Updated: Sep 20
“My 5 year-old screams for hours when he’s upset.”
“My 3 year-old hits and throws toys when something doesn’t go her way.”
“My 4 year-old cries at the smallest thing.”
Do any of these quotes sound familiar to you? If the answer is “yes,” your child may be showing what I like to call “big behaviors,” which are behaviors that are difficult for you to manage. This could include screaming, hitting, kicking, throwing things, and crying, as well as saying mean things to you or other children. These “big behaviors” are typically the result of your child experiencing “big feelings” (intense emotions) that they don’t know how to manage. Young children have not yet developed self-regulatory skills to effectively modulate their emotional reactions in frustrating situations. This is where parents come in. Parents can act as teachers to guide their child to appropriately express and manage their emotions.
Observe the Behavior
The first thing I discuss with parents is observing and understanding their child’s behavior. It can be helpful to think of the “big behaviors” as a form of communication. A young child isn’t going to sit their parents down and calmly say, “I’m very frustrated that you told me it was time to go to bed when I was playing on my tablet.” Instead, the child is more likely to throw the tablet, yell at their parents, or display some other “big behavior.” We can infer from their behavior that the child was likely frustrated or upset and that they probably wanted to keep playing rather than go to bed.
When observing your child’s “big behaviors,” it is also helpful to consider what occurred before the behavior and what happened after the behavior. In this example, the parent likely told the child it was time for bed, which triggered the behavior, as the child was asked to transition from a preferred activity (playing) to an unpreferred activity (bedtime). In response to the behavior, the parent may have given a correction (for example, telling the child not to yell or throw their tablet).
Parents as the Catalysts for Change
Just like a young child isn’t going to sit their parents down and calmly tell them what they’re feeling and why, they are also unlikely to spontaneously and successfully apply positive coping strategies when they’re upset. It is difficult for us as humans to be logical and access positive coping strategies when we’re experiencing a high level of emotion. It is even more difficult for a child to do this.
Parents can bridge this gap by identifying and labeling the emotion for their child. In the above example, this could be saying something like, “I think you’re frustrated because you want to keep playing on your tablet, and I told you it was time for bed.” When parents identify and label their child’s emotion, it serves several purposes: validating the child, communicating that emotions are acceptable, and connecting the behavior to the child’s emotions and the situation. All of this helps the child to increase their ability to identify their emotions, which is an important first step toward being able to independently and effectively manage their emotions.
Change the Behavior
I often work with parents on changing their child’s “big behavior” by modifying what occurs before and after the behavior. Whatever happened before the behavior likely triggered the behavior and whatever happened after the behavior is likely reinforcing the behavior.
I usually discuss the importance of giving clear, direct, and effective directions as a way of changing what happens before the behavior. Consequences for complying or not complying with the direction can then be given as a way to change what happens after the behavior. Consequences can take many forms, including praise, stickers, special play time, or even attention. Attention can be a very powerful reinforcer. The underlying principle is simple - pay attention to behavior you like and ignore behavior you don’t like. However, this is a lot easier said than done and requires time, patience, and intentional modifying to be effective.
If you’re experiencing difficulty in managing your child’s “big behaviors” or if it feels like you’ve tried everything and you’re out of ideas, I highly recommend working with a therapist who specializes in parent coaching (often called “parent training”). Parents need just as much support in helping their child to independently and effectively manage their emotions as the child needs. It’s for this reason that I work with both the child and their parents when a young child is having “big feelings” or “big behaviors.” After all, I only see your child for 1 hour each week, and you’re with them for the other 167 hours!
What Else Can I Do?
If you are concerned about your child’s “big behaviors” or “big feelings,” contact us today to schedule an appointment with Dr. Anna Martinez-Snyder. Dr. Anna specializes in working with young children and their parents to support children’s emotional development. She coaches parents in understanding their child’s behavior, managing the behavior using positive and effective parenting strategies, and supporting their child in learning to independently and appropriately express and manage their emotions. Dr. Anna tailors her approach to the individual needs of the child and the values, beliefs, and culture of the family.