Understanding child development and behaviour
Children learn to manage their behaviour and regulate their emotions as they grow and develop, expressing a range of emotional responses as they learn these skills. This process can create stress and anxiety for parents and caregivers.
Child and family health nurses can play an important role in helping families cope by supporting parents to nurture their child’s mind and help children develop adequate emotion regulation skills.
Emotional connections with significant people and learned self-understanding help children regulate their feelings and reactions. Children use their voice, body and face to convey their emotions and reactions to others, and it is through receiving appropriate responses children can establish emotional connections.
The stages of development and growth
First three years
- Increased mobility and language skills influence a child’s behaviour
- An increased desire for autonomy is balanced with a need to remain close to parents
- Should have some self-awareness by the age of two
- Children experience a vast range of emotions
- Children learn to imitate peers and siblings, and alternate roles while playing
- Children learn that disappointment, anger and frustration are bearable
- Children begin to learn wrong from right
Preschool age (4-5 years)
- Children begin to retain memories of others and incorporate it into a sense of self
- Children develop more empathy
- Children develop an understanding of social rules
- Children develop a preference for certain people
- An increase in pro-social behaviour
Despite the challenges behavioural problems can present, they are usually caused by age-related conflict, frustration or an inability to understand expectations. These connections require parents or caregivers to help the child to balance and recognise their emotions, and in the process, gain a sense of belonging and feeling valued.
Understanding when your child’s behaviour is of concern
All parents have a different tolerance level for their child’s everyday behavioural difficulties, however, if there is a concern about their child behaviour, it should be discussed with a professional.
Australian statistics suggest that concern about a child’s behaviour is fairly common. One study found that 10 per cent of parents had concerns about the behaviour of their child under 18 months, while 20 per cent had concerns about their child aged between 18 months and three years, and 30 per cent had concerns about their child aged three to five years.
Childhood behaviour problems are a risk factor for antisocial behaviour or violence later in life, but it’s important to remember that childhood behaviour evolves quickly by stage.
Understanding when your child whines and tantrums
Whining and tantrums are a part of childhood and are not normally a cause for concern, since they typically stop over time. This behaviour is common in children under three years of age, as their levels of self-control and understanding of the world have not yet evolved, causing high frustration levels.
Toddlers tend to grow out of behaviours such as tantrums by the time they reach preschool age. Aggressive behaviours are more likely to increase and persist if parents respond negatively or harshly to outbursts or if parents are experiencing high levels of stress and/or family conflicts.
Understanding when your child resists bedtime
Resisting bedtimes is a common behaviour among young children. Developing a good wind-down routine for the 20 minutes before bedtime can help manage this sort of behaviour.
Understanding when your child kicks and fights
If a young child fights or kicks, they are likely having difficulty expressing themselves with words. This behaviour is common with young children as they are still expanding their vocabulary and dealing with new emotions.
There are many challenges and changes in the first five years of a child’s life that can result in strong negative feelings. The child is gaining new verbal skills, goal-directed behaviour and self-awareness while dealing with new rules and limitations set by parents. During this period children are likely to express their anger and frustration physically.
Physically aggressive behaviours typically peak between the ages of two and three. These behaviours are generally replaced with alternatives by the time the child is five.
Understanding when your child bites
There are many reasons a child would bite other than being unable to express their feelings. The meaning behind the biting changes with age:
- At around 4-5 months an infant may test their newly emerging teeth by biting their mother’s breast while breastfeeding
- At around 12 months infants begin to explore the world and may use biting to help with that exploration or gain the attention of parents
- Between 16-24 months toddlers may use biting, scratching and hair-pulling to try and figure out other children and gain their attention
- Between 18-30 months is the age when tantrums and negative behaviour appear, possibly including biting
Understanding when your child swears
Swearing alone is not a sign of a behavioural problem. If other negative behaviour such as kicking and fighting are coupled with swearing, that may be a sign of a behavioural disorder and intervention may be required. Children who swear, lie and have difficulty interacting with peers may also be showing signs of an antisocial disorder.
It can be reassuring to parents to learn about the normal rates of challenging behaviour as well as acknowledging that these behaviours can be testing.
How to manage normal aggressive behaviour
Normal aggressive behaviour can be managed and reduced by creating a supportive environment for the child:
- Establishing and maintaining a daily routine
- Having a daily sleep or quiet time to prevent overtiredness
- Having a ‘toddler proof’ house to allow the child to explore freely and reducing conflict
- Finding or creating fun and engaging activities for the child to keep them occupied
Maintaining a good parent-child relationship is key in preventing aggressive behavioural problems. Spend quality time with the child doing what they enjoy. It is important to cuddle and praise children every day and encourage positive behaviour.
Desirable behaviour can be encouraged by:
- Having short bursts of one-on-one time instead of one long playtime
- Saying exactly what the child is doing right
- Find opportunities to notice and praise positive behaviour
- Get down to the child’s level and say exactly what they have done well when praising them
- Always finish with a hug
When to seek help
Every child throws tantrums, however, if a child’s behaviour disrupts their ability to interact with others, learn and play over a period of time it may be best to seek help from a professional.