometimes, severe and persistent challenging behaviour can sign a developmental condition or a more serious mental health concern. If your child’s behaviour affects the way they cope with life, you should see your GP for help and further assessment.

Behavioural challenges can have an ongoing, negative impact on family life. If you are having difficulties managing or coping with your child’s behaviour, you can talk to a GP who may refer you to a specialist in paediatric behaviours. 

Does My Child Have a Mental Health, Emotional, or Behavioral Disorders?

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Defining “Disorders”

Child psychology experts say that the term “disorder” should be used cautiously for children up to 5 years old and question its validity. The evidence is limited that problems in preschool indicate problems later in life or that behavioural issues are evidence of an actual disorder. There are concerns about distinguishing normal from abnormal behaviour in this period of rapid developmental change.

That being said, a conservative approach to handling behavioural and emotional issues in this age group is best.

What to Look For

Among all the dilemmas facing a parent of a child with emotional or behavioural problems, the first question — whether the child’s behaviour is sufficiently different from requiring a comprehensive evaluation by professionals — may be the most troublesome of all. Even when a child exhibits negative behaviours, family members may not agree on whether the behaviours are severe.

For instance, children who have frequent temper outbursts or who destroy toys may appear to have a serious problem to some parents. In contrast, others see the same behaviour as asserting independence or showing leadership skills.

Every child faces emotional difficulties from time to time, as do adults. Feelings of sadness, loss, or emotional extremes are part of growing up. Conflicts between parents and children are also inevitable as children struggle from the “terrible twos” through adolescence to develop their own identities. These are regular changes in behaviour due to growth and development. Such problems can be more common in times of change for the family, such as the death of a grandparent or family member, a new child, or a move. Generally, these kinds of problems tend to fade on their own or with limited visits to a counsellor or other mental health professional as children adjust to the changes in their lives.

At times, however, some children may develop inappropriate emotional and behavioural responses to situations in their lives that persist over time. The realization that a child’s behaviour requires professional attention can be painful or frightening to parents who have tried to support their child or be accepted and internalized as a personal failure by the parent.

Sometimes parents fear that their child may be inappropriately labelled. They have concerns that the array of medicines and therapies suggested are not always agreed upon by all professionals. Still, others become alarmed after obtaining an evaluation for their child to discover that the evaluator believed emotional disturbances originate in family dynamics and that “parenting skills” classes were the best way to address the problem.

While many parents will concede that they may need to learn new behaviour management or communication techniques to provide a consistent and rewarding environment for their child, many also express deep anger about the blame that continues to be placed on families with children who behave differently.

What Are the Types of Behavioral Disorders?

Behavioural disorders may be broken down into a few types, which include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Disruptive behavioural disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Emotional disorders
  • Pervasive developmental disorders

What Causes a Behavioral Disorder?

A behavioural disorder can have a variety of causes. The abnormal behaviour associated with these disorders can be traced back to biological, family and school-related factors.

Some biological causes may include:

  • Physical illness or disability
  • Malnutrition
  • Brain damage
  • Hereditary factors

Other factors related to an individual’s home life may contribute to behaviours associated with a behavioural disorder:

  • Divorce or other emotional upset at home
  • Coercion from parents
  • Unhealthy or inconsistent discipline style
  • Poor attitude toward education or schooling

What Are the Signs of a Behavioral Disorder?

Someone who has a behavioural disorder may act out or display emotional upset in different ways, which will also vary from person to person.

Emotional Symptoms of Behavioral Disorders

Some of the emotional symptoms of behavioural disorders include:

  • Quickly getting annoyed or nervous
  • Often appearing angry
  • Blaming others
  • Refusing to follow the rules or questioning authority
  • Arguing and throwing temper tantrums
  • Having difficulty in handling frustration

Physical Symptoms of Behavioral Disorders

Unlike other health issues, a behavioural disorder will have primarily emotional symptoms, with physical symptoms such as a fever, rash, or headache being absent. However, sometimes people suffering from a behavioural disorder will develop a substance abuse problem, showing physical symptoms such as burnt fingertips, shaking or bloodshot eyes.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of a Behavioral Disorder

If left untreated, a behavioural disorder may have adverse short-term and long-term effects on an individual’s personal and professional life. People may get into trouble for acting out, such as face suspension or expulsion for fighting, bullying or arguing with authority figures. Adults may eventually lose their jobs. Marriages can fall apart due to prolonged strained relationships, while children may have to switch schools and eventually run out of options.

The most severe actions a person with a behavioural disorder may engage in include starting fights, abusing animals and threatening to use a weapon on others.

The earlier a behavioural disorder is diagnosed and adequately treated, the more likely it is that a child or adult suffering from it will control their behaviour. Contact us for assistance in finding treatment options.

Behaviour and Emotional Problems

Far more likely than one of the above clinical disorders, your young child is experiencing a temporary behavioural or emotional problem. Many of these pass with time and require a parent’s patience and understanding.

In some cases, outside counselling is warranted and may be effective in helping children cope with stressors effectively. A professional could help your child learn how to control their anger, work through their emotions, and communicate their needs more effectively. For obvious reasons, medicating children at this age is controversial.

Parenting for Childhood Success

Parenting styles are rarely to blame for childhood behavioural problems. And if you’re searching out solutions to help your family cope, that’s a pretty good indication that you aren’t causing your child’s issues. Still, parents play a crucial role in treating early childhood behavioural issues.

When we talk about parenting styles, there are four main types, one of which is most effective in raising well-adjusted and well-behaved children:

  • Authoritarian parenting: Strict rules with no compromise and no input from the children.
  • Authoritative parenting: Strict rules, but parents are willing to listen and cooperate with their children—more of a democracy than authoritarian parenting.
  • Permissive parenting: Few rules and few demands put on children. There is little to no discipline in this home, and parents typically take on friends’ role.
  • Uninvolved parenting: No rules and very little interaction. These parents are detached and may reject or neglect their children.

Authoritative parenting is most likely to raise well-adjusted and happy children. Uninvolved parents are most likely to raise children lacking self-esteem, self-control, and general competency, say experts. We can learn from these parenting styles that children need clear rules and consequences, but they also need a parent who is willing to listen and guide them.

Be Patient With Your Children

Empathy, a cooperative attitude, and a calm temperament are crucial traits for parents to adopt as their child struggles. Also, knowing when to ask for help is vital. If your child’s behaviour becomes disruptive to the regular running of your household or their education, or if they become violent, it’s time to talk to a professional. Our exclusive range of baby nursery products will help create the perfect baby nursery for your baby.

Raising children with behavioural problems isn’t easy. But before you rush to diagnose them or turn into a strict disciplinarian, reach out for help. Your pediatrician can provide insight into whether your child’s behaviour is normal for their age and provide resources for assistance. 

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