Intervene Even if “It’s Just a Phase”

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The two year old boy runs over to another child and hits him. He then yanks the toy car away from the other child. When the parent tells the child to give back the toy car, the boy shouts, “No!”

The parent grimaces but thinks, “It is just a phase. I am sure it will pass soon enough.” The parent does not say anything and allows the little boy to go on playing.

Parents can easily fall into the trap of thinking their child’s problematic behaviors are just momentary blips in his development. The trap occurs when parents think the problems are merely temporary and as such nothing needs to be done about them. They will simply fade away.

While some problematic behaviors do indeed fade away, many do not. Even the problems that fade away can often set a dangerous precedent in the child’s mind of what behaviors will be tolerated by parents.

Toddlers and young children are constantly trying out new behaviors. A few behaviors that children display are throwing things, pressing buttons, pushing, grabbing and hitting. The purpose of trying out these new behaviors is to see what happens and if the behaviors are useful to the child.

When the boy hit the other child and got something positive out of it, like in the situation above, then the boy is more likely to hit again when he wants to get something. The role of the parents is to let the boy know which new behaviors are acceptable and which ones are off limits.

In the above situation the parent could have put the boy in timeout for two minutes and taken the toy car and given it back to the other child. Once the boy was out of timeout, the parent could explain that we don’t hit others to get things and we don’t say no to our parents when they tell us to do something. These are two lessons that the boy will learn. When the boy is repeatedly reminded about these lessons, he will start to change his behaviors so that they meet his parents’ expectations.

If the parent had instead simply chuckled and said, “Well, boys will be boys. I am sure it’s just a phase,” then the boy would not have learned those lessons. The boy could then grow up and assume that adults feel it is ok to act aggressively and take things from others. What could have been a simple correction of the behavior when the boy was little can become a more complex problem to deal with as the boy gets older, particularly when he is a teenager.

The next time parents see their child act aggressively or display other types of problematic behavior, they should take action and intervene. What is a relatively simple intervention early on can pay big dividends as the child grows up.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on January 3, 2015

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