Here are some approaches the experts suggest for dealing with trying behavior:
• Teach limits and healthy self-expression. “Being spirited is never an excuse for poor behavior,” Kurcinka says. Teach your children to name the emotion they’re experiencing so the feelings can be managed: “Here’s what you can say and do that are socially acceptable outlets for that emotion.” For example, if your child is angry and hitting you, she suggests taking her hand and saying, “Stop. No matter how angry we are, we never hit. You’re frustrated, or you’re irritated, or you need attention, or that was disappointing. You can say, ‘I’m disappointed.’”
• Model problem-solving strategies. Ask your child, “What ideas do you have that can help you with this problem? Do you want to go in your room and choose a different shirt? Do you want to wear it for a couple of minutes and see if it still bothers you?” Talking about alternatives helps your child feel competent to handle things.
• Empathize. Recognize that your child is having a difficult time and needs your compassion. Be respectful of her individual differences. “When you empathize with your child’s desire to have all the cake on the table,” Greenspan says, “you won’t intensify the feeling, but rather you’ll help her recognize it.” You might tell her about a similar time in your own life and what you felt.
• Break down challenges. Divide transitions into smaller steps, advises medical psychology professor Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph.D. Let’s say you’ve just entered a noisy party with your sensitive child. Think of the number of people he needs to relate to, the expectation he feels of having to leave you and go play with the other children immediately. Allow your child to observe, staying close to you. When he’s interested in a particular activity and ready, says Lieberman, you can go with him to that particular group of children.
• Project confidence in your child. “Be sure your child doesn’t learn to define and limit himself in terms of his own sensitivity,” Lieberman advises. “Let him know you’re confident that he can adjust and put up with some discomfort without collapsing.”
• Shape good behavior. Pay more attention to your child’s more mature behaviors than her whiney, bratty ones. “Parents usually criticize their children by giving them feedback that is exactly the opposite of what they desire,” the Sommers-Flanagans point out. “For example, a mom with an overly active son typically says things like, ‘Can’t you sit still? Stop it!’ Unfortunately, this gives the message to the child that he’s the ‘kind of boy who can’t sit still.’” Instead, observe closely and when your child sits still, shares a toy, is helpful to another child, or behaves in some other way that you’ve been wanting, then say something like, “I see you’re the kind of person who can sit still when he wants to.”
Make a point of telling your child how positive and appealing such grown-up behavior is: “I was proud of the way you helped Tyrone find his scissors,” or “I know you were disappointed that we couldn’t go to the park, but you acted grown-up about it.”
• Get help. The Sommers-Flanagans suggest asking yourself the following questions in order to determine when to seek professional guidance:
- Are your child’s ordinary daily activities affected by the odd things he says or does?
- Are either you or your child very upset about her behavior?
- How atypical is this behavior compared to that of others of her age, gender and cultural group?
- Are there good reasons for the unusual behavior?
If you aren’t sure what’s normal, consult a good parenting book (see Resources) or check with someone experienced with young children’s behavior, such as a preschool teacher or a pediatrician. Or consider seeing a mental health professional.
“Usually,” Turecki points out, “an educated, enlightened parental guidance approach will improve the situation, and often in just a few sessions.”
Barring serious disorders, what you usually have is a little person with a personality in riotous bloom. Between the two poles of “my kid is just like everyone else” and “he’s so different that we can’t cope” lies the happy medium of a unique, ultimately lovable child.