How to Handle Challenging Behaviors
This post goes out to frustrated parents. (So, likely all of us at some point.)
Challenging behavior is an unfortunate part of growing up and parenting. We know that it’s normal, we know our children need to experience it to grow and learn, but that does not make it any easier at the moment. If you are anything like us, you might pause from time to time and ask yourself, “What would Montessori do?”
There are no perfect answers, and Dr. Montessori would have recognized that what works for one child will not necessarily work for the next. We can, however, rely on our knowledge of human development and typical child behavior to help guide us. We hope this post will provide you with some helpful tips!
As Montessorians, we tend to follow a hierarchy when we address issues with children. We look at:
- The environment
- The child
Environment affects us all, and as adults, we can carefully craft an environment that suits the needs of our children. This is why Montessori guides meticulously create classrooms with a specific order and flow to them, and why they are constantly observing and analyzing what should remain the same and what should change.
We feel confident in saying that most of the time, a change in the environment can change the behavior. Some examples:
- Does your toddler enjoy dumping the contents of whatever they can find? While this is a very normal stage for them to go through, it can cause a lot of extra work for us as adults. Limit their options! Keep dumpable baskets and boxes up higher where your child cannot reach them and rotate them on a regular basis to keep their interest going.
- Have you noticed your three-year-old spilling their snack and frequently leaving crumbs behind? Leave a small dustpan and brush in a space where the child can access it. You will likely need to show them how to use it many times, but they will get it! When they do, the joy they will feel from sweeping will be adorable.
- Are mornings with your seven-year-old rushed and chaotic? Make a list and post it where they will see it (perhaps the bathroom mirror). What do you expect the child to do independently in the morning? The list may contain items like brush teeth, get dressed, brush hair, eat breakfast, and so on. Make sure everything they need to get ready is in one centralized space. Have the child prepare as much as they can the night before to ease the pressure when they are tired. They can pack their own lunch and layout their own clothes.
- Is your teenager having a hard time focusing on their homework? Create a distraction-free zone. Have a clutter-free desk in a quiet area of the house. Make sure devices like cell phones are left to charge in a completely different area of the house.
This is perhaps the hardest part for many of us, but sometimes children’s undesirable behavior is tangled up in our own actions and/or perceptions. Some questions you may want to ask yourself and reflect on when you feel frustrated to include:
- Is this behavior truly a problem?
- Are my expectations appropriate for the child’s age and developmental stage?
- How might my reactions be contributing to the behavior?
- Am I well rested/fed/de-stressed/fully able to work with my child without letting my own problems be a factor?
- Are my reactions based on my own experiences as a child?
We realize that these can be some pretty deep questions. Our jobs as parents are hard enough and there is no need to be judgmental, especially of ourselves, but reflection can be helpful. We also know that it’s not always possible to deal with a child’s behavior while being completely stress-free, well-rested, etc., but it can be helpful to recognize when we might be playing a role in what is going on.
Sometimes there really is something going on within the child that needs to be addressed, and it can be a simpler explanation than we might expect! Some possibilities to consider:
- Is the child getting enough sleep?
- Is the child hungry?
- Is the child getting sick (coming down with a cold or the like)?
- Is the child entering a growth spurt or a new developmental phase?
- Has there been a recent change in the child’s routine?
- Are there changes occurring in the family?
Sometimes a child might be upset about one area of their lives and behaviors manifest in a completely different way. For example, an eight-year-old may be facing friendship challenges at school. Instead of talking about the problem, they may unintentionally take their frustration out on the parents. This is a common occurrence when a child has not fully understood why they are upset, are unable to articulate the issue, and yet feel safe to be themselves fully at home. Of course we must set expectations that our children are to be kind, but having this insight may help get to the root of many issues.
Regularly talking to our children, especially as they get older, can be very helpful in helping them navigate through the common (yet sometimes painful) experiences of growing up. Many families find that bedtime tends to be when their children speak freely about what’s bothering them. Even as your child gets older, set aside time in the evening to be together. This can be time together reading, cuddling, or talking about the day.
Two last bits of advice that are perhaps the most important: do not expect perfection and find yourself a supportive group of parents to talk to.
We know our children will not always be perfect, and neither will we. Children will push boundaries and make mistakes – lots of them – and as parents, we won’t always know the best way to handle things. We will learn together.
Having a group of parents that you can vent to and celebrate with is so helpful. Whether you meet up for coffee, chat on the phone, trade tips on Facebook, or sit on the sidelines together at soccer games, remember to reach out to others. We are all in this together.