Tips to Dealing with Acting-Out Behavior

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Earlier this year, I attended a day session put on by the Appelbaum Training Institute in Omaha, Nebraska USA. The purpose of this session was to train childcare providers, but it gave some great tips for parents, too, in dealing with acting-out behavior from their toddlers and preschoolers:

Be Proactive

  • Stay calm — It’s important to QTIP (Quit Taking It Personal). Children act out for a variety of reasons, but it’s not because they dislike you. It’s because they’re frustrated, tired, not feeling well, hungry, or have another unfulfilled need.
  • Create a positive atmosphere — Children feed off of negative vibes. If you’re feeling stressed, they pick up on that and start acting out how you feel, which of course only perpetuates how you act, and the cycle goes round and round. This tip also applies to the physical atmosphere — children love bright colors and light and fun shapes and music. Decorate your house in your child’s artwork and provide plenty of opportunity for them to get involved in activities. I have a dresser filled with activities, from coloring to puzzles to ink stamps to sun-catcher kits.
  • Give compliments throughout the day — Make sure these are genuine and not conditional, so they’re not confused with a reward-based discipline system.
  • Speak in a quiet voice — We don’t need to shout to make our children hear us. They actually listen more when spoken to in a soft, respectful voice. Try whispering when you really want them to listen.
  • Greet your child in the morning — Say hi and give a hug and kiss when your child wakes up, so they know they’re welcome.
  • Be a good listener — Sometimes, all children want is someone who will listen emphatically to what they have to say. It doesn’t mean they get everything they want, but just so they know that someone cares and understands their frustration.
  • Have a toolkit of strategies — Remember the tips provided to you through Attached at the Heart by Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson, The Attached Family magazines, and other Attachment Parenting International resources. Imagine a scenario and the positive ways you can react; this way, you have already “been there” when that scenario occurs and you know what you would do.
  • Be consistent in your discipline — Follow through with setting your boundaries, each and every time. This is how children learn what’s expected of them. It’s when they get confused that some of the most distressing behavior occurs.
  • Teach children how to handle their emotions — Emotions are so big for toddlers and preschoolers that they don’t know how to handle them. Help them learn to identify their emotions and to express them in appropriate ways.
  • Teach children how to be calm — Once a child learns how to identify her emotions, she need to learn how to calm herself down. An idea from Appelbaum is playing the “Be a Tree” game, where the child slowly raises his arms to be the branches of his tree, takes a deep breath, and then slowly sways in the wind while blowing his breath out.
  • Teach children to be kind — Children aren’t born knowing how to be manipulative, but they do need to learn how to love. An Appelbaum idea is to play the “Pass the Kindness Around” activity, where family members pass a heart around to each other while saying a kind word or genuine compliment or hug.

What to Do with a Drama Queen/King

  • Don’t argue — Arguing with your child as to why you’re right or why she should do as you ask doesn’t solve anything and only perpetuates the situation. Rather, try to redirect the child’s attention to something unrelated to what he is upset with, or offer the child a choice between two options. And for you — if your child’s reaction becomes too much, remember that there’s nothing wrong with stepping away for a moment or two.
  • Limit overstimulation — One of the reasons for acting-out behaviors is that the child becomes overwhelmed by his surroundings. While children love bright colors, music and noise, and activity, it’s a fine line between a positive environment and an overstimulated child.
  • Give play opportunities to be dramatic — Whether your child chooses to role play with stuffed animal toys, or you two act out a skit together, give your child the opportunity to play out a dramatic scenario. Some children are drawn more to drama than others.
  • Give clear definitions of your rules — Make sure your child understands exactly where the boundaries for his behavior. Be consistent and follow-through with discipline, and explain the ins and outs of the various rules.

What to Do with a Hitter…

  • Teach children to hug when they want to hit — My second daughter was a hitter as a toddler, and I found the best way to teach her not to hit, besides repeating “hands are not for hitting,” was to substitute the victim and the action — I had her hug a teddy bear whenever she felt like hitting her sister.
  • Teach children what “gentle” feels like — Just as children have to learn how to love one another, they have to learn what a gentle touch feels like. Have them give you or a sibling or friend or pet a gentle touch, and to receive a gentle touch.
  • Teach children appropriate ways to express anger — Some ideas from Appelbaum are to have the child put her hand up to say “stop” if someone is hurting them. Also, they can make handprints on a piece of paper to put up on the wall, where they can go to press their angry hands into as hard as they can instead of hitting. Singing is a great way to release pent-up emotions, such as “If You’re Angry and You Know It” sang to the rhythm of the happy version with verses such as “blow it out,” “walk away,” “keep your cool,” and “tell someone how I feel.” You can also try a “Mood Duster,” which is using a feather duster to “dust off” the angry mood from the child while talking in a soothing voice.
  • Teach children that bullying is wrong — It’s important that you never ignore or deny bullying when it occurs. It can cause lifelong emotional damage to the victim and teaches the perpetrator unhealthy relationship skills that can last well into adulthood. Bullying, or teasing, is a form of acting-out behavior that is directed toward another child. Bullying boys tend to be more impulsive than girls who bully, as well as more direct and physical. Bullying girls tend to hurt others emotionally, such as deliberately ignoring, isolating, recruiting others to join in the bullying, verbal abuse, and spreading rumors. Bullying can begin when children are as young as two years old. Generally, bullying that is unaddressed only gets worse with time. You can start teaching children that bullying is wrong by modeling appropriate treatment of others. Also, make caring a central part of what you’re teaching your child. Appelbaum ideas including having a “Caring Bouquet” of plastic flowers for toddlers and preschoolers to give to one another; having a “Kindness Tree” on the wall that points out kind things your preschooler has done for others; having a “Hero Poster,” which does the same thing as the tree just in a different way; and making up songs about caring and kindness and heroes. What a child learns during the first several years of life carries on throughout the rest of her life.
  • Teach children how to handle being bullied — Children should learn to stand up tall to stand their ground, but they also need to learn when to walk away. You can help the child being bullied at preschool or playgroup by pairing him with a buddy, as there’s safety in numbers.

What to Do with Talking Back…

  • Don’t argue — As with dramatic children, this only perpetuates the behavior. Instead, make a “T sign” with your hands as a signal for the child to stop and take a “time out” from his behavior. Empathize with the child but stand firm in that you do not like how she expressed her frustration and that she needs to find another way.
  • Give the child an appointment card — If a child wants to argue with you, give him an “Appointment Card” as a way to stall him. This way, you can still allow her to voice her concerns but at a time that is more appropriate.
  • Teach children how to handle “no” — Teach your child how to ask for what he wants, rather than demand it. Then, to say “thank you” or express appreciation when she receives a “yes” but also how to handle it when given a “no,” such as by walking away.

What to Do with a Whiner…

  • Make sure the child is OK — Children whine when they feel overwhelmed or worried, when they are tired or hungry or hurt, when they want something and have learned that whining gets them what they want, and when they are sick. Reassure your child if he needs it, address tiredness and hunger and hurts, and attend to illness.
  • Teach children how to ask — Role-play using a “big kid” voice, rather than whining. Make up a sign with your fingers to signal to your child that she is whining and needs to find another way to ask for what she wants. Tell your child it’s OK to whine to his teddy bear but not to you  so that he does have an outlet.
  • Empathize — Identify and acknowledge your child’s emotions without rewarding the whining.

Tips to Handling Stress

Parenting is hard work. We don’t often think about that before we have our first child, because there are so many parents in the world. But once we’re knee-deep in diapers and tantrums and social drama from school, we have everyday reminders of how difficult our job truly is.

For all parents, there are times when the stress of raising children becomes too much for us to handle. I tend to cut back on the amount of sleep I get at night in an attempt to get more done. I also tend not to eat nutritiously and to skip out on exercise. What do you do when you’re stressed out?

Try this: List your top five stressors, ranking them from the highest stressor to the lowest of the five. I’ll do it, too:

  1. Staying connected with my husband
  2. Preparing for my upcoming VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean)
  3. Staying connected with my daughters as they look forward to starting school
  4. Making sure there is enough cash flow to manage the household
  5. Doing housework on top of everything else.

Rather than focusing on each of these stressors, hone in on your top three stressors. Make changes in these areas of your life to try to ease your stress. Start small — set only one new goal a week, and work toward that goal during the week. For example, my stress can be summed up as balancing my marriage, parenting, and home management. Obviously, someone has to do the housework, but my family relationships are the priority. So, my first goal may be to see if I can streamline some of my daily chores to be able to spend more time with my husband and children.

Some other tips:

  • Simplify, simplify, simplify — Make your living area truly a haven and get rid of extra stuff that doesn’t work toward reducing your stress. For example, I recently re-organized my kitchen and home office so that they serve me rather than the other way around.
  • Slow down — Try to stay focused on the present, not the past or the future. Focus on what you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell right now. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to more commitments, and trim your calendar of activities so you have more time to relax.
  • Relax — Learn a variety of stress relievers such as prayer and meditation. Take time to enjoy your hobbies.
  • Exercise — It’s one of the last things we often think about putting in our daily schedule, but it’s so important so as to stay not only physically healthy but also mentally. Exercise is a great way to work off tension. As you exercise, add in a relaxation technique of visualizing the frustrations in your life leaving your body.
  • Change things up — Get involved in new activities or interests outside the home. Try something new on weekends other than what you usually do.
  • Don’t allow yourself a pity party — Remind yourself that you are strong, not a victim. Be flexible and willing to change approaches to stress management to find what works for you. Stay true to your identity. Worry less; instead, do more to alleviate your worries.

You may be headed toward burnout if you find yourself easily angered or bothered, consumed by pessimism, often sad but without knowing why, or you feel like you’re unable to find your way back up from under the pressures of life. When this happens, it’s important to focus on your emotional health, which can be done by:

  • Learning about and how to recognize your emotions.
  • Learning how to accept your emotions and to work with them.
  • Learning to express your emotions in a healthy way.

There are a variety of ways to work through your emotions, such as writing in a journal, talking it out, praying about it, and listening to music, but they generally include five steps:

  1. Pause
  2. Notice what is going on inside of you and identify the emotion
  3. Feel the emotion
  4. Understand the emotion
  5. Accept the emotion.

Stressful thinking changes our brain chemistry and zaps our energy. You can actually feel, and look, younger and more vibrant if you’re able to handle stress. Take a hint from the Appelbaum Training Institute: Play and leisure time are the secrets to unlocking your energy — learn from your children and play!

9 thoughts on “Tips to Dealing with Acting-Out Behavior”

  1. yeah!!!! when you think it’s just you, and you know it’s not..this article puts life into perspective…thank you little article..this is going to help me out…I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through the next 3 weeks

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