Managing difficult behaviour

Difficult or aggressive behaviours (such as biting, snatching, kicking, pinching, scratching, pushing or sulking) are really common in toddlers, but can be very tricky for a parent to deal with, especially when they happen in public.

Remember, as your child grows they go through development stages that are new to both of you. As they build physical strength and co-ordination they learn to crawl, walk, run and climb, and it can take a lot of perseverance and practice before they master each skill. In the same way, your child has to develop socially and emotionally, learning to cope with a range of feelings. Toddlers are still in the early stages of talking, and when a child wants to do something but can’t express that in a way that adults can understand, they rely on their behaviour to get their message across. They will express strong feelings by ‘acting out’, potentially resorting to unacceptable behaviours.

Common triggers for poor behaviour:

  • Tiredness
  • Hunger
  • Frustration
  • Jealousy
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Boredom
  • Having no control
  • Over excitement

Understanding what has led to your child behaving in a challenging way is crucial to trying to support them to make better choices.  If you start recognising the signs that an outburst may be brewing, you can take steps to distract your child, or to ensure their unspoken need is met.

What you can do

All children need attention from adults, and in their eyes even negative attention (being told off) is better than no attention at all. Children also need clear boundaries. It makes them to feel safe and secure, and helps them develop an understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. If difficult behaviour is ignored by parents, it will only get worse. That’s why it’s really important to tackle it straightaway, rather than hope it will go away. Research shows that children who aren’t taught to manage their behaviour as toddlers are more likely to become challenging teens and adults.

Do

  • Ignore minor behaviours like whining or squabbling which are designed to get your attention.
  • Try to anticipate bad behaviours like biting or pushing which are expressions of frustration. Keep calm and distract your child. If they do bite, kick or push, firstly physically remove them from the situation, then get down to their eye level and tell them in a firm but calm manner why their behaviour is unacceptable For example: ‘Biting hurts, we don’t bite’.
  • Aim to be a good role model for behaviour yourself by trying to stay calm (even though it’s really hard sometimes!)
  • Make sure that other care givers like childminders or grandparents know how you are reinforcing boundaries with your child so you can be consistent. This way, your child will feel safe and will understand what is expected of them

Don’t

  • Shout and yell as this will stop your child listening to you. Be firm, but calm
  • Ignore serious behaviours like biting, hitting punching or pushing which could harm another child. If this happens, always look after the injured child first. Your child is unlikely to be ready to think about what they’ve done as their feelings will still be running high. Take your child to a quiet place for ‘time out’. This makes it clear that the behaviour is not acceptable and means you can address the behaviour with them later when they’ve had a chance to calm down
  • Hurt your child back to show them what it feels like – children learn from your actions and are more likely to copy what you do rather than what you say

Useful links

Advice from Family Lives (a parenting charity) on toddler misbehaviour.


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Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust runs a confidential secure text messaging service for parents of children aged 0-19 years called Chat Health. The service operates Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm, excluding bank holidays. All texts will be responded to by a public health nurse (health visitor/school nurse) within 24 hours. Outside of the service working hours, you’ll receive a message back to inform you that your text will be responded to once the line reopens.

Should you require urgent health advice in the meantime, please contact your GP, visit an NHS walk-in centre or call NHS 111. For emergencies, dial 999 or visit A&E.

Leicester City: text 07520 615381

Leicestershire & Rutland: text 07520 615382

You can also call and speak to a public health nurse on our professional advice line: 0300 3000 007

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