Challenging Behaviour in Toddlers and Young Children

Picture this:

A 3 year old is screaming and throwing toys across the room. She slaps at her caregiver as they try to pick her up.  Is this normal or should we be concerned?

We need to first understand what  “typical” or developmentally appropriate behaviour to expect from children according to their age.

In general, young children experience a range of emotions which can change rapidly. As they may not yet have sufficient oral communication skills, or are simply too frustrated to find the words, they will express themselves in many different ways, including screaming, throwing and lashing out with their bodies. So, yes – it is normal for toddlers and young children to have tantrums and break rules while their language, social and emotional skills are developing, and there are things the supporting adults around them can do to try to calm these tantrums and lessen the frequency.

What does challenging behaviour look like? You might see behaviour such as:

  • defiance – simply refusing to do anything asked of them
  • fussiness – won’ t eat the foods offered, nothing in the closet is what they want to wear
  • hurting other people – scratching, biting, kicking, or pulling hair
  • excessive anger when the child doesn’t get their own way

What causes challenging behaviour? Some of the common triggers include:

  • Communication Difficulties – young children are still developing their communication and social skills, and frustrations will be expressed through behaviour
  • Sensory Overload – there may be too much going on around the child – too many people, loud noises, bright or flashing lights
  • Changes in Routine or Environment – children thrive on consistent routines to feel secure – when this is disrupted it may trigger strong emotions
  • Physical Discomfort or Pain. your child might have an ear ache or a stomach ache – check in with them if anything hurts
  • Attention- your child may be seeking to be seen and heard, and often the negative behaviours receive the most attention.

How to respond in the moment?

  • Stay calm. 
  • Stay near your child and let them know that you are there, but know that this is not the time to try to discuss or negotiate.
  •  While emotions are high, it is almost impossible for logic and reasoning to occur.
  • Ensure your child is safe, and wait until they have calmed down before addressing the situation.

Some long-term strategies to minimise challenging behaviours.

  • Role model the behaviour you want to see in your child.
  • Offer them choices to give them some control within set boundaries.
  • Role-play situations to help teach them how they should behave.
  • Provide step-by-step instructions and clear guidance so they understand the expectations.
  • Consistently praising and giving attention to the wanted behaviour.

While we may not like some of the behaviours we see in toddlers and young children it is important as adults that we have realistic expectations of how children should behave, and an understanding of what behaviour is age and developmentally appropriate. So work through the tantrums, have consistency in your long-term strategies, praise the wanted behaviour and know that as your child develops so will their behaviour!