Behavior Problems in Children and How to Deal with Them
Many young children will experience to varying degrees any one of a score of possible problems as a normal part of their developmental progress. Although these problems are not necessarily detrimental to their progress, they are troublesome, especially from the parents’ point of view.
Most of the behavior problems young children experience are temporary in nature. As such, these behaviors present challenges for young children in their interactions with others, especially within their family system. Most problems are stage-specific. In other words, certain problems observed among preschoolers are unique to their stage of the life span, whereas others occur more commonly among older children.
Parents are often disturbed by the appearance and continued presence of certain kinds of behavior problems among preschoolers. An immediate response is to attempt every possible means to eliminate the troublesome behavior from the child’s repertoire on the notion that once ingrained, such behaviors become permanent and habitual. Some parents turn to professionals, such as pediatricians, family physicians, child psychologists, and early childhood education specialists, for guidance in dealing with these problems. Others seek information from articles and books that address specific problems of young children such as toilet training, bed-wetting, or eating difficulties. The more problematic cases may require professional consultation and custom-designed treatment approaches. Those that occur more commonly among preschoolers are briefly discussed in the following paragraphs.
Bedtime and Sleeping Problems
The most common bedtime problems among young children include crying, resisting going to bed, repeatedly getting out of bed, and getting into bed with parents (Spock, 2004).
Resistance to going to sleep is especially troublesome, since a young child who gets too little sleep is irritable the next day (Tobin, 2002). Several issues may account for resistance to sleeping. First, parents may have trained their child improperly from the time of early infancy. Infants normally whimper when they are going to sleep. Parents who interpret this as cries of distress and rush in to pick up the infant train him or her to expect such attention at bedtime. Eventually, a young child may not be able to go to sleep without being held and rocked by a parent or other caregiver. Second, a young child may not be allowed time to relax and wind down prior to bedtime. In some homes, parents are not aware that it is important to promote what experts call sleep hygiene routines beginning in early childhood. In some homes, the period shortly before bedtime is used as playtime, especially with a father who may encourage active, rough-and-tumble play that can excite rather than relax the child.
Parents can help preschoolers develop good sleep hygiene habits that promote relaxation and preparation for sleep. Restful activities such as baths, reading stories, or quiet play serve as signals to preschoolers that bedtime is approaching. One of the more successful approaches is to use “planned” ignorance (Spock, 2004), whereby parents provide their full attention to a preschooler during the quieting-down period prior to bedtime but do not reenter the child’s bedroom after the child is in bed. This policy of “Once in bed, you stay in bed” is established with the child’s full knowledge and expected compliance. Usually, preschoolers will go to sleep within about 20 minutes after being put to bed.
Bad Dreams and Nightmares.
Fears are common among young children and can take on additional dimensions in the fantasy world of dreams and nightmares. Although a nightmare may last only a few minutes, a young child can recall it in intricate detail. Bad dreams or night terrors can last much longer, and a child is usually unable to recall specific details that were frightening. These are commonly observed among children who are experiencing extreme stress in their lives, as when parents are divorcing, for example (Spock, 2004).
Talking with young children about their fears is often an appropriate approach for helping them to understand how fears can be manifested in frightening dreams. It may be helpful to hold the preschooler nurturantly and rock him or her for a short time. Comments that inform the child that such frightening experiences are not real but are created by the imagination help in reassuring a preschooler. Parents also might examine the preschooler’s bedtime and sleep hygiene routines and eliminate activities such as watching television shows that stimulate harmful fantasizing.
Problems of Elimination
Preschoolers can experience problems with bodily elimination functions occasionally. Typically, these include regression. Loss of elimination control (e.g., bed-wetting) is not considered problemmatic until a child reaches the school-age years.
Regression in toilet training might happen: (1) as a reaction to the birth of a new baby into the family system; (2) as a reaction to extreme fatigue, excitement, or illness; (3) as an expression of anxiety; or (4) as a result of forgetfulness during periods of intense concentration during play activities or television viewing.
Commonsense measures help young children overcome these periods of regression in their elimination training. Reminding a child to use the bathroom may be all that is required to resolve the problem. In addition, protecting a child from situations that are overstimulating or frightening may be an easy solution.
Young children are included in eating meals with other family members and sharing the family diet. Most parents understand that young children may eat the same foods as other family members, but in smaller portions. They are aware that the particular nutritional needs of young children include adequate amounts of protein, calcium, and vitamins from a variety of food sources. Many parents also know the unhealthy aspects of allowing young children to eat a lot of “empty calorie” foods in their diet, such as snacks with high amounts of sugar and/or fat.
Young children may gravitate toward acquiring problems with eating such as (1) resistance to eating, (2) dawdling over food served at meals, and (3) developing peculiar desires for nonfood items (Tobin, 2002).
Because some parents are knowledgeable about what constitutes an adequate diet, they become conscientious about what foods are served to young children. However, overzealousness can cause young children to become resistant to eating. When children feel pressured to conform to parental desires and eating policies, they tend to resist eating certain foods. For example, if parents firmly believe that vegetables must be consumed when served at meals, some young children resent the pressure to comply with parents’ expectations and stop eating vegetables altogether. Parents may react by becoming greatly concerned about the child’s nutrition and fret about the short- and long-term effects on the child’s health and well-being. At times, some parents pressure children to eat “something” at meals, which may exacerbate the problem even more.
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