It's not uncommon for households with young children to be in a state of mayhem. Children between the ages of one and three often cry, throw temper tantrums, or get unusually shy. There are lots of reasons. Deciphering the difference between normal behavior and a social-emotional problem requiring help from a professional can be challenging.
Picture kids on a playground. Kids who are developing normally run and play with each other. They laugh or get upset based on how the game goes. They recover from disappointment quickly and move on. If there are established rules, they mostly follow them.
Kids who are having a difficult time in their social-emotional development might be scared to leave their caregiver's side, sit apart from the other children, show little emotion, or throw a sustained tantrum when things don't go their way. Some get so upset that they cannot relax their bodies.
There are a few common reasons kids may behave in these ways. If the behavior is uncommon, think about their recent activity. Did they skip their nap or stay up unusually late last night. Simple tiredness could be a factor. When's the last time they ate? Sometimes low blood sugar can contribute to a behavioral issue. Finally, how are they feeling? Especially if they are sluggish or unwilling to join in, try taking their temperature. If they feel warm, they could be ill. If the outbursts, crying or withdrawal are common, a few parenting tweaks could be what the child needs to improve.
Daycare providers know that children thrive when they know what is coming next. Try creating a simple schedule for the time you spend with the child. Give each block of time a consistent name. "Teeth time," for instance, is the time that you help your child brush her teeth. "Story time," is time you spend reading together. Before long, your child will not only respond positively to your chime of "Breakfast time!" He will remind you when to move on to the next scheduled event by shouting out the appropriate name for it.
While creating the schedule, limit screen time. For whatever reason—whether it is the extreme emotion or violence on television or the lack of face-to-face communication—children who watch a lot of television or play a lot of video games do have a harder time relating to those in the real world. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time before the age of two, because early exposure has been shown to hinder language and cognitive development.
Instead of screen time, build in some one-on-one attention. Take a walk with your child and talk about what you see. You can easily practice colors while you walk. At home, read to your kids. Many books feature animal pictures that you can use to practice the names of animals and the sounds they make. Or you can practice the parts of the body. Prompt them to touch their head, then their nose, etc. Throw in some tickles for extra fun. This is learning, certainly, but most kids love the personalized attention it brings.
If your child finds it difficult to be separated from you or gets nervous in new situations, a blanket or small toy can help him cope. Use creativity and playfulness to let your child know that you and his new stuffed animal friend believe in him.
If the troubles with acting out or withdrawing continue or worsen or if you note delays in your child's development, it could be time to seek professional help. Visit the Center for Disease Control's "Learn the Signs-Act Early" website at www.cdc.gov/milestones to see if your child is on track. Based on what you learn, you might tell your child's doctor or pediatrician that you are interested in a child development screening for your child. This screening will connect you with professionals who can help you determine if your child has a more serious problem, like autism, or just help you guide your child toward more developmentally appropriate behaviors. Likely, a few tweaks to your child's day will provide measurable benefits and improve the time you and your child spend together.
— Jennie Moon is program coordinator for Children's Integrated Services, Early Intervention for Southern Vermont. She can be reached at 802-447-2768. CIS/Early Intervention offers a playgroup from 10:30 a.m. – noon Mondays at the Bennington Free Library.