I once had a supervisor tell me that she couldn’t imagine how I provided mental health services to very young children. She said, “I just imagine you sitting in a chair, in a room with a baby laying on a couch.” This is a funny image, but the truth is that many people wonder why we should think about young children’s mental health. They don’t struggle like adults and teenagers do, do they? They don’t feel depression or anxiety like the rest of the world, do they? Honestly, young children do not sit on couches and tell us their biggest feelings, fears, or worries. They do not use words. They use behaviors. When we put it this way, does it seem like young children might struggle with emotions and mental health?
One simplified way to view children’s behavior is through the lens of motivation. They are either trying to get something or get away from something. When my 4 -year-old daughter looked right at me and said she couldn’t find her Elsa doll, while holding it behind her back, she was trying to stall her bed time. She wanted more play time and I understood this strategy as an attempt to gain something she didn’t have.
If you take the time to pause and ask, “What is this child’s behavior telling me?” you might be able to avoid taking the behavior personally or becoming angry. My daughter wasn’t trying to “lie to me.” She wasn’t acting up to irritate me or start a power struggle. She was using her resources to try and avoid bed and play more.
It can be more difficult when we consider what a child might be trying to get away from. This might take the eye of a trained mental health professional or other early childhood professionals such as an occupational therapist/speech therapist/physical therapist, as it could be some internal distress from a traumatic situation, a difficult relationship, sensory experiences, or frustration with things not working correctly. Children might fight transitions because it is difficult to end one activity and begin another. They might also fight activities that require skills the child hasn’t mastered yet (i.e. using the toilet, speaking, walking, playing). One good resource for children who consistently have behavioral challenges and appear to be struggling with a developmental skill is Early Intervention. To learn more about this resource in Colorado click here.
Once you understand the motivation you can use these simple strategies to manage the behavior.
Get down to eye level with your child. Allow them to see the concern and compassion on your face. Use a soft and calm tone of voice. Eye contact and a calm voice help regulate your child’s emotions, allowing them to calm down and accept what’s being asked of them. The key is to be sure you are calm and regulated. A dysregulated adult will create a dysregulated child.
Let’s say someone cuts you off in traffic. You tell your friend the story and she agrees this would have upset her too. It feels pretty good right? Children feel this way too. A 2-year-old who hits another boy who grabbed his toy is feeling angry. Simply stating, “It made you mad when he grabbed your toy,” can often calm the child down enough to problem solve the situation. You might also share that you see their frustration when they are trying so hard to master a new skill – it’s hard!
Even young kids can understand complex feelings. Begin by teaching them what these feelings look like. Use your own face, pictures in books, or even opportunities when you both notice other kid’s feelings. Describe what you see. “His face is scrunched up like this and his hands are in fists like this. I wonder if he is feeling…” Make sure you show them with your own face and hands and give the feeling a name. You can also use times when you are feeling something, “Right now mommy is feeling so worried about your tummy being upset.” The more children understand their feelings the more likely they are to use feeling words instead of behaviors. We, as adults, have the wonderful opportunity to help them learn and understand what is happening to them and how to express themselves. We also do this by modeling how we manage our own emotions – they will learn more from what they see than what they hear.
These three strategies are a great starting point for managing most young children’s behaviors. They will take practice and probably even some support from friends and family. If you find that providing these supports to your child consistently does not produce any changes in their behavior, you might want to seek out some of the additional professional support mentioned earlier.
If you’d like more information, the ZERO TO THREE website offers a multitude of additional resources for connecting with your young child.
Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E – UpliftME Attachment-Based Therapy