General Parenting Interventions and Behavior Tips
General Behavior- Tips, strategies, picking battles, rewards, consequences
Specific Behaviors- Whining, Cursing, Lying, etc
and more! (Use Search box or Scroll below)
Feelings by Age
What your child should be able to understand and express, by age
By Patience Domowski, LCSW
Age 0-1: Baby can express sadness by crying, anger by screaming, and happiness by smiling and laughing. Some babies can express surprise too with a facial expression, often following by happy smile or crying depending on how they feel about the surprise. Babies usually respond to their parents and other caregivers emotions and reactions such as being more fussy if they sense mom is upset, or laughing when big sister makes a funny face at them. [Known emotions: Happy, Sad, Angry, sometimes Surprise]
Age 2-4: These little ones are just learning how to talk to express their feelings. Parents can teach them to name their feelings such as saying “I’m Happy!” or “I’m Mad!” when they are acting like they feel that way with their behaviors or facial expressions. Often these kids have very strong opinions and feelings and may show big emotions like anger and disappointment in the form of tantrums and meltdowns and excitement or anger in screaming. Parents can try to have their child say how they feel. Parents can also model this by naming their own feelings so the child learns which emotion goes with which term. For example “Daddy is sad right now because you aren’t listening and putting on your shoes.” “Mommy is so happy to see you after a long day at preschool!”
Some strategies for calming child is to teach them to take deep breaths, give themselves a hug or ask for a hug, and taking a break (such as child going to a private area to calm down, or parents and older siblings leaving them alone in one area until they are calm). Teaching these skills when the child is not upset is helpful so they are ready to use the skill when needed. Parents can also model these strategies themselves by doing and naming them. For example “Mommy is angry right now because you made a big mess when I asked you not to. I’m going to take a break and calm down. I’ll be right back.” or “Daddy is really disappointed you didn't make a good choice and hit your brother. I’m going to take a deep breath.”
Also if the child resists using a strategy to calm down, parents can offer an incentive such as use of a toy or a treat for calming quickly. Often it’s best to ignore screaming and tantrum behaviors until the child calms (if they are too upset to reason with) and then praise them when they are calm and divert to something else. At the preschool age some children are more verbal and understanding than others so it will vary based on your child’s language ability to be able to talk out the feelings and handle them appropriately. [Known emotions: Happy, Sad, Anger, Surprise, Excited, Love, Scared, sometimes Disappointed, Frustrated]
Age 5-7: These early school agers should know the names of most common emotions by now and be able to do some calming strategies. Parents should continue to encourage them to name their feelings and model handling their feelings too. These children may also be recognizing how their actions affect others’ feelings too. Some kids are very sensitive to recognizing others feelings while others are more oblivious. Helping them be aware of how their behaviors and feelings impact others is important. For example if they are mad and hit their sister, it can make their sister feel sad. Or if they are jealous and take their friends toy, the friend may be angry. Expanding their understanding of emotions can grow beyond the basic feelings to more specifics like Happy vs Proud specifically, or Angry broken down into disappointment, frustration, or fear. There are many games and flashcards/posters to use to teach the various emotions. Having children learn what each feeling is called, what it looks like on someone’s face and body, as well as what can cause that feeling is really important for them to grow in emotional intelligence. [Known feelings: Happy, Sad, Scared, Mad, Nervous, Surprised, Excited, Proud, Loved, Disappointed, Frustrated. Maybe: Jealous, Anxious]
Ages 8-10: These kids should be pretty familiar with most emotions. They may continue to express their feelings in acting out ways, but should know some strategies for coping and calming down. If they still struggle they may need to see a specialist to help. They should be more aware of other people’s feelings and be able to offer comfort to others if needed. They should be able to name an experience that would cause a feeling. For example “If my brother messes up my lego creation, I would be mad” or “If my friend got a new toy and I didn't, I would be jealous”. [Known feelings: Happy, Sad, Mad, Scared, Surprised, Anxious, Excited, Proud, Disappointed, Frustrated, Jealous, Loved, Uneasy, Annoyed, Nervous]
Ages 11-13: Preteens are hitting that hormonal puberty stage where their feelings may be all over the place. They may be getting upset and angry for no clear reason and acting out more than usual. Helping them realize its their hormones that are out of whack, not that the world is against them may be helpful in helping them calm their reactions. They may need more space and understanding as they navigate this difficult time. Parents should be understanding but also not allow them to be disrespectful either. Often preteens need time and space to calm down and think through their feelings and when they are in a better mood often talking about it can help. [Known emotions: at this age they should know most if not all the emotions, but may struggle to differentiate specific breakdowns of feelings such as anxious versus scared].
Ages 14-18: Teens should be able to name and know all the emotions and may admit to struggling with certain ones specifically- like anxiety or anger. They should know some coping strategies to calm down and be able to manage their extreme feelings. If they are extremely up and down with mood it can be a sign of a problem and they may need expert help (ask your doctor or therapist). While it’s normal to feel all the emotions at some point the teen should likely not be all over the place severely such as excitement to furious in a few minutes, for example. As they mature they should be better handling their emotions and learning how to regulate their responses. [Known emotions: All of them. They may have slang terms for some feelings].
Overall it's important to teach children of any age the names of feelings as well as how to recognize them (by facial expression and body language) in themselves and in others. It’s also important for children to learn what causes what feelings. After they learn those basic skills then they can learn calming and coping strategies to feel better such as taking a deep breath when angry or anxious (it tells your brain and body to relax), taking a break (such as walk away, go to room to calm down ,etc). After the child is calm then they can work on a strategy to solve the problem! Even positive emotions like excitement can cause problem behaviors if the child gets too silly, or screams, gets super energetic, etc and may need to calm down. Learning when and where to act appropriately is helpful too. Such as its okay to be silly when playing, or loud when outside, but not during library time at school, for example. There are many books, games, flashcards, posters, etc available for teaching these skills. Look online for ideas. Also realize that if your child has any developmental delays or autism than often these skills will be very delayed and may not come naturally- they may have to be specifically and deliberately taught. For example most children can recognize when their parents are angry, or their friend is upset, but a child with a delay or autism may be completely clueless.
If your child is struggling beyond reasonable expectation seek out help from their pediatrician, school guidance counselor, or a child behavioral therapist.
Some online printable resources:
Free Download of Various Feelings Activities
There are plenty more! Just do a search on Google or Pinterest for free printable emotions activities.
I have some books on these topics as well. "Violet" discusses Anxiety, "Brianna" discusses Depression (deep long lasting sadness), "Julian" learns about Anger, and "Lily" learns about making friends/social skills (which is related to recognizing others' feelings). They are all for sale on Amazon.
Aggression- how to decrease behaviors
By Patience Domowski, LCSW
Aggression in children is really difficult. From yelling to hitting, its very disruptive and sometimes even dangerous. Especially as the child gets older it becomes more of a safety concern. A 3 yr old hitting a parent is not that big of a problem, but a 13 yr old could really hurt someone.
To solve this problem we need to figure out why it is happening. Here are some possible causes:
-Child cannot manage their emotions (needs coping strategies), gets easily angry, anxious, frustrated, etc
-Child cannot effectively communicate (hasn't developed full speech due to age or speech delay, or autism)
-Child has a mental health diagnosis (autism, bipolar, ODD, …)
-Child has observed and copied aggression from older siblings, parents, violent TV
-Child is very impulsive (can’t stop and control themselves)
-Child has discovered that this gets them what they want from others (example: if they hit then people leave them alone, if they yell then dad gives in, etc)
-Child gets attention from their behavior (even though it is negative, some children still want this attention).
For some children there may be a combination of reasons. Sometimes the reason is easy to discover but other times it may be more complicated. Collecting data (writing down the behaviors and what happened before and after) and doing an FBA (Functional Behavior Analysis) can be helpful. Ask your child’s teacher or behavioral therapist about how to do one if it is difficult to figure out the ‘why’ for the behaviors.
To correct the behavior we want to teach the child a combination of better coping strategies and a more effective way to get what they want.
For example: if they get angry easily when their sibling takes their toy we want to teach them to calm down, and also the skill of asking for the toy nicely, or asking a parent for help. If the child wants attention then teaching the child a more appropriate way such as saying “Mom, play with me!” instead of hitting would be helpful. Also the parent should ignore the inappropriate behavior until the child does the expected response.
If the child is copying others aggressive behavior- whether in person or on TV shows/games/ etc it is important to limit this exposure. If the parents are showing aggression such as yelling and hitting children, then it's likely the child will copy this as well. If the parents can try to be more patient and handle their frustrations in a more appropriate coping way, this can greatly help the child. Parents may want to seek therapy on their own, or try anger management groups, or even medication to help, if they are really struggling with depression for example. If older siblings are exhibiting aggression it is helpful to try to get them some more help and teaching the younger child to not copy those behaviors. If the child is watching violent TV shows, movies, video games, eliminate or at least reduce the frequency the child is exposed to that. If the child resists, explain that if they reduce their aggression they can slowly return to those games/shows etc. Pay attention to the ratings on games and shows however and the child’s age.
For cursing- if it’s in conjunction with anger and aggression, use same strategies already listed to teaching better coping behaviors, but besides that mostly ignore it, or teach a silly replacement word “peanut butter jelly sticks!” The more attention you give the curse word, the more powerful they become. You can tell them not to say that word and maybe even why, and if necessary punish for it, but if you make a huge deal about it (such as yelling and lecturing) it will likely make it worse. Also make sure parents and older siblings are refraining from using those words completely. Even if parents tell child not to say a word, if they are saying it themselves, the child will still learn it and repeat it. With any behavior, parents need to model good behavior and not to do anything they would not want their child to do (for the most part). Sometimes an old fashioned ‘swear jar’ is helpful. The person that says the bad word is ‘fined’ and has to pay real money into the jar.When the jar is full some families will use it for a fun activity, sometimes the money would go to the non-swearing person, or maybe the family would donate it to a charity.
Make sure the child’s aggressive behavior is not getting them what they want. If they are hitting their sibling to get them to leave them alone, and its effective, that is going to maintain the behavior. Try to teach the sibling to respond better and quicker and teach the aggressive child to request space in a better way. If the aggressive behavior is getting them the attention or item they want from parents, parents need to try hard to not give in. Even though it makes the screaming stop now, it will just make the behavior worse the next time if you give in.
If the child has not developed appropriate speech, due to age or delays, it maybe be helpful to teach a simple hand gesture/sign language to use to communicate. Maybe a clap means ‘Can I have it?’ or a hand tap means ‘I need help’. Ask your child’s speech therapist for some ideas to figure out what will work best for your child’s speech needs.
For kids who don’t have good coping strategies have them write up a list (or draw) several things they can do when they are angry and then hang the list in a well-trafficked area in the home (living room or kitchen is usually good). The list should be visible because when someone is angry they are not going to go searching for a paper in a drawer to figure out what to do. The strategies can include deep breathing, walking away/ignoring, asking parents for help, doing something fun to distract yourself, and remembering to ask nicely for things. There are many coping strategy lists that can be found online. The key is to find which ones work best for your child and to have your child identify these as well. The more the child is involved in identifying the strategies the more likely the child will use them. Also have the child act out the appropriate coping strategy when they are in a good mood, as a role play, or after they made a poor choice to reenact making a better choice.
Try giving a reward to the child for using a strategy. For example if the child takes a deep breath instead of hitting mom, or stops screaming by deciding to go chill out in their room, give them a piece of candy, access to a special toy, or extra ipad time for making a good choice. Praise your child for calming down, whether it took 10 seconds or 1 hour, immediately praise them when they are calm so they associate positive attention with calming down.
Try behavioral charts. Children are often not motivated to make a better choice internally - it’s easier for them, or not big deal for them to yell and hit versus breathe and ask nicely. But if you sweeten the deal by offering candy, toys, extra time, other privileges then they are more likely to make the better choice. Some kids will need the reinforcement reward immediately and some can wait until the end of the day or week. Think about your child’s needs and personality to figure out the immediacy of rewards. If you aren't sure how to do this seek out a behavioral therapist who is experienced in this and can help you. Once your child learns the strategies to handle their feelings more appropriately they are likely to reduce aggression and you can fade out the behavior chart, or use the rewards to target another behavior.
Sometimes if the child is so out of control and aggressive they have to be restrained. Parents can learn appropriate ways to restrain their children (ask the school, doctor, or a therapist). If the child is in danger to themselves or others it is okay to restrain them until they are calm and in control again. The police and mental health crisis workers can also be helpful in these situations. If aggression is a regular occurrence, behavioral interventions are not effective, and the behaviors are fairly severe, medication may be necessary. Talk to your child’s doctor or seek a child psychiatrist for help.
Swear Jar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swear_jar
Child Restraining: https://www.k-state.edu/wwparent/courses/rd/toolbox/rdtool-37.html
Causes of Aggression:
Handling aggressive behavior:
Taming Aggression and Coping for parents:
Anger Strategies (Other helpful blog articles)
If you have a 'typical' child that is struggling to handle having a sibling with behavioral issues/disability/special needs, I made a worksheet to help them process their feelings and thoughts about this. If it seems to be a major concern for the child, they may need some therapy to handle their siblings issues. Its hard to notice the other children as needing therapy versus the one with the special needs, who is likely already getting alot of attention and services, but sometimes siblings feel forgotten or resentful and may need some extra support.
Sensory vs Behavior
By Patience Domowski, LCSW
How do I know if my child’s behavior is sensory-related or a behavioral problem? Parents wonder this all the time. The simple answer is that it's often hard to tell and sometimes the reasons overlap. Often the issues can be both.
Sensory issues are sensitivities related to the senses- see, hear, feel, taste, smell. People can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to senses. Children can be sensory- seeking: they do certain things to get certain sensory stimulation, such as excessively rubbing a soft blanket, or sensory-avoidant: they do things to avoid sensations they cannot handle, such as covering their ears for loud sounds. Some behaviors that are sensory related can also be behaviors for other reasons, which makes this so difficult to figure out. Some children are both sensory seeking and sensory avoidant for different senses.
Some behaviors you might see in a sensory-seeking child: running around and crashing into furniture/items, desires tight hugs and squeezes often, chews/sucks on toys/fingers/etc, bites/scratches/squeezes people or furniture, likes to feel various items and objects, fabrics, textures. These behaviors are not to get something they want from another person, like a toy, or attention, but for sensory input into their body.
Some behaviors you might see in a sensory-avoidant child include: won’t touch or eat certain textures- wet or soft items often like pudding or yogurt, screams and covers ears/eyes in certain bright lights or loud noises (may seem normal lighting or sound to a non-sensory person however, but to a sensory kid it’s overwhelming), avoids certain fabrics/clothing.
If a child is screaming or running around, those are not obviously sensory related behaviors, so how do you know the difference? The way to figure it out is to try to figure out the function, or the WHY, of the behavior. Is the child running around because they are trying to get your attention? (Behavioral) Do they seem to be very hyper and struggle to sit still? (Could be Sensory) Is the child screaming to get what they want, get attention, or because other people are doing it? (Behavior) Or are they upset with no clear reason why? (Could be sensory) Would the child do the behavior if no one was in the room with them? One of the simpler ways to figure out if a behavior is for sensory purposes is if the behavior would occur without any other interaction from another person. If the child was alone in a room and would still do that behavior, it is likely sensory- because they are not trying to avoid something they don’t want to do, get attention, or get something from someone else (the other functions of behavior). [For more info on functions of behavior see my other article on this topic].
Many children do sensory-seeking behaviors that are not a major problem as most children like to run in circles, dance around, touch soft items, etc. because it feels good to them. It's only a sensory problem when the behaviors are disrupting the family or school setting, or causing distress or interference in the child’s life. To have your child diagnosed with a sensory disorder please seek an evaluation from an occupational Therapist (OT). OTs are available through Early Intervention (if your child is under age 5), the school system, or private agencies.
If the behavior is for any other reason than sensory-stimulation it's a behavioral issue, not a sensory issue. If a child is throwing a tantrum because they didn't get candy, that’s behavior. If they are melting down because the lights are too bright- that’s sensory. Sometimes it's hard to know why so trying to figure out when the behaviors occur, what set it off, and the environment is very helpful. If your child is verbal, ask them what the problem is if they can verbalize it. Sometimes taking data is helpful to see patterns and figure out what settings the behavior seems to occur in most often.
So what do we do about it? We want to treat the behavior differently based on the function (or WHY) of the behavior. If a child is screaming for attention purposes, we would likely want to ignore them and teach them a better way to get attention. But if the child is screaming to avoid a loud sound, we would want to help them protect their ears- such as providing headphones in noisy environments. If the child doesn't want to wear underwear to be difficult or in control that is much different than a child who is complaining the underwear is itchy. So once we figure out WHY the behavior is occurring, then we come up with a solution.
OTs help kids de-sensitize and meet their sensory needs in more appropriate ways. So a kid who cannot tolerate certain clothing would probably be brushed until they could tolerate it. They would have the child do sensory activities like jumping on a trampoline or crashing into cushions to meet those needs instead of grabbing people or running into walls. Behaviorally the child can be given rewards for making good choices- like using a sensory toy or strategy, such as biting a chew toy instead of mom’s arm. We want the child to meet their needs in an appropriate way or get them to a point that they don't need that problematic behavior anymore.
Often the behaviors are both sensory and behavioral and they can feed each other, so sometimes a combined approach to treatment is helpful. Many children with ADHD, autism, and anxiety also have sensory issues. However a child can have sensory issues without a mental health diagnosis as well. Try to have your child evaluated by both a behavioral/mental health therapist and an OT to figure out the right diagnosis as that will be very helpful in coming up with a treatment plan.
Because sensory and behavior needs vary so much per child, and figuring out the function can be difficult sometimes, it is important to meet with an experienced professional to help figure out a plan specifically for your child. OTs and Behavioral Specialists/Therapists are the best professionals for this. Some Physical Therapists (PTs) can be helpful as well. Not all child therapists are familiar with sensory issues however, so find someone who knows something about sensory concerns and behavior.
- More information on Sensory Processing Disorder, including symptoms and treatment see: https://www.sensorysmarts.com/signs_of_spd.html https://www.sensorysmarts.com/sensory_diet_activities.html
If you have a child on the autism spectrum you are probably realizing that parenting this child is extremely different that parenting neurotypical children.
[If you aren't sure if your child is on the autism spectrum have them evaluated by any of the following: their pediatrician, a developmental doctor, a licensed therapist, psychiatrist, Early Intervention evaluation team, child psychologist- either independent or at the child's school.
Signs of autism include at least some of the following symptoms -extreme difficulty with social interaction (including poor eye contact, difficulty understanding other person's tone or intent/meaning, struggles to make friends/initiate conversations, "tuned out", doesn't seek out others for interaction, doesn't understand emotions/how others feel), difficulty with communication (either not talking by age 2, barely talking, difficult to understand, difficulty with conversation skills/pragmatics/turn taking), repetitive behaviors/sensory problems (head banging, flapping, spinning in circles etc), restricted interests (will only play with dinosaurs, lines up cars, etc), other difficult behaviors (defiance, lack of focus, extreme inflexibility, difficulty transitioning between activities, needs a lot of help with basic life skills activities).]
Children on the Spectrum need visual directions often, and help learning every behavior that most other kids will naturally pick up on without having to be specifically taught. I recommend find a good therapist and get them in a school/classroom that will meet their needs. Because autism is such a spectrum: from the severe nonverbal kids that might also have intellectual disability to the high functioning brilliant Asperger’s kids that your child’s treatment needs to be individualized and work best for their needs.
There is not really a one size fits all treatment for every kid on the spectrum but some basic tips include:
- use visual cues and directions
(social stories, picture schedules, show pictures or gesture/sign language of what you are asking them to do, write down reminders, instead of telling them what to do use picture cards or list the directions)
-don’t give long explanations just short, concise directions
With typical children explaining WHY is really helpful. With kids n the spectrum they often don’t care or don’t understand. Its usually just extra words they are confusing. SO just state what you want them to do in as a short a way as a possible. Example: “Put toys in box”- for autism child. For typical child you might say- “Please clean this room, because we are having guests visit tomorrow and I don’t want them to trip”.
-Teach and encourage your child to interact with peers.
Instead of expecting them to invite friends over to visit, you might need to take the initiative and invite the peers over and even teach/tell your child what they will play with. They might need some adult directives to play together instead of alone.
-teach them how to recognize and manage their own feelings as well as recognize and react to others feelings
Point out how you feel and how they feel so they start to recognize it.
Examples: “Mom is happy because you just gave me a hug! You can tell I’m happy because I’m smiling!” or “Dad is sad because you just kicked your brother. You can tell I’m sad because I’m frowning and shaking my head”.
“You seem so excited about going on vacation! I know you are happy because you are jumping up and down and smiling!” “You seem angry because your brother took your toy. I think you are angry because you have a mad face and are stomping your feet.”
-if they have sensory needs get them the sensory tools they need to help and a good O.T./therapy to help. [See sensory article]
Emotionality and handling Meltdowns
When your child is very emotional/gets upset easily/meltdowns
Do’s and Don’ts for parents~ by Patience Domowski, LCSW
· allow your child to express their feelings (as long as they are safe)
· provide a safe spot for your child to go to calm down
· give your child space (if they are really angry don’t keep talking to them, let them calm down first or they will just get more upset)
· use a “code word” (silly secret word) for your child to say if they need space and need to be left alone when upset and respect that word by not continuing to engage with them at that time (Alternatively parents can use the word when they need child to give them space too to calm down)
· come up with a list of coping strategies/chill skills for child to use when child is in a good mood and post it where they can see it
· try to remind child of coping strategies BEFORE they become extremely angry (include an incentive like extra time with something or a treat if they use a chill skill to calm down)
· try to help our child recognize the middle part between annoyed and furious so they can work on calming at that time instead of when they are super angry
· wait until child is calm before problem solving
Remember: FIRST Calm, THEN problem solve!
· tell your child not to feel angry/anxious/sad/ etc (they can feel what they feel)
· punish your child for feeling [discipline for “behavior” not “feelings”]
· keep yelling/pushing your child to do what you asked/discuss the problem/etc when they are getting upset
· allow child to be disrespectful or aggressive even if they are upset. [If they do so have them apologize afterwards ]
· threaten things you don’t mean or won’t follow through with such as a punishment
· give in to child’s wants when they aren’t making a good choice, or after saying no already (even if it means a meltdown is coming)