5 Common Behavioural Problems in Preschoolers and Their Solutions

Worried about your little one’s troublesome behaviour patterns? Fret not. Here are some ways you can sort them out.

By Amrita Gracias  • 12 min read

5 Common Behavioural Problems in Preschoolers and Their Solutions

As our little ones enter the milestone phase of preschool, they experience a sense of increased independence. However, along with that feeling of independence come a whole lot of behavioural problems. Parents of preschoolers become all too familiar with temper tantrums, disobedience, defiance and other such issues.

What is a ‘behavioural problem’?

The term ‘behavioural problem’ refers to any abnormal behaviour or response that is not socially acceptable or normal for a child of a certain age. Children behave in a particular way to meet some basic need or to ward off impending frustration. Although it is typical for toddlers to be defiant or naughty, it is not normal if this kind of behaviour is frequent or disruptive and disturbs the daily routine at home or school.

What causes behavioural problems?

There may be several factors that contribute to a child’s difficult bad behaviour. These include changes in the social and psychological environments of the child, like life changes that could involve the birth of a new sibling or shifting to a new home. Even your emotions as a parent can greatly impact your child’s behaviour. If you are upset over a work issue, for example, your child can easily sense your distress. It is normal for her to react with unease or aggression to your stress.

Another common cause for bad behaviour is attention, or the lack of it. Often, as parents, we tend to pay attention to our child only when he behaves badly; we hardly notice when he behaves normally or is quiet. So, in time, he learns that in order to get our attention, he needs to behave badly.

Signs of behavioural problems in preschoolers

There are certain signs that indicate something is really wrong with your child’s behaviour. They include:

  • Frequent temper tantrums 
  • Getting annoyed or irritated quite easily
  • Refusing to listen to what you say
  • Not obeying rules
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Being aggressive towards siblings or peers
  • Showing a tendency to fight with or hurt others
  • Trying to hurt himself
  • Finding it difficult to learn
  • Feeling unhappy or scared
  • Throwing things
  • Crying unnecessarily

How to handle behaviour problems in preschoolers

It is crucial that we identify unacceptable behaviours and their causes, and deal with them early enough. Choosing to ignore them causes these behaviours to become the child’s normal response to life situations and will lead to her becoming a dysfunctional adult. It is up to us, parents, to see that behavioural problems don’t interfere with the child’s development and positive experiences.

Here are five common behavioural problems in preschoolers and tips on how you can deal with them simply, but effectively. (Remember, it is normal for a child to display one or more of these behaviours occasionally).

1. Temper Tantrums: Most children throw a tantrum at some time or the other. Although these situations are extremely embarrassing and stressful, a little patience on your part can do wonders. Children usually throw a tantrum when they cannot manage emotions like anger, sadness and disappointment, or even when they cannot control a situation. Hunger and tiredness are also likely to bring on tantrums in some children. Sometimes, tantrums can be used as a manipulative technique.

If you foresee your child throwing a tantrum at the store when she is denied a toy, explain to her before you reach the store that you are going to buy only groceries and not toys. She will then be better prepared to control her emotions when she suddenly sees a toy she wants but gets a firm ‘No’ from you. Giving in to her tantrums, on the other hand, will give her the mistaken idea that she can get anything she wants at any time.

If you sense that your child’s tantrum is a reaction to your own stress, the best thing you can do is to not make her feel guilty for misbehaving. Instead, work to calm yourself down first, and then calm your child.

2. Defiance: It is no doubt frustrating when your young child refuses point blank to do as you tell him to. But don’t lose your temper straightaway. Remind yourself that defiance is a sign of your child’s growing independence. Constant defiance, however, is not healthy. It is important that you motivate your child to listen to you and obey you. Praise him when he is obedient. Explain to him that he is proving to be more responsible when he is obedient than when he refuses to listen to you. One way of getting your child out of the habit of unthinking defiance is to offer him a choice of options. This will encourage him to consider and choose the set of instructions that suits him the best, instead of being non-compliant as a principle. For example, if your child refuses to go to bed at the time you have set, you could ask him to choose which pair of pyjamas he would like to wear. This way, he gets involved in the decision and his sense of freedom is not compromised.

3. Lying: It is normal for preschoolers to tell some lies – either by blowing up the truth to get attention, or by bending or side-stepping the truth to prevent themselves from getting into trouble. Although this tendency is nothing to be alarmed about, if it is not addressed early enough your child may develop into a habitual liar. If you know your child is telling a lie, respond calmly and encourage her to tell the truth. Explain to her with some simple examples the difference between truth and lies. You could play a game of naming colours of the sea or the trees and ask her to identify if the statement about the colour is the truth or a lie. Discuss how lying could get her into more trouble than the original situation she wants to get out of, and stress that it is okay for her to be honest even if it has an immediate adverse consequence. Also, remember to be a role-model and avoid telling even white lies yourself! It is also important to explain to her the difference between reality and fantasy. An article titled, 'Why kids lie and what parents can do about it', published in the Child Mind Institute's website, mentions a statement by Dr Carol Brady, a clinical psychologist on why it's a big mistake to call a child a liar. According to Dr Brady, the wound it creates is bigger than dealing with what the child lied about in the first place.

4. Aggression:Aggressive behaviour, although worrying, is also rather common in a preschooler. Your child could throw things, kick, hit or bite to express feelings of anger. On the other hand, such reactions may be triggered by the fact that he cannot express himself effectively. If, for instance, an older child snatches a toy from him while he is playing with it, he may bite or hit him because he is unable to get it back any other way. Sometimes, however, he might behave in this manner to test you and see whether he can get his way. As parents, we must set boundaries and explain that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. Be firm and demonstrate that such behaviour carries consequences like time-out or being kept away from a favourite activity for the day. Remember though that disciplining is not the same as punishing. Also, teach your child alternative ways to express his feelings – ways which are socially acceptable.

5. Fussy food habits: Response to food can also be a behavioural issue. Your preschooler could fuss about the food that is given or overeat. Both these problems will lead to unhealthy food habits as she grows, resulting in various health issues. You can help your child develop healthy food habits by encouraging her to eat wholesome foods at set mealtimes and making sure she finishes the food served on her plate. Remember to enforce the rules you set. At the other extreme, overeating could lead to obesity. Don’t make sweets or chocolates a habit. Instead, reserve them for spontaneous celebrations. Remember that your child might be confusing hunger with other emotions. She may be feeling bored and instead of identifying the feeling correctly, she could be confusing it with hunger, and eating excessively as a result. Explain that hunger is a physical feeling and not something she feels in her mind.

Communication between you and your child always helps in a difficult situation. When the child behaves in an unacceptable manner, stay calm. Talk to him and explain why the behaviour is unacceptable. If you think the child is upset, encourage him to talk about what is making him feel that way. However, if you notice that bad behaviour occurs frequently and seems to worsen, it is advisable to seek professional help. We, parents, must remember that all too often, behavioural issues are manifestations of problems which can be identified only by specialised analyses carried out by a trained person.

Your child’s behaviour is a reflection of his state of mind. Rude or unruly behaviour may not necessarily mean he is resorting to it willingly. As a parent, it is up to you to find out the root cause of such behaviour and correct it during the early stages. After all, your preschooler needs you the most when he is fighting with his emotions.  

About the author:

Written by Amrita Gracias on 28 July 2017 and updated on 13 July 2020.

Amrita Gracias holds a degree in English Literature from Stella Maris College, Chennai and a Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism (specialising in Print Media) from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. She takes to writing and editing when she isn’t answering to the duties of motherhood!

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