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Bad Behavior or Developmentally on Track?

It’s one thing if your toddler has a kicking, screaming tantrum in the supermarket, which is actually on target developmentally, as embarrassing as it can be for you. But what if your child is still at it when they’re three, four or even five? As kids get older, we expect more from them, and rightly so. But it can be tough to know what’s okay because it’s ‘just a stage’ and what’s no longer age-appropriate.

That’s because kids don’t necessarily develop on a strict timetable. “Age gives you a general idea of when you can expect normal development milestones like being able to use your words instead of having a tantrum. But the timing can also depend on your child’s temperament, how much practice she’s had with the skill you’d like her to have and how you handle daily opportunities to develop it,” says Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Gesell Institute of Human Development. The good news is that with a little insight and encouragement, you can help your child move to the next level.

Use our guide to decipher when certain ‘bad’ behavior is on track, when to expect your child to age out of it and what you can do to speed the process along when your child is ready.

Biting

Babies - It’s very common for teething infants to nip. In fact, they’re prone to bite everything, which can provide information about the world like, ‘If I bite Mommy, she screams.’ Still, start training your baby now not to bite you or anyone else. If she chomps down when you’re breastfeeding, remove her from your breast and/or say firmly: “No biting,” and turn away from her. Withdrawing your attention (and your boob) plus the tone of your voice sends the clear message that biting isn’t okay.

Toddlers - Even if you taught your baby not to bite, they still might do it now. “Toddlers sometimes bite to communicate their frustration,” says Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D., a director of neuropsychology at a Children’s Medical Centre. That’s because they don’t have the complex language skills yet to ask for what they want, such as the Legos a friend is playing with. If your toddler bites, state firmly: “No biting. Biting hurts,” then take the toy away or whatever they snatched. “Comfort the bitten child and say things you want your child to hear, such as: ‘You don’t like being bitten because biting hurts and we don’t bite our friends,’” says Guddemi. Toddlers are too young to understand the pain somebody else feels but focusing on the bitten child and your tone of voice will help them learn that biting doesn’t work.

Preschoolers - By now, biting shouldn’t be an issue because preschoolers can ask for what they want. But they still might bite on impulse as a fast way to get something, like a turn on the swing. If you’ve got a biter, remind them before playdates and preschool that even if they get mad, biting isn’t allowed. Keep your radar on when they’re around others so you can jump in before a situation escalates. When things go well, be your child’s cheerleader: “That’s great that you didn’t bite. I’m so proud of you. Keep up the good work.” If your child bites anyway, remind them to use their words instead of biting and comfort the bitten child. Or leave the playground or the playdate. It’s embarrassing when your child bites. But not freaking out, stating the rules and delivering a consequence can help put a stop to it.

Tantrums in public

Toddlers - Meltdowns are inevitable for kids ages one to two because they can’t yet say, for example, “I’m frustrated because you won’t buy me fruit roll-ups,” so they make their point by throwing a fit. However, they’re not too young to learn that tantrums won’t get them what they want. Don’t reinforce the tantrum by giving in to your child’s demands just so they’ll stop. Instead, stand firm: “No, we’re not getting that today,” and turn away, start humming to yourself or read the fine print on the cereal box at the supermarket; whatever you can to send the message you’re not going to engage. “If your child doesn’t get your attention, their tantrum will stop, but you have to have more endurance than he does,” says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., pediatrician. If your child doesn’t get over it, leave the store or wherever you are and remind them: “Tell Mommy what you want. Don’t kick and scream.” Your toddler may not be able to do that yet, but they’ll get the concept. Being tired or hungry can trigger meltdowns, too, so try not to shop with your toddler around nap and mealtime.

Preschoolers - While your child is developmentally capable of telling you how they’re feeling, they may still pitch a fit, especially if you’ve given into them before. To work tantrums out of your child’s repertoire, be clear about your expectations before going out. “We’re going to buy eggs and milk today, not cookies.” In the store, recognize when your preschooler is behaving well: “I love the way you’re helping me put things in the cart. You’re doing such a great job.” Then reward it: “Since you were such a good helper in the store, we’re going to play Candy Land when we get home.” If a meltdown breaks out anyway, help your preschooler learn to say how they’re feeling by labeling the emotion, such as: “I can see that you’re frustrated because you want a cookie, but it’s not on our list today.”

School-age kids - Tantrums are rare by now, so if your child has one, they may be having a tough time expressing complex feelings like jealousy or feeling left out. “You should also ask yourself whether you’ve babied this child more than the others [your other kids] or been inconsistent with your expectations,” says Dr. Spinks-Franklin. If you’re still baffled about why a tantrum broke out, ask your child to explain it after things calm down. If they don’t know, dig deeper. It could be a sign they need more hugs or one-on-one time with you, for example. “All behavior is communication and the older kids get, the more complex the meaning of a tantrum can be,” says Dr. Spinks-Franklin.

Whining

Toddlers - Toddlers whine because they want attention and they’ve learned using an annoying voice will get it. Don’t give in. Show them the difference between a whine and a normal tone. The next time your toddler whines, say, “I don’t listen to that voice. Please ask me nicely.”

Preschoolers - If your preschooler whines to get what they want, you’ve probably been caving a little too often. To reverse course, tell them you won’t listen to them unless they use a big-girl or a big-boy voice. “The more kids whine, the less you should engage with them,” says David J. Schonfeld, M.D., chief of pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. If the whining continues, make eye contact and warn them you’ll need to leave the store (or wherever you are) if they keep it up, then leave if you have to. Or, if what your child is asking for is okay - say you’re in the supermarket and they’re whining for ice cream, you might say: “Can you say, ‘Can I please pick out some ice cream?’” If they deliver, let them pick out the ice cream. Also, reward and reinforce good behavior by telling your child how much you appreciate the fact they stopped whining or asked nicely for something.

School-age kids - It’s time to be brutal. When the whining begins, flat out ignore it. Refuse to listen. Walk away. When they start to talk in a normal tone of voice, show them the attention they’re after with enthusiasm.

Not sharing

Toddlers - Little kids are too egocentric to understand the give-and-take sharing involves. You can encourage your child to ‘take turns’ but don’t expect them to willingly give their toys to their siblings or other kids on playdates. In their mind, sharing means, ‘I had a toy, and it’s gone forever.’ At playdates, opt for activities that are easy to do together to short-circuit any tussling: dancing, coloring, building with blocks.

Preschoolers - Preschoolers are less self-centered than they were a year or two ago, but they’re still impulsive and from age three to five, they still tend to be possessive with their favorite toys. You can help your child practice by showing them how to take turns with toys (even using a kitchen timer to emphasize that concept). That said, it’s fine to put away certain special things before friends come over. To encourage empathy, point out how nice it makes others - and even themselves  - feel when they do share with others.

School-age kids - By Kindergarten, kids can share well. If your child isn’t there yet, help them practice by inviting friends over who have mastered the art of sharing so your child can learn from their friends. Continue to talk about why sharing is a good and kind thing to do. Still, don’t expect your child to have to share special toys - such as a game console they just got for their birthday - even with siblings. It’s fine if some toys are private property. 

Throwing food

Babies - Throwing food helps your baby learn cause and effect - if they throw food from their high chair, it falls down and you’ll pick it up. Instead of getting exasperated, play along for another round or two. When you’ve had enough, say something like: “That was fun, but mommy isn’t going to play anymore,” then stop gathering up tossed Cheerios in front of them.

Toddlers - Your child is old enough to understand flinging food isn’t okay, but your toddler may still do so when they’re bored or want attention. To end the antics, tell them, “Food is for eating and it belongs on your plate.” Stay calm. “A huge reaction from you will only reinforce the bad behavior,” says Guddemi. If your toddler keeps it up, end the meal. Your toddler can finish eating later, once they’ve calmed down.

Preschoolers - Thankfully, by the time your child is three, they won’t be tossing food on the floor to get your attention or indicate their displeasure with what you’re serving. They’ll likely use their words to level any complaints about the meal.

School-age kids - Food fights can erupt when kids get a little too rowdy with their friends. Step in immediately if one breaks out at home.

Squirming

Toddlers - Unless something engages your child’s interest, expect them to be fidgety. Antsiness comes with the developmental territory. Try to work around it. For example, go to a kid-friendly restaurant early when it’s less busy (11:30am for lunch and 5pm for dinner), and take along toys and crayons to keep your child engaged.

Preschoolers - When kids reach three to four, they should be able to sit contentedly for chunks of time, although how long depends on your child’s temperament. If you have a high-energy kid, that might be just 15 minutes. It’s still too soon to expect them to endure grown-up events, however, like lengthy religious services or three-course restaurant dinners. When attendance is mandatory, be sure to have a stash of fun stuff to keep them busy.

School-age kids - By now, children should be able to sit still for longer stretches at home and at school without needing constant attention. If your child can’t, consider that your cue to help them practice at home with activities such as crafts and games. If you’re concerned about your child’s restlessness, talk to your pediatrician. 

Sandra is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting and consumer issues.

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