Nurturing a tiny human to become a fully functional grown human is so much work, especially since young children are so very emotional and impulsive. The implementation of a few specific proactive strategies can drastically reduce the likelihood of tantrums and other unwanted behaviors — and can be implemented right away for better outcomes tomorrow!
There is no magic answer to make all to make your child stay on their best behavior at all times, but these strategies will help to increase desired behaviors in young children. From the young toddler’s non-verbal kicking and screaming to the 5-year-old’s more in-depth negotiations, these will help to keep you and your child more calm and collected.
Strategy #1 – Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is often neglected, but so easy to implement. It is when you acknowledge the things that your child is doing right instead of what they’re doing wrong. It is, by far, the most effective proactive strategy! Children want to do the right thing, and they want attention from the people they love. Positive reinforcement teaches them what is “right” while also filling their attention bucket. WIN WIN! When acknowledging these behaviors, get specific about what was “good” rather than simply saying “good job.” This increases the likelihood of the child choosing a positive behavior and therefore inadvertently decreases the likelihood that they will choose a negative behavior. For example:
- “ You did a great job of asking me calmly for more rather than getting upset that your food was all gone.”
- “You should be so proud of yourself for staying safe at the store today by staying close to me.”
Strategy #2 – Routine
As much as possible, adults should try to make each day feel like it is “on loop.” There should be routines that happen in the same way every day whenever possible. This includes specifics about things like the time the child wakes up, what it looks like to get ready for the day, when they eat breakfast, where in the house they eat breakfast, what they are allowed to do after breakfast, and so on and so forth for the whole day. Knowing what is coming and how to be successful makes children feel confident that they are making good choices and takes away a great deal of space for meltdowns.
Think about how it felt in 2020, during the pandemic — when our reality became unpredictable, suddenly different, and ever-changing. As adults, it was very uncomfortable. Life can feel like that every day for young children if their adults do not have clear routines in place. The first step toward doing this is to create a daily schedule for your child. There are tons of free resources on the Internet for printable schedule templates, like this one.
Even with strong routines in place, sometimes things will change and sometimes things will be different. When possible, adults should let the child know what will change or be different ahead of time. The night before or the morning of the change/difference is usually the best time to let them know. Telling them too far in advance can get dicey, because they don’t have a great sense of time and generally think anything you tell them is going to happen very soon. Telling them too late can create stress because they may not have had enough time to process.
Strategy #3 – Choice
Children often tantrum when they don’t want to do something, right? As often as possible, offer your child a choice between 2-3 options to get to your desired outcome. The adult stays in control of the outcome, but the child is given some control over how to get there. A comical-but-effective example of this is when your child refuses to do something, you offer the choice for the child to do it themselves or to do it with your help. It would be perfectly acceptable to take help from you, but young children are so motivated to be independent that they usually quickly get to doing it themselves. Works like a charm.
Other examples include:
- “We have to go to nap. Do you want to walk there or do you want me to carry you?”
- “We are going outside and it will be cold. Do you want to wear these shoes or those shoes?”
Strategy #4 – “The Count”
It’s hard for young children to transition from one thing to another on a dime, especially if they don’t want to. “The count” builds in a countdown until the child has to complete the directions given to them. In this strategy, the adult gives very clear expectations for what the child is to do, and then counts to 5 to give the child a clear boundary for when to successfully complete the task. You may often hear of parents who count to 3 in a very threatening manner when their child isn’t listening, but that’s not what we’re referring to here. Implementing “the count” gives the parent the chance to get very clear about what they are expecting and encourage the child to meet that expectation without the involvement of big emotions from the child or adult. This strategy is implemented with a calm voice and is not intended as a threat. The length of the count is up to the adult depending on what the child is being asked to complete. Examples include:
- “It is time to go up to bed. I’m going to count to five and you should grab your blanket and be walking up the stairs with me to your room so we have time to read our two books.”
- “It is time to go eat lunch so that we aren’t late for music class. When I get to five, you should be cleaning up your play dough.”
Strategy #5 – Planned Ignoring
For certain behaviors, planning to ignore the behavior altogether is an incredibly effective strategy. You might be thinking, “Who is this woman telling me to ignore my child?!” Remember this: You are ignoring the behavior, not ignoring the child. For our little attention seekers, even negative attention can be reinforcing so, when appropriate, ignoring the behavior is very effective rather than acknowledging it.
Planned ignoring applies to behaviors that are not dangerous or harmful where the child gets no other benefit from the behavior except attention. These can include dumping out toys, screaming rather than using a normal volume, dropping things off the high chair, banging on the wall at bedtime, etc.
For more extreme or persistent behaviors, this strategy is very effective over time. The child must learn that no matter how long they do the behavior, how loud they get with it, or how much of a mess they make, they will not get attention for the behavior. So, buckle down and find your happy place. It will take a lot of patience at first, but it will work over time if the child is truly not getting any reinforcement for the behavior.
Implementing these strategies takes some planning and preparation, but once they are in place, you will feel so much more calm and in control. They are tools you can use to avoid feeling overwhelmed and defeated from dealing with young children learning about the world around them.
Keep in mind that your child’s outbursts, attitudes, big emotions, excess sass, talking back, and random big behaviors are completely normal. Without boundaries and support, though, negative behaviors can definitely get out of hand. For the best outcomes, use these tools to keep yourself — and your child — as calm as possible and feeling in control.
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