Challenging Behaviors in Young Children: What are They Trying to Tell Us?

Children can and do tell us a great deal about what they need through both verbal and non-verbal communication. At those moments when we are paying closest attention, we can discern a child’s deepest needs. Challenging behavior can be one of the most difficult forms of non-verbal communication for us, as parents, to understand. But since children often don’t yet have the skills to verbalize what they need, they can instead conjure up some pretty imaginative ways to get their message across to us-tantrums, hitting, biting and other forms of aggression-these are just a few examples of non-verbal (but often still rather noisy) communication in small children. Understanding the motivation behind a child’s challenging behavior can be the first step in helping them express their needs in more acceptable ways.

We will explore 3 main causes for challenging behaviors in small children: the need for attention, the need for sensory stimulation and the need for escape. And we will also discuss some simple solutions.

Needing A Way Out: The Escape Mechanism

Have you ever been forced to do something that made you very uncomfortable? Will you, perhaps, do just about anything to avoid speaking in public? Do you avoid big crowds? We have all experienced the deep need to escape certain situations that for us provoke fear, anxiety or frustration.

When this level of discomfort happens to kids, they can feel the same overwhelming need to run away. As adults, we have much more control over whether or not we expose ourselves to uncomfortable situations and we also have more control over when we come and go. Children frequently express their feelings about this lack of control by engaging in escape behaviors.

To help you decide whether your child’s challenging behavior is an indication of the need to escape, ask yourself the following questions… When engaged in the challenging behavior has your child just been asked to perform a task? Does the behavior surface at naptime or clean-up time? Is the child surrounded by a lot of children or people in a crowd? Are you exposing the child to something new? Have you just interrupted or stopped the child’s activity -is it a transition time?

Inevitably, if we wait for a child to act out in some inappropriate way before removing him from a situation that makes him uncomfortable, he will learn quickly to continue the inappropriate escape behavior. For example: A child tantrums, so we send him to his room-a child is aggressive toward other children, so we separate him from the group. Of course in situations like these we cannot allow a child to continue inappropriate behavior- and of course, at an appropriate developmental stage, children need to be encouraged to experience new situations and to become helpers in such activities as clean-up.

It is important to recognize what might cause a child’s need for escape and that when we make a supportive change BEFORE he is pushed beyond his limits, behavior can change dramatically. Interventions that can prevent escape behavior can include the following:

· Avoid placing a child in a situation for which he may not be ready. Some kids need more space than others and react badly when crowded. Give him his space BEFORE he reacts to being around too much stimulation.
· A young child has a short “sitting still” attention span. Avoid the shopping trip or the eating out if you possibly can when you know your child’s “sitting still” attention span has already been exhausted.
· Young infants will make eye contact when they want a few minutes of play and interaction. When he looks away, be open to this important non-verbal cue and avoid any further play or direct stimulation for now. Missing these messages can lead to an over-stimulated baby who then, for hours on end, can be very difficult to console.
· When you expect your child to clean-up or perform a task, notice if the job can look insurmountable from a little one’s point of view. Is this a big, lonely mountain for him to climb? Breaking a larger task into several small ones and/or just helping him along a bit and staying close by can reduce his need to escape.

Observing a child closely, especially noting what has occurred immediately before challenging behavior begins can bring us a wealth of information on how to prevent the behavior from recurring. Always remember that while kids are growing each day, we as parents are growing, too-we are on an amazing journey together with our children. So be patient with yourself and have fun together as you and your child try new ways of doing things.

Challenging Behaviors: Attention Getting Behavior

“She only wants attention.” As parents, this can often be our initial response to our child’s challenging behavior. And often we are right. Small children frequently act out to gain our attention. We need to understand, though, that more one-on-one attention is often a legitimate unmet need for many of our small children. It can make us feel guilty or inadequate as parents to think that our child may not be getting all the attention that he or she needs. But just because a child needs more of our attention doesn’t mean we are being neglectful in any way. Each child is different–your child’s personality may require attention in a different way than you might think. For example, she may need more one-on-one at certain times of day-or perhaps she just needs to be able to count on a small amount of one-on-one attention every day at the exact same time.

In working with attention getting behaviors, we can follow some simple steps that allow us to understand the very individual needs of our children. And when we invest a little extra time and energy in order to figure out the right combination for our child, we can save ourselves a great deal of time and energy in the long run as we avoid dealing with a child’s acting out.

A child is more than likely exhibiting attention getting behaviors if:

An adult or other children are always nearby or within earshot when he engages in the behavior. Or, the behavior is the type that requires you to intervene to prevent a hurt or injury such as when a child engages in dangerous climbing, biting, or aggression when you or others are close by.

A child often engages in attention getting behavior when you have just recently turned away from the child in order to perform some task or talk to someone in person or by phone. Perhaps you are tending to another child. Without realizing it, we can encourage this attention getting behavior. So what can we do to help fill a child’s need for attention and at the same time avoid encouraging his behavior?

First, avoid providing the child any attention immediately following his challenging behavior. This can be difficult to avoid. But certain strategies work well. For example, if the child is biting or exhibiting aggressive behavior, certainly you must intervene. But concentrate on the child who was bitten or hurt instead of going immediately to the child who is acting out. Then, calmly remove the child who has performed the inappropriate action. If the child is engaging in dangerous behavior, again, you must intervene. But as you do so, tone down your reaction. Be very matter of fact and let the child know you will not spend time with him after such behavior.

The key, however, is prevention. Observe carefully what happens immediately before a child engages in attention getting behavior. Keeping notes about what you observe can be very helpful. A pattern will almost always emerge. In this way, you can work to provide a little extra one-on-one right at the time that the behavior usually occurs. For example, you may note that this behavior occurs most often on days when you take a class or when you take time for yourself or enjoy a long talk with a friend on the telephone. If this is the case, consciously take a few minutes to spend with the child first. Read a favorite book. Take a walk outside. Make a special calendar and mark the special times you will spend together each day. Children can usually be patient for your time when they know, and have a visual representation that they can easily understand, that their own special one-on-one time with you is coming up soon.

Parenting, as in any other important life’s work, is an ongoing learning process. So above all, be patient with both your child and with yourself while experimenting together on what works best for you.

Challenging Behaviors – Sensory Stimulation

Of the three most common motivations a child may have for exhibiting challenging behaviors…need for attention, need to escape and need for sensory stimulation, by far the most confusing and difficult to understand is the need for sensory stimulation.

Sometimes referred to as an emotional rush, every individual has very unique needs for sensory stimulation. Small children have a difficult time verbalizing their need for more stimulation as well as their need for reduced stimulation from their environment. So as with the other types of challenging behaviors, many times a child must act out their need in order to get our response.

First, we need to understand a little bit about what sensory stimulation is as it relates to child development. A child’s ability to process what his senses take in develops over time and every child comes into the world wired up differently in relation to how much stimulation he needs. To complicate matters, these needs change over time.

Sights, sounds, touch and texture, smells, and tastes provide sensory stimulation. So sometimes when a child is fussy or out of sorts, he can be telling us that he is either bored (needs more stimulation) or more often, that he is being exposed to way too much (he is in “sensory overload”) Some children, for example are much more sensitive to noise, crowds or people, etc. When a child is either under stimulated or over stimulated, he is not in the ideal situation to learn and grow.

Statistics show that the time of day when infants are usually most fussy and experience what we typically refer to as “colic” is between 2pm and 8 pm. This is often the result of higher stimulation in the environment during these hours. Siblings arrive home from school, noise levels increase, dinner is cooking, parents are frequently rushed and bringing home their own stresses from their work day. It is important to remain sensitive to a small child’s response to this increased stimulation.

So how can we determine if a child is posing some challenging behaviors because of the need for more stimulation or the need for less? Here are some observations we can make.

When a child needs more activity or stimulation from his environment, here are some things you may notice: A child may smile or otherwise seem to enjoy engaging in a behavior even though he is getting a negative response. He may seem to be trying to cause you to react, become upset or frustrated with him. He may child try to hide or isolate himself or engage in the behavior continuously when alone. (Head banging and pulling at his hair for example) You may notice that the behavior evokes a very chaotic moment.

Once you suspect that a child is engaging in challenging behavior in order to increase sensory stimulation, you can provide the stimulation in more positive ways. For instance, perhaps he has developmentally outgrown the toys and activities he is being offered. Provide more challenging daily activities. Get him outside more. Provide sand, water and more messy play. Add music, dance, and opportunities for movement. If he is an older child on table foods, add more variety to the diet and crunchier textures.

If, on the other hand, a child’s challenging behavior occurs during high activity, high stress times-an indication that he needs less sensory stimulation, consider the following interventions:

Eliminate strong scents and perfumes from his environment. Scents that have a positive impact on you as a parent may be too strong and create physical imbalance for your child. Dim the lights, turn off the music, turn off the television, spend more time at home and less out and about in crowds and public places, and avoid electronic toys that play music, vibrate, or have flashing lights.. Pay special attention to the textures of your child’s clothing…what textures does he like and dislike? Not all small children like that “softie” feel of so many blankets have these days. Change to simple cotton material is needs. Check the tags inside of clothing-are they “rubbing him the wrong way”?

Sometimes all it takes to eliminate a challenging behavior in a small child-or a long crying spell in an infant-is to notice something about his environment that we have never noticed before. Spend some time thinking about how you as an adult are affected by sensory stimulation that comes from your environment. Note your own responses both positive and negative. And then remember that children are much less mature than we are in processing outside stimulation. They need our help in creating an environment especially for them that helps them feel at peace in their world and allows them to be open to a full learning experience.

Submitted by Sandra Smith
M.A. Spiritual Counseling
Author, Child and Family Spirit Workbook
[email protected]