Health Topics

Children's Behaviour

We are all different. Everyone has their own way of responding to people, places and situations. The way you respond is called your temperament or personality. Your child’s temperament is not good or bad; it is just who your child is.

Learning about your child's temperament helps you to understand your child's needs and to respond sensitively. Get to know your child’s temperament by looking at how she usually responds to people, places or situations. Watching your child respond helps you learn what your child likes and dislikes.

Ask yourself:

  • How active is my child when I am bathing her, changing her diaper or playing with her?
  • How does my child react to new things like new foods, people and places?
  • How sensitive is my child to bright lights, sounds and touch?
  • How does my child respond when she is excited or upset?
  • How easily is my child distracted from an activity?

There may be times when you find your child’s temperament challenging. Accepting your child’s temperament, rather than trying to change it, builds your relationship and helps you both feel happier.  When you accept your child for who she is, you help her to grow up feeling good about herself.

Different children have different temperaments. This means that parenting strategies that worked well for one child may not work well for another.

Respond sensitively to your child’s temperament. This helps her feel loved and accepted. You can respond sensitively by:

  • Learning more about your child’s temperament.
  • Noticing the parts of your child’s temperament that are challenging for your family.
  • Problem solving ways to make challenging parts of your child’s temperament easier for everyone. (For ex., if your child is easily distracted, turn off the TV when you want your child to focus).

Here are some examples of how to respond sensitively to two common temperament challenges.

Your child is very active. You like quiet and calm activities. 

If your child is active but  you like quiet and calm activities, you can respond sensitively by finding activities that keep your child busy but do not need much effort from you such as:

  • Playing a game where you ask your child to hop on one foot while you count the number of hops out loud
  • Having your child walk to the park or in the mall instead of using a stroller or a wagon
  • Putting on your child’s favourite song and getting him to dance while you clap and encourage him

Your child has a hard time with new people and in new places. You like trying new things.

If your child has a hard time adjusting to new people and places, you can respond sensitively by being patient and helping your child feel more comfortable with new situations by:

  • Preparing your child ahead of time by talking about new people and places
  • Following your child’s lead and letting her decide when she is ready to join in activities
  • Staying close to her until she is comfortable
  • Bringing a favourite toy or blanket
  • Limiting the time you spend on your first visit to a new place

Helping your child behave well

Positive behaviours like sharing, taking turns and using words to express feelings are behaviours that your child needs your help to learn. Children under three years old often use aggressive behaviours like pushing, grabbing and hitting to get what they want. 

To help your child learn new behaviours, notice when he is behaving well. Behaviours to look for include:

  • talking in a friendly voice
  • picking up his toys
  • being patient or staying calm
  • sharing
  • taking turns
  • using words to express feelings

When your child is behaving well, praise your child’s behaviours.  Praise your child with words such as “fantastic” or affection such as smiles and hugs. When giving praise, it is important to:

  • Be specific and label the behaviour. Instead of saying, "That was great!", say "Great job sharing your toy with your friend."
  • Praise your child as soon as you notice him behaving well. If your child starts to pick up toys and put them in the toy box, praise right away. You do not need to wait until all the toys are picked up before praising.
  • Avoid following your praise with a negative comment such as "Good job talking in a friendly voice. Why can't you talk like that all the time?"

Other ways to help your child behave well

Other ways you can help your child behave well are:

  • Role modelling positive behaviours. Your child learns positive behaviours from watching you. Let your child see you showing concern for others, taking turns, staying calm and using manners.
  • Labelling your child's emotions to help him learn to express his feelings. Say, "That made you really angry" or "You are really excited."
  • Guiding your child to respond appropriately to other children. You could say, "Sarah feels sad that she does not have a puzzle to play with. Can she help you finish your puzzle?"
  • Providing opportunities for your child to practice positive behaviours with you and with other children

It will be easier for your child to learn to behave well when he is well rested, alert and calm. It will be more difficult for your child to learn when he is tired, hungry, stressed or sick.

Positive behaviours like using manners and sharing are skills your child needs your help to learn.  

Here are some ways you can help your child learn manners:

  • Notice and praise your child when he says words like 'please' and 'thank you'.  This will encourage him to use these words more often.
  • Role model the behaviour yourself. When you ask for something from your child use the word ‘please’
  • Focus on what your child is doing well. Paying attention to positive behaviours helps your child feel good about himself and lets your child know that he can do it. When your child does not say ‘please’, do not criticize them.
  • Use a reward chart. Give your child a sticker or another reward each time you notice them using manners.

Here are some ways you can can help your child learn to share:

  • Notice and praise your child when you seem him sharing. This will encourage him to share again.
  • Be specific with the words you use.  Instead of saying “Nice playing” say, “It was so nice of you to share your toy with me”.
  • Praise your child as soon as you notice positive behaviours. If your child shares a toy for even a few seconds, praise right away.
  • Role modelling. Your child learns from watching you.  Let your child see you sharing with others.
  • Giving your child the words he needs to get along with others. Say, “I think Jamie wants to play with that toy.  Can you give Jamie the toy when you are done?”
  • Helping your child learn words to express how he is feeling.   Say, “That made you really angry when Sara took the toy you were playing with.”
  • Look for opportunities for your child to practice sharing, such as when you play with him.

Dealing with difficult behaviour  

It is common for children to use difficult behaviours like grabbing, hitting, biting or having a tantrum when they are angry, want something they cannot have or when they want your attention. Your child uses difficult behaviours at these times because she has not learned the words and skills to deal with her feelings.

Your child may also use difficult behaviours when she is:

  • tired
  • hungry
  • bored
  • stressed
  • unwell 

Behaviours chage slowly.  Your child needs time to practice and learn positive behaviours.  Be patient with your child and yourself as you are both learning to deal with difficult behaviours.

Many parents feel embarrassed and frustrated when their child misbehaves. Avoid responding to your child’s behaviours with aggressive behaviours like yelling, name calling, threatening and spanking. If you get frustrated, go somewhere quiet for a few minutes to calm down. Taking time for yourself doing things you enjoy helps you cope as a parent.

You can prevent difficult behaviours by:

  • Watching your child and looking for signs that she needs a change in activity or wants attention from you such as pushing a toy away or whining.
  • Trying to understand how your child is feeling and responding with patience. You could say, “You’re feeling tired now, let’s save this activity for later.”
  • Helping your child use words to express feelings. Say, "You are frustrated because you want that toy."
  • Responding quickly to stop difficult behaviours such as going to a quiet spot and helping your child calm down.
  • Distracting your child when she is showing signs that she is frustrated, such as offering a different toy when she wants the toy another child is playing with.
  • Looking at the behaviours you and others are role modelling. Your child learns how to act by watching how you act at home and with others.

Some other ways to decrease difficult behaviours include:

  • distracting and redirecting your child with another activity
  • having clear rules that your child understands
  • being consistent
  • staying calm
  • having time every day when you can play with your child
  • being kind to your child as she is learning
  • using consequences for children over the age of three

Using rules and commands are important ways to decrease difficult behaviours.

Use commands when you want your child to do something such as, “Please pick up your toys”.
Use rules to let your child know what she can or cannot do. Rules are important to keep your child safe and to avoid harmful situations. A family rule could be “Always put your toys away when play time is done”.

Follow these tips for using rules and commands in your family:

  • Limit the number of household rules. A long list of rules is hard to remember for both parents and children.  
  • Take into account your child’s age. Your child needs to be able to understand the rules you are using.
  • Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do, such as “walk in the house” instead of “do not run in the house”.
  • Give one command at a time. Too many commands at one time can confuse your child and make it difficult to follow through.
  • Be clear with commands and rules that you use.  Say, “Keep your hands to yourself” instead of “Let’s not do that anymore.”
  • Praise your child when she follows rules and commands.

It is normal for children to test household rules. It is important to:

  • Be consistent with your rules
  • Follow through on consequences
  • Stay calm
  • Be polite with your child 

You can use logical consequences to decrease difficult behaviours.  Logical consequences are often used with rules.  Decide on rules together as family and then decide what the consequence will be if the rule is not followed.

A logical consequence could be when your child:

  • loses a privilege, such as when they colour on the wall, you take away their crayons for a set amount of time
  • leaves a fun place, such as when they cannot get along with other children at the park, you leave and go home

When using logical consequences with your child it is important to:

  • Talk to your child about rules ahead of time and let your child know the consequence if she does not follow the rule
  • Calmly and consistently let your child know that she did not follow the rule and then follow through with the consequence
  • Avoid making further comments about the behaviour after the consequence is given; instead, start a new activity and look for a positive behaviour to praise

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