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5 Common behavioral problems in preschoolers and what you can do about them

Amrita Gracias Amrita Gracias 8 Mins Read

Amrita Gracias Amrita Gracias


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

5 Common behavioral problems in preschoolers and what you can do about them

As our little ones enter the milestone phase of preschool, they experience a sense of increasing independence. However, along with that feeling of independence comes a whole lot of behaviors that appear to be problematic. Parents of preschoolers become all too familiar with temper tantrums, disobedience, defiance, and other such issues.

What is a 'behavioral problem'?

The term 'behavioral problem' refers to any abnormal behavior or response that is not socially acceptable or considered normal for a child of a certain age. Children behave in particular ways to meet some basic needs 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 behavior is frequent or disruptive and disturbs the child's daily routine at home or school.

What causes behavioral problems?

There may be several factors that contribute to a child's difficult or bad behavior. These include changes in the social and psychological environments of the child, like life-changing events such as the birth of a new sibling or the shift to a new home. Further, our own emotional state can greatly impact our child's behavior. If upset over an issue at work, for example, a  child can easily sense a parent's distress and may react with unease or aggression.

Another common cause for bad behavior 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 or take it for granted, when he behaves well. So, in time, he learns that to get our attention, he needs to behave badly.

Signs of behavioral problems in preschoolers

  • Throwing frequent temper tantrums
  • Getting annoyed or irritated quite easily
  • Refusing to listen to what you say
  • Unable to follow the 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 behavior problems in preschoolers

It is crucial that we identify unacceptable behaviors and their causes, and deal with them early enough. Choosing to ignore them causes these behaviors to become the child's normal response to life situations. It is up to us parents, to see that behavioral problems are rectified at the earliest so that our children have more positive experiences as they grow.

Here are five common behavioral 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 behaviors occasionally).

1. Temper tantrums

Most preschoolers 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 and disappointment, or even when they cannot control a situation. Hunger and tiredness are also likely to bring on tantrums in some children. Sometimes, children use tantrums to try and get their way.

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 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. 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. Praise him when he is cooperative. Explain to him that he is proving to be more responsible when he is cooperative than when he refuses to listen to you. One way of getting your child out of the habit of defiance is to offer him limited choices. It gives him a sense of control and makes him want to cooperate with you. 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 pajamas 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 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 the colors of the sea or the trees and ask her to identify if the statement about the color 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.  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 by being honest and truthful yourself! It is also important to understand that for preschoolers the line between reality and fantasy is often blurred. An article titled, 'Why kids lie and what parents can do about it', published on 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 behavior, 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 behavior is unacceptable. Remember though that disciplining is not the same as punishing. Also, give your child the vocabulary of emotions so that he can talk about his feelings rather than act them out.

5. Fussy food habits

Your child's responses to food can also become a behavioral issue. Your preschooler could fuss about the food or overeat leading to unhealthy food habits. You can help your child develop healthy food habits by encouraging her to eat wholesome foods at set mealtimes. 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 your child behaves in an unacceptable manner, stay calm. Talk to him and explain why the behavior 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 behavior occurs frequently and seems to worsen, it is advisable to seek professional help. Remember that all too often, behavioral issues are manifestations of deeper problems that can be identified only by specialized analyses carried out by a trained person.

Your child's behavior is a reflection of his state of mind. Rude or unruly behavior 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 behavior and correct it during the early stages. After all, your preschooler needs you the most when he is fighting with his emotions.

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