Guiding Behaviours: Supporting Social and Emotional Resiliency in Toddlers

10 min
Mar 11, 2020

Children live in small worlds that are constantly being explored and expanded.  They are surrounded by their families, their tight-knit group of friends, neighbourhood acquaintances, as well as their childcare or daycare communities.  Although their world is small and their experiences appear minuscule, a child’s emotions and behaviours can seem HUGE in comparison. Anyone with a two-and-a-half-year-old can certainly relate! 

What do we do to help a child cope with, and get through those big moments? (Think screaming, throwing punches or themselves on the floor, tossing their toys across the room, demanding attention or material items, refusing to co-operate or communicate). And how do we, as adults, maintain composure and keep our mental health in check as our child drops to the floor in the middle of the grocery store screaming and crying because they just noticed they were wearing blue socks, NOT the purple ones they wanted to wear?!  (Has your anxiety kicked in yet?)

Before we begin, there are a lot of factors to consider when supporting a child who is struggling to regulate their emotions and behaviours.  Some may include their age, developmental level, temperament, their coping mechanisms, communication styles, and the connection the child has with the person who is helping them.  These factors greatly influence the impact you can make on their emotional state and their behavioural reactions. These are also all factors in the child’s ability to learn and grow from the experience.

One thing to be mindful of is the age of the child in reference to the behaviour.  For example, biting is an age-appropriate behaviour for an infant.  Children are in the oral fixation stage of development and biting is a sensory-motor stimulant. Infants use biting as a tool to explore the world around them. It should not be seen as a negative behaviour.  For toddlers, it’s not necessarily about acting out.  They are testing cause and effect reactions or are lacking the means to communicate effectively. Preschool children should faze out of the oral stages, although some children have not yet been taught strategies to self-regulate and communicate in more constructive ways.

When a behaviour or emotion explodes, the first step is to recognize a child is going through distress. Control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are compromised.  (Think about how many times as adults we could have handled situations with just a little more class. And we have tools and the know-how to control our reactive behaviours!)  For a child, they are experiencing something that is too big for them to manage.   When a child releases emotion and displays behaviours that are unusual, disruptive or destructive, that child is communicating the only way they could in that moment, (Fight, Flight, or Freeze.)  Our job as the adults in their life, is to equip them with the tools to calm and cope, before their emotions or energy become a behaviour. 

We start by creating an environment that is safe to express themselves and expel the energy a child needs too.  It’s not only enough for a child to be able to articulate their emotions, but also to label them and understand how that makes them feel, emotionally and physically.  A child once explained that when he felt “so angry” his face felt “scrunched tight,” his “body was hot,” and he felt like he wanted to “burst like a balloon.” When asked what he wanted to do when he felt angry, he responded, “I want to punch….” He was supported by adults through teaching him what emotions look and feel like, empathizing, and offer an outlet to expel that undesirable energy.  “I can see you feel angry and I think I might feel the same way if that happened to me.  What if we go…. punch the playdough instead?”  After he got a few good punches in, his mood became more lighthearted, and the child was able to discuss different ways to handle the situation next time. He also committed to trying to remember to use that strategy if it happened again. He was praised for sharing his thoughts and trying harder next time.  When children feel heard, are supported, and feel safe, they are more receptive to learning.  When you give them a natural outlet to get out their energy, (calming strategies, big vigorous movement, creative expression, a place to scream, a journal or relatable storybooks), and acknowledge their efforts, children will learn new and constructive strategies to manage their behavioural needs.

Next, we need to find opportunities for natural, teachable moments when it comes to social and emotional learning.  Teaching children about kindness and compassion, consciousness and courage, integrity and respect, sets the foundation for social understanding and acceptance. We must create situations that require social interactions and emotional responses.  Role model and role-play scenarios that reflect prosocial learning. (Remember every day your child is watching you for guidance.)  Children are inquisitive.  Provoke thinking and reasoning by asking, “What would you do if…, How would that make you feel and why? What can you do instead?”  Be engaged, be playful, have some fun and be silly.  Children learn best when everyone is genuinely engaged, and the situation is lighthearted.

Children handle situations with more ease if expectations are clear and when they are aware of and can anticipate what is happening next.  Communication is key.  Not only does it strengthen the relationship in terms of trust and respect, it allows children time to process what is going to happen, ask questions, and mentally prepare or reflect on what is to come. The unknown can be scary.  As adults, we can give warnings ahead of time. Whether it’s coming to the table for dinner, or going on a weekend road trip, children need time to process and prepare.

Children also need to be viewed as competent and capable.  They need to be given opportunities to try, fail, be encouraged, and try again. This builds a sense of worth, perseverance and appreciation.  Praise the positive behaviours and acknowledging when children succeed. Even in mundane moments, this models to the child, “Hey, someone’s noticing how well I am doing (or how hard I’m trying!”) Undesirable behaviours that received attention before may minimize because the child is being noticed more often for their good behaviour.  When explained, natural consequences for their actions also help support meaningful learning.   If a child won’t put their coat on, they will get cold.  Throwing a toy – It breaks, or it’s put away.  Spilled milk – child wipes it up. If they run off – hold their hand.   When children understand or have experienced a natural consequence, connections are being made, and wiring in the brain is building critical logical thinking and reasoning skills.  Following through may be difficult.  Remember natural and logical consequences are teachable moments for your child to make better choices in the future. 

Lastly, look for the root of the problem.  Some behaviours are easy to identify; their sibling took their toy, they can’t have ice cream right before dinner, YOU didn’t put the right colour socks on their feet!  But some are not so easy to spot.  We need to look inward at this child, their relationship with others, and their environment. Knowing who your child really is will also help you identify where issues may stem from, (temperament, personality, ability to regulate, adaptability, sensitivity, regularity.) Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial.  If you make yourself available to be an active listener, an impartial party, and an empathetic and supportive voice of reason, you make yourself available, caring and trustworthy.  You will be seen as safe, the security every child needs. The root of the problem can also lie in the environment.  Too many or too little stimulus can affect moods and behaviours.  Bright lights, loud sounds, crowded spaces can all result in feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed, causing unnecessary rash behaviours.

Even when a child has learned various coping mechanisms, they may still struggle, (remember adults do too!) And let’s not forget children are in fact, new human beings.  They have only been here a short period of time.  We have to expect they don’t always (or ever!) know how to cope with this growing world that’s sometimes, just not fair or easy. Just because their ‘troubles’ are much smaller than an adult’s, we can’t dismiss the fact that a child has valid emotions and needs to expel those feelings positively. (An ice cream sandwich dropped in the sand is a valid reason to scream and cry for a child.  That just may be their biggest woe in life!)

So, how do we help? We need to anticipate these situations and our toolboxes must be filled with strategies to regulate, relate and reason with the child.  Respond to the child’s behaviour right away.  Make sure you give children a safe space and safe way to expel their energy.  Stay close and reassure them you are there to help them get through their dilemma.  (They may want some time alone.) Remind them of the tools they do have and encourage them to implement calming strategies. Offer them physical contact. Empathize and acknowledge their feelings.  Give them an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings and give them the language they need if they don’t have the words, (sign language for infants and toddlers).  Offer reassurance and let them know they are not alone. If behaviours or feelings continue to escalate, continue to repeat these steps, and try to remain calm and cool, (you may need one or two of those calming strategies yourself!)  If necessary, offer alternative possibilities, opportunities or give choices.  Remind them of the rules and expected behaviour.

I’ll leave you with this last thought.  Don’t be so focused on your child’s ABC’s and 123’s in the early years.  Through engaged and creative learning (play), these concepts will be explored in developmentally appropriate and challenging ways.  Just remember, children cannot succeed in the academic childcare, daycare or adult world if they have not been taught, and given opportunities to communicate effectively, build social relations, and express, regulate and recognize emotions in themselves and others. How are they going to ask for help in daycare, preschool or even grade school if they don’t have the confidence to speak up and the skills to ask for support? Building social and emotional competence builds self-worth, esteem and an open gateway for continual growth and academic success in daycare and preschool.  And even better, they may grow up to make this world a little more kind and compassionate!

Quick Tips to Guide Behaviours

Behaviour Response or Consequence
Hitting Express how it feels to be hit. Ask them to stop. Provide a pillow or something soft they can hit. “Ouch! That hurts me! I like gentle touches like hugs.”
Throwing Toys Throwing balls in a basket/target (soft toys or paper balls for indoors)
Destructively playing with others Sit and play with the child. Be there to help support logical thinking and behaviour regulation. “If you kick over Charlie’s castle, he will get sad again.  Do you like it when someone knocks your structures down?  (Or do you like when other people make you feel sad.)  How about you build your own and knock it down.
Hair pulling Provide playdough, squishy balls or anything a child can grab and squeeze.
Spitting Remind them they spit when brushing their teeth.  If they need to spit, bring them to the sink.
Biting Provide teething toy, partially frozen cloth, something a child can mouth. React. “Ouch, biting hurts.”
Screaming in Public Remove the child from the area.  Let them calm.  If you need to return to the scene, explain that you need to go back, what you need and that screaming is not acceptable there. Try again. 
Demanding Attention Make it clear that they got your attention and you are busy, “I hear you.  Can you see that Mrs. Smith is talking to me? You need to wait until she finishes.” If you don’t want to disrupt, place your hand on their shoulder to acknowledge their presence.  Explain that sometimes they need to wait their turn.  Remind them that unless it is an emergency, they need to ask for your attention, and try to practice patience.  Follow through and redirect your attention to your child when you can.
Lying Let them know you wish they chose to be brave and tell the truth.  Remind them that you are there to help them deal with what the issue is. 
Being Rude/Talking Back Tell them that you do not like when they talk to you the way that they are (tone, volume, words, etc.)  Offer some time to cool down. Revisit the issue when everyone can come together. Offer them a journal, to write you a note or poem, draw.
Screaming for a cookie before dinner Explain to the child that eating a cookie before dinner will not happen.  “Screaming at each other is not okay. If you stop screaming for a cookie right now and try most of your dinner, you can have a cookie after dinner.  If you do not stop screaming, you will not get a cookie now or after dinner.”  (Follow through is extremely important.)
Child wants to wear 3 sweaters, a tutu, arm warmers and 4 headbands Unless you are going to an event that requires a dress code, choose your battles. Ask yourself, why can’t they wear this?  Too hot? Layers can be taken off. Looks too silly? To who, adults?  Allowing children some control over their lives gives children opportunities to learn about making choices, and if there are consequences, problem-solving through them. It also allows children to be expressive and creative.
When the Parent Has Come to their Wits End!! Look at the child.  Firmly tell them how their behaviour (label the behaviour) made you feel.  Tell them that you need to cool down and once you are ready, you will come and talk to them. It’s important for children to see that parents have feelings as well and they need time to manage their behaviours too! Come back when you feel you can calmly deal with the situation.

Tricks to Expel Energy and Release Emotions

Breathing Strategies
Counting (Objects)
Smell Calming Scents
Listen to Music/Sing/Dance
Read a Book/Write a Story
Getting into Nature
Martial Arts/Sports/Gymnastics
Bike Riding
Rock Climbing

Author: Sarah Bonell – Education Coach