Decoding a child’s bad behavior

Typical Child Behavior…or More?
By Chantelle K. Dockter
MA, Licensed Professional Counselor

Question: We have recently changed nannies for our 3 young children, and our 4-year-old has had a tough time. She had been taken care of by the first nanny for 3 ½ years of her life and is resisting the change. We have known this new nanny for years, and she has solid references and plenty of nanny experience. We are confident that she is safe, kind, and firm. Our other two children have rolled well with the changes, and only have good things to say about this nanny. We are perplexed by our 4-year-old’s behavior, which include major tantrums, tearfulness, and opposition. What could this be?

Answer: Sounds like the transition has been a difficult one for your little one. First and foremost, it is always wise to do your due diligence when it comes to childcare.

Rule-out any disturbing concerns regarding the nanny by checking in casually with your children about how things are going, popping in unannounced, and asking family members or close friends to do the same. Some families have found nanny-cams helpful to ease their minds. Checking references thoroughly before hiring a nanny is a must. This has saved my own family from hiring someone who presented well but had some major concerning behavior unbeknownst to us until we checked the references. Bottom line, you can never be too diligent or mindful when it comes to who is taking care of your most precious commodities.

If all this checks out, then chances are your child may be experiencing Adjustment Disorder. Adjustment Disorder is a disorder that results from unhealthy responses to stressful or psychologically distressing life events. This low level of adaptation then leads to the development of emotional or behavioral symptoms. Adjustment disorders can affect children as well as adults, although the presenting symptoms may differ.

Children with Adjustment Disorder usually have significant difficulty in adjusting to a particular stressor. Oftentimes this stressor represents a transition to the child or family. Examples include changes in childcare, school, family structure (divorce, birth of sibling), or moving. As in this particular situation, the child may be the only one out of several that is struggling, although the transition has affected all of them equally. It is not the event itself but the perception and interpretation of the event that leads to the reaction. Beliefs, perceptions, fears, and expectations can all influence the development of an Adjustment Disorder. Adjustment Disorder can present with depressed mood, anxiety, or both.

Some symptoms of Adjustment Disorder in children include:

• Sad or withdrawn for an extended period of time
• Development of intense separation anxiety (not present prior to the stressor or transition)
• Aggressiveness/picking fights with others
• Upset easily
• More intense tantrums, with crying, kicking, or screaming
• Regression, such as with toileting

Children ultimately have little and sometimes no control over many aspects of
their daily lives. These include decisions such as childcare, how mom and dad interact, and where they live. The child’s perspective is often much different than that of an adult. If something seems amiss, attempt to look at the situation from your child’s perspective. This may offer some valuable clues.

Extra grace and patience is needed during times of transition. Give lots of positive feedback and affirmation to the child, and consistently demonstrate love with boundaries. Give the child opportunities to “be in control” with the minor things, as this helps them to feel less out of control in their world. For example, let them choose their clothes for the day, or decide whether they want to brush their teeth first or their hair. Maybe let them choose what is for dinner on a certain night of the week. Praise desirable behavior, and develop a token system where they can earn tokens when they are demonstrating making appropriate choices. Routines and consistency can help stabilize the child, as they know what to expect and can draw comfort from that. Bedtime routines can be especially soothing, with calming baths, a snack, comfy jammies and one-on-one time with mom or dad to read books.

Another tried and true idea is creating a “nest” for your child to go to when they are feeling upset, or like they are going to lash out. This can be in a guest room or bedroom where they can go to regroup without being in trouble. Make the nest out of a bean bag, big pillows, soft blankies, and loveys. You can also put a little basket of items such as silly-putty, feathers, and squeezy balls that the child can use as a tactile way to calm down. Put a picture of mom and dad by the nest so they can see you when you are away, and know you will come back.

Children have yet to establish a wide range of coping skills, and need our assistance in developing tools in their tool bags to use when they are troubled. Encourage your child to talk about what they are feeling, or to draw their feelings on paper. Take the time to try to really hear them, to discover the root rather than solely focusing on the behavior. That behavior is trying to tell us something.

Chantelle K. Dockter, MA LPC
Associate of

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