Published: July 27, 2023
By: Sandra Gordon
It’s one thing if your toddler has a kicking and screaming tantrum in the supermarket, which is actually on target developmentally, but what if she’s still at it when she’s 3, 4 or even 5? As kids get older, we expect more from them, and rightly so. But it can be tough to know what’s OK because it’s “just a stage” and what’s no longer age-appropriate.
That’s because kids don’t necessarily develop on a strict timetable. “Age gives you a general idea of when you can expect normal developmental milestones like being able to use your words instead of having a tantrum. But the timing can also depend on your child’s temperament, how much practice she’s had with the skill you’d like her to have and how you handle daily opportunities to develop it,” says child advocate Marcy Guddemi. The good news is that with a little insight and encouragement, you can help your child move to the next level. Use our guide to decipher when certain “bad” behavior is on track, when to expect your child to age out of it, and what you can do to speed the process along when she’s ready.
Babies: It’s very common for teething infants to nip. In fact, they’re prone to bite everything, which can provide information about the world like, “If I bite Mommy, she screams.” Still, start training your baby now not to bite you or anyone else. If she chomps down when you’re breastfeeding, remove her from your breast or and say firmly: “No biting,” and turn away from her. Withdrawing your attention, plus the tone of your voice sends the clear message that biting isn’t OK.
Toddlers: Even if you taught your baby not to bite, she still might do it now. “Toddlers sometimes bite to communicate their frustration,” says Peter L. Stavinoha, co-author of Stress-Free Discipline: Simple Strategies for Handling Common Behavior Problems. That’s because they don’t have the complex language skills yet to ask for what they want, such as the Legos a friend is playing with.
If your toddler bites, state firmly: “No biting. Biting hurts,” then take the toy away or whatever he snatched. “Comfort the bitten child and say things you want your child to hear, such as: ‘You don’t like being bitten because biting hurts and we don’t bite our friends,’” says Guddemi. Toddlers are too young to understand the pain somebody else feels but focusing on the bitten child and your tone of voice will help them learn that biting doesn’t work.
Preschoolers: By now, biting shouldn’t be an issue because preschoolers can ask for what they want. But they still might bite on impulse as a fast way to get something, like a turn on the swing. If you’ve got a biter, remind her before play dates and preschool that even if she gets mad, biting isn’t allowed.
Keep your radar on when she’s around others so you can jump in before a situation escalates. When things go well, be your child’s cheerleader: “That’s great you didn’t bite. I’m so proud of you. Keep up the good work.” If your child bites anyway, remind her to use her words instead of biting and give her a time-out (for double her age in minutes) and comfort the bitten child. Or leave the playground or the play date. It’s embarrassing when your child bites. But not freaking out, stating the rules and delivering a consequence can help put a stop to it.
Tantrums in public
Toddlers: Meltdowns are inevitable for kids ages 1 to 2 because they can’t yet say, for example, “I’m frustrated because you won’t buy me fruit roll-ups,” so they make their point by throwing a fit. However, they’re not too young to learn that tantrums won’t get them what they want.
Don’t reinforce them by giving in to your child’s demands just so he’ll stop. Instead, stand firm: “No, we’re not getting that today,” and turn away, start humming to yourself or read the fine print on the cereal box at the supermarket, whatever you can to send the message that you’re not going to engage.
“If your child doesn’t get your attention, his tantrum will stop, but you have to have more endurance than he does,” says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.
If your child doesn’t get over it, leave the store or wherever you are and remind him: “Tell Mommy what you want. Don’t kick and scream.” He may not be able to do that yet, but he’ll get the concept. Being tired or hungry can trigger meltdowns, too, so try not to shop with your toddler around naptime and mealtime.
Preschoolers: While your child is developmentally capable of telling you how he’s feeling, he may still pitch a fit, especially if you’ve given in to tantrums before. To work tantrums out of your child’s repertoire, be clear about your expectations before going out. “We’re going to buy eggs and milk today, not cookies.”
In the store, recognize it when he’s behaving well: “I love the way you’re helping me put things in the cart. You’re doing such a great job.” Then reward it: “Since you were such a good helper in the store, we’re going to play Candy Land when we get home.”
If a meltdown breaks out anyway, help your child learn to say how he’s feeling by labeling the emotion, such as: “I can see you’re frustrated because you want a cookie, but cookies are not on our grocery list today.”
School-age kids: Tantrums are rare by now, so if your child has one, he may be having a tough time expressing complex feelings like jealousy or feeling left out. “You should also ask yourself whether you’ve babied this child more than the others or been inconsistent with your expectations,” says Dr. Spinks-Franklin.
If you’re still baffled about why a tantrum broke out, ask your child to explain it after things calm down. If he doesn’t know, dig deeper. It could be a sign he needs more hugs or one-on-one time with you, for example. “All behavior is communication and the older kids get, the more complex the meaning of a tantrum can be,” Dr. Spinks-Franklin adds.
Toddlers: Toddlers whine because they want attention and they’ve learned that using an annoying voice will get it. Don’t give in. Show her the difference between a whine and a normal tone. The next time she whines, say, “I don’t listen to that voice. Please ask me nicely.”
Preschoolers: If your preschooler whines to get what she wants, you’ve probably been caving in a little too often. To reverse course, tell her you won’t listen to her unless she uses a big-girl voice. “The more kids whine, the less you should engage with them,” says David J. Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.
If the whining continues, make eye contact and warn her that you’ll need to leave the store (or wherever you are) if she keeps it up, then leave if you have to. Or, if what your child is asking for is OK – say, you’re in the supermarket and she’s whining for ice cream, you might say: “Can you say, ‘Can I please pick out some ice cream?’” If she delivers, let her pick out the ice cream. Also, reward and reinforce good behavior by telling your child how much you appreciate the fact she stopped whining or asked nicely for something.
School-age kids: Not to point fingers, but if your school-age child is a whiner, you’re to blame. It’s time to be brutal: When the whining begins, flat-out ignore it. Refuse to listen. Walk away. When she starts to talk in a normal tone of voice, show her the attention she’s after with enthusiasm.
Toddlers: Little kids are too egocentric when it comes to the give-and-take sharing involves.
You can encourage your child to “take turns,” but don’t expect him to willingly give his toys to his siblings or other kids on play dates. In his mind sharing means, “I had a toy and it’s gone forever.”
At playdates, opt for activities that are easy to do together — dancing, coloring, building with blocks — to short-circuit any tussling.
Preschoolers: Preschoolers are less self-centered than they were a year or two ago, but they’re still impulsive and from age 3 to 5, they still tend to be possessive with their favorite toys. You can help your child practice by showing him how to take turns with toys (even using a kitchen timer to emphasize that concept).
That said, it’s fine to put away certain special things before friends come over. To encourage empathy, point out how nice it makes others — and even himself — feel when he does share.
School-age kids: By kindergarten, kids can share well. If your child isn’t there yet, help him practice by inviting friends over who have mastered the art of sharing so he can learn from them. Continue to talk about why sharing is a good and kind thing to do.
Still, don’t expect your child to have to share special toys, such as the one he just got for his birthday, even with siblings. It’s fine if some toys are private property.
Babies: Throwing food helps your baby learn cause and effect — if she throws food from her high chair, it falls down and you’ll pick it up. Instead of getting exasperated, play along for another round or two. When you’ve had enough, say something like: “That was fun, but Mommy isn’t going to play anymore,” then stop gathering up tossed Cheerios in front of her.
Toddlers: Your child is old enough to understand that flinging food isn’t okay, but she may still do it when she’s bored or wants attention. To end the antics, tell her, “Food is for eating and it belongs on your plate.” Stay calm. “A huge reaction from you will only reinforce the bad behavior,” Guddemi says. If your toddler keeps it up, end the meal. She can finish eating later, once she has calmed down.
Preschoolers: Thankfully, by the time your child is 3, she won’t be tossing food on the floor to get your attention or indicate her displeasure with what you’re serving. She’ll likely use her words to level any complaints about the meal.
School-age kids: Food fights can erupt when kids get a little too rowdy with their friends. Step in immediately if one breaks out at home. You don’t want your kids going all out in the school cafeteria.
Toddlers: Unless something engages your child’s interest, expect him to be fidgety. Being antsy comes with the developmental territory. Try to work around it. For example, go to a kid-friendly restaurant early when it’s less busy (11:30 AM for lunch and 5:00 PM for dinner), and take along toys and crayons to keep your child engaged.
Preschoolers: When kids reach 3 to 4, they should be able to sit contentedly for chunks of time, although how long depends on your child’s temperament. If you have a high-energy kid, that might be just 15 minutes. It’s still too soon to expect him to endure grown-up events, however, like lengthy religious services or three-course restaurant dinners. When attendance is mandatory, be sure to have a stash of fun stuff to keep him busy.
School-age kids: By now, children should be able to sit still for longer stretches at home and school without needing constant attention. If your child can’t, consider that your cue to help him practice at home with activities such as crafts and games. If you’re concerned about your child’s restlessness, talk to your pediatrician.