One of the toughest jobs a parent has is dealing with bad behaviour from our children. There are so many parenting styles, different ways to discipline, and so much advice about how to deal with behaviour problems that it can be completely confusing to know the right approach. The best situation would be if you could avoid the bad behaviour altogether, right? Here are six areas to check that help prevent difficult behaviours so you can enjoy your child more than you discipline them.
Are your kids getting enough sleep?
- Check their sleep
Being tired is often the number one cause of tantrums, bad behaviour and meltdowns. Tired kids are grumpy kids. For that matter, tired adults are often grumpy too! I know I function best when I’ve had an early night.
Academically, children who had a late night before school will act younger than they are and have trouble concentrating. Also, the new learning they’ve done during the day is only incorporated into their long term memory while they sleep.
Tired kids have less ability to control their emotions and to think about the consequences of their actions. They are harder to reason with and even the littlest thing can set them off. According to research, a poor night’s sleep affects your ability to handle stress and means your brain is more likely to view stressful situations more negatively.
Sleep also affects your child’s growth, health and immune system. So, for their sake and ours, it’s vital we make sure our kids are getting enough!
Getting enough sleep
- Create a bedtime routine that starts an hour before bed. A regular routine tells their brain it’s time for sleep and allows your child time to wind down.
- Make bedtime the same time every night. Even in the weekends if you can.
- Turn off screens and do calm bedtime activities, such as having a bath, reading together, listening to an audiobook or gentle music.
- Try to make the room as dark as possible. Some kids prefer a bit of light from the hallway or a night light but the darker the better. Dark rooms help people sleep because light shuts off melatonin production in our brains. Melatonin is needed for sleep. That’s also why devices, with their blue light, need to be off at least an hour before sleep. Dim the lights during story time (or use a dim bedside lamp) too if you can.
- Get them to bed early. Over tired children are much harder to put to bed, especially young ones. A lot of experts suggest 7pm as a good time to aim for with young kids as the hours of sleep you get before midnight are considered the most important ones by many researchers.
- Avoid snacks right before bed as it can prevent kids going to sleep and also cause them to wake during the night when their blood sugar drops again. Aim for a high-protein snack a couple of hours before bed instead (or just a good dinner).
Are your children eating right?
2. Check their eating habits
Food is another often overlooked reason behind challenging behaviour. Sometimes it feels like all you’ve done all day as a parent is feed your children. When my oldest was having a toddler growth spurt once, I cooked as she ate for 2 hours solid!
So, I’m not talking about hungry, malnourished kids here. Most of us have incredibly well-fed children. But behaviour is affected by food–the timing of food and the type of food, not just the lack of it.
As I’ve already mentioned, snacks right before bed can cause kids to have trouble sleeping, but a high protein meal a couple of hours before can actually improve sleep. The same is true for behaviour all day. People have been worried about the obesity rates in our children lately, but what we offer them to eat affects more than just their weight. Feeding your child healthy food increases their ability to concentrate and keeps their mood stable.
Because children are growing, their food requirements and eating habits also change constantly. We try, as good parents, to make sure our kids are eating healthy, balanced meals and snacks but this isn’t always as easy as it seems. Many of our kids start to be fussy about food in their preschool years and restrict their own eating. Some children are so fussy that they actually become nutrient deficient. If your child refuses to eat a range of fruit and vegetables, or will only eat sweets, bread or chips, their energy levels are going to drop and their behaviour deteriorate. To ensure good eating habits, try the following:
- Offer regular meals and snacks about every three hours.
- Young children have small stomachs and so need smaller snacks and meals more often than adults. Provide a range of healthy snacks that they can grab when they need to. Carrot sticks and hummus, nuts and seeds, or fruit are good options.
- Limit the sugary drinks and treats.
- Offer your children a range of healthy food, even if they say they don’t like it. Kids often need lots of exposure to new food before they enjoy it. Place a selection of food on their plate and encourage them to try one bite of things they are unsure of.
- If they start misbehaving, check how long it’s been since they ate. A healthy snack time might calm the meltdown before it even starts.
- Offer a drink of water regularly or keep a drink bottle handy. Dehydration is a major cause of tiredness and mood changes. There is evidence that suggests it can cause behaviour problems and lack of concentration.
Too much screen-time?
3. Check their screen time
Whenever my kids spend too long on a device, they get grumpy. Perhaps you’ve noticed this with your kids. A lot of parents comment on it, and the younger the child is the more their behaviour appears to be affected by time in front of a screen.
Even if your children don’t appear to be affected by it, all children benefit from limited screen time. Device-free time allows children to play, move and use their imaginations. Modern children are constantly entertained, but being bored actually helps kids be creative and when they choose activities such as reading, drawing or playing with lego their attention spans are lengthened.
Some research suggests that too much screen time disrupts sleep, overstimulates the brain and induces stress reactions. Teenagers are sensitive to this too. Excessive device use has been linked in some research to increased depression, anxiety and aggression. Even small amounts of screen time can affect sensitive young brains.
This is a controversial topic and the research still has a long way to go in understanding how screen-time affects kids (or even if it does). You know your own child, so if you are noticing an increase in moodiness, aggression or behaviour changes after screen time, try a device-detox and see if it makes a difference.
Give your kids some attention
4. Check how much focused attention they are getting
Children need attention and if they don’t get enough they will get it anyway they can, even if it means playing up, hitting their sister, or annoying you on purpose. Even negative attention is better than no attention from a child’s perspective.
Our kids have to compete with their siblings, our devices, work, chores and other adults for our time. Parenting and life is often incredibly busy. But this lack of focused attention can mean you get more tantrums, meltdowns and bedtime dramas than you need to.
Tuning in to your children when they try to engage you will reduce the amount of challenging behaviour you will have to deal with. Spending just 30 seconds watching them when they say “Look at me!” or when they want to show you the new lego model they’ve made, will save you many minutes of dealing with tantrums later. Obviously, there are times when you won’t be able to tune in. It’s good for kids to learn to entertain themselves and give you a bit of adult time too.
Playing with your kids
5. Try floor time
Another thing kids need is to feel like they have some choice and that their interests and preferences are okay with you. They need to feel accepted–that they are an important, valued part of the family who has a bit of a say (even a small one!). If they feel they are valued and heard, you will see far less challenging behaviours.
One way to allow them some choice and help them feel accepted is by giving them ten minutes of floor time every day. Floortime is a simple technique that has been used for years in the psychology world. Basically, it involves getting on the same level as your kids and joining in their world–getting involved with whatever they want to do. (With older kids and teens, obviously, it might mean joining them in a computer game, doing art at the table or playing a board game.)
- Let them lead.
- Spend time listening to them and watching what they are interested in. Focus on what it is they want to do. (You can even do this with babies.)
- Give positive feedback. Say things like “This is really fun!” “What a good game” “Your games are so imaginative!”
- Be involved with their game/ interest for at least ten minutes. More than ten minutes would be great, but even a short time everyday makes a big difference in how they feel and then, as a consequence, how they behave.
Discipline is about learning rather than punishments
6. Provide training and boundaries
A lot of difficult behaviour in children is easily corrected with a little bit of training and some good clear boundaries. It’s easy to forget that children are still learning how to behave and need our help. Good discipline is not about punishing your kids, it’s about guiding and teaching them about what you expect and what’s acceptable. Young children in particular need regular time put into training. Behaviours around safety are especially important. If your child keeps running off when you go out, or touching things like the oven that might hurt them, then some simple games can teach them to listen to you and stay safe. Training your child can be fun! Try playing the traffic light game. For moral behaviours like sharing, try activities like the one below.
Traffic Light game
- Show your child how to freeze when you say “stop”.
- Let them run ahead a little at the park or in your backyard, then say “stop” and practice freezing until the “go” command.
- Practice it regularly when you are out.
- You can add an orange “slow” light too.
- Play a game that involves taking turns. Pop up Pirate is a good one for young children. Connect four is good for slightly older kids.
- When it’s time to take your turn, pause for a while. Make them wait.
- Make the game a slow, but fun one. Slowing your turn down teaches your child patience and to consider others.
- Children that have trouble sharing (most young children!) might struggle with your slow turn and have a tantrum initially. Keep trying. Learning to share doesn’t happen in a day!
Kids love games like this–not only do they train your child to listen, keep safe, or show them a new way to behave, but they allow you to give some focused attention at the same time!
Good behaviour starts with strong relationships
Hopefully, after checking and implementing these 6 steps you will find parenting your child a much more enjoyable experience. Remember, good behaviour starts with a strong relationship between you and your child. If you are struggling, hang in there! We’re all in this together!
Parenting is challenging and exhausting, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and fun.
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