Why our children cause ‘chaos’ and what we can do about it

Toddlers can get into anything

Most little ones have insatiable curiosity and an inbuilt drive to seek out stimulus. It is this ‘seeking system’ that will serve them well in later life, leading them to be independent, self-starting individuals able to problem solve, fend off boredom and deal with new experiences in positive ways. But this same system in their early years can be a continual challenge for us as parents. It requires us to be both endlessly patient and flexible, and forever vigilant to prevent creative play leading to calamity.

Young children get hijacked (as we all do from time to time) by their underdeveloped brain. When their little bodies become over-run with powerful hormones, the ability to control primal impulses (those to defend territory for example) becomes virtually impossible. Youngsters who have not yet learnt the capacity for conscious, rational and logical thought, need help to learn these skills and patience from us to allow their naive brains to grow and develop.

In addition to infant neurology young children will ‘act up’, cause chaos or, more accurately, what we may perceive as chaos, for any number of reasons:

  • Boredom/Frustration
  • Tiredness/Hyper-stimulation
  • Hunger/High blood sugar
  • Pain/Illness

There are countless ways we can help make their lives (and ours) less like a battlefield and more like a playground for joyful exploration.

cj water tea pot

Dealing with boredom & frustration:

Give them (lots of) positive attention. This is the easiest and quickest way to ensure desired behaviour but often the thing that so many of us resist. All of us need attention from significant others for optimum wellbeing. Our preference for whether we seek it in positive ways (through affection, loving contact or attentive listening) or more harmful ways, will be set in our early childhood and determined by the kind of attention we are given by our parental figures. The amount of positive energy, eye contact and attention a young child needs to really thrive is usually much, much higher than we expect or our society considers to be “acceptable”. When it is not given freely children will, as well we know, naturally seek out any form of attention they can get.

It’s not always easy to give as much attention as is required and sometimes it can seem like the more we give, the more they need. It requires us to slow down, to re-think the multi-tasking approach to life that has become so common and focus on that which is really important – our children. It requires us to be present in the moment, to turn the volume down on our inner monologue and tune in to their world for a change. Perhaps to relax some of our standards and go with the flow a little more.

Avoid keeping them cooped up indoors for long stretches. A child’s sense of time may be different from our own, an hour can seem like a very long stretch for an infant. If you need to be inside, aim for spaces with plenty of natural daylight and good ventilation, young ones are particularly sensitive to these things. Getting them out in the fresh air (come rain or shine) regularly from early on, will also set up helpful life-long habits.

Make a minature world for them. It must be frustrating and potentially frightening to be smaller than everyone all the time, to have things constantly out of reach and too big for little hands, to have to ask, or shout, for what we want all the time.

Creating a space that is child-size, where your little one can access their own things when they want to without having to ask, can greatly reduce frustration and increase feelings of confidence and self esteem. Perhaps allocate a cupboard/box/shelf in each room that is just for them. Install a small table and chairs as their own workspace. Consider investing in minature versions of things that you use regularly around the home so that they can join in the housework or gardening. Get down to their level often so that they know what it feels like to be on a level playing field with the significant others in their world.

Keep them busy. It sounds obvious but If you don’t provide an outlet for their energy and curiosity they will find one. Most young children have an abundance of energy and limited attention spans and it does take work to provide the right balance of stimulation. It’s important to find age appropriate activities that sufficiently occupy minds and bodies without creating too much frustration. If your toddler quickly gets bored with similarity, try rotating toys every week or so, switch rooms, and get them regularly out of the house.

Being a toddler is all about movement. If your child constantly wants to run, jump and climb – help them to do that, find an appropriate context so you don’t have to be constantly telling them ‘no’. Install a trampoline, take them to the playground or out into the woods.

Dealing with tiredness and hyper-stimulation:

Introduce quiet time. For young growing brains, everything is stimulation. What we might tune out as part of everyday life, to a little person is a sensory riot. Enough stimulation is vital but this can quickly tip over into hyper-stimulation which is physically painful for young children. Build in frequent quiet-time to combat overstimulation and allow them to rest. TV doesn’t count as quiet time as it produces a state of arousal in the brain – despite outside appearances. In addition to quiet time, encourage and facilitate naps for younger children.

Reduce ambient noise levels. Having the radio or TV on constantly in the background may be ‘company’ for you but is bombarding your child’s senses. Busy coffee shops with lots of people are ripe for hyper-stimulation of young babies.

Dealing with hunger and preventing blood-sugar roller coasters:
Monitor blood sugar levels. Despite what may have been drilled into us by our parents, snacking is good. Little tummies empty quickly and keeping your child’s blood sugar on an even-keel can keep many a tantrum at bay. Where possible, try and stick to protein-rich and low GI foods for snacks and meals, yes, children need calories and carbs but choosing ones that release slowly into the blood stream will do you both a favour. Even healthy foods can have lots of hidden sugar. Bananas are great for a quick satisfying snack but you can pretty much guarantee a sugar crash shortly afterwards. Likewise white rice, white bread, white pasta are all potential blood sugar pitfalls. Start as you mean to go on  and get your child eating whole-grain versions, they will thank you for it later.
Dealing with pain and illness
Your children may be in pain without you realising it. It is not always easy to know what is going on in the inner landscape of our children, especially in those years before they master speech.  Until they develop sufficient body awareness, your child may not be able to make sense of their bodily sensations or communicate them to you effectively.  Pain or physical discomfort can lead to all manner of hyperactive or out-of-sorts behaviour.
Honour their requests for comfort. Positive physical contact boosts the immune system. Young children operate in the realm of pure instinct and will often know exactly what they need, even if they can’t communicate it. If your child suddenly becomes more clingy than usual or wants to be picked up more often, respond with kindness. A little skin to skin contact and gentle handling in the early stages of an illness (before we may even know it is there) can help it to pass quickly and without too much trauma to the child. Any stress reduces the effectiveness of the immune system (in both adults and children) and separation from parents is the most stressful thing for a child to experience.
Given the right conditions, children will willingly co-operate with their parents and carers. Life is easier and much more fun for them when they do. So often, the factors listed above make it physically and emotionally very difficult for them to cope and respond positively. If we can remember that they are trying their best, be gentle with them, and ourselves, and show them by our patient example and by giving them time to learn how to walk with grace and beauty in the world, then the need for harsh discipline dissolves.
Even with the best efforts, sometimes we may find ourselves locked in a negative discipline cycle. If you find you are endlessly saying no to your toddler this post offers some approaches to try.

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