A big part of parenting is effectively choosing your battles. Some child behaviors, while they have the potential to annoy you, just aren’t worth freaking out about. For example, let’s say your kids occasionally resist bedtime teeth-brushing or are slow to get their shoes on when you’re headed out the door (join the club). Inconvenient as these things are, they’re unlikely to pose major long-term consequences.
Other behaviors, which might be easy to brush off, are more important to tackle from the get-go. These child behavioral issues may not seem all that harmful now, but when the behaviors grow into regular habits, they’re even harder to break – and they could take a toll on your child’s development or well-being.
Wondering if there’s something you should be working on with your kid? Here are 8 seemingly innocent behavioral problems that shouldn’t be ignored, according to child development experts.
1. Embellishing stories or lying
Young children can come up with some pretty entertaining stories to explain away the truth, whether to get what they want, get out of something they don’t want, or to avoid a consequence. Kids might also lie as a way to explore cause and effect – they might simply just be curious to see what happens when they spin a story.
As cute as the stories they weave may be, or as easy as it may be to not address the lie, these are teachable moments. According to Taunya Banta, Inclusion Services manager at KinderCare Learning Centers, it’s important for parents to step in and help their kids develop a habit of honesty. Not only is it socially inappropriate to lie; dishonesty may keep kids from experiencing consequences they need to learn and grow, and at worst, put them in danger.
How to Address It: To nip a lying habit in the bud, Banta suggests trying to understand a child’s motivation. If your kid’s goal is to get out of something, try to avoid reinforcing the behavior by giving them what they want. If your child is simply exploring the relationship between cause and effect, let them know you know it’s a lie and encourage them to try again, but this time by telling you what really happened.
Focus on praising honesty, too. “Parents often tend to focus on correcting negative behavior, but often doing the reverse – giving attention to the positive behavior – can be more effective,” she says.
It’s easy to overlook interrupting and just answer your child’s questions, but taking shortcuts can come with negative effects. Banta says taking the time to acknowledge these moments will help teach impulse control and how to wait – two skills they are still learning (and will be working on for some time) that will serve them well in life.
How to Address It: To tame interrupting, model good conversation skills. For example, if your kid is telling a long-winded story, don’t interrupt (and if you do, apologize). Banta also suggests teaching your child how to respectfully interrupt by tapping you on the shoulder or saying “excuse me.” And don’t forget to dole out some praise when you see them practicing their new skills!
3. Button-pushing between siblings
In families with more than one child, the dynamic of the strong-willed child versus the compliant child can pop up. The strong-willed child is often the one to get the most attention by nature of their behaviors, while the compliant child is the one who’s expected to go with the flow.
When this dynamic is present, Banta says the compliant child may also become good at pushing the strong-willed child’s buttons. “When the strong-willed child has a big response to this, parents often address the strong-willed child’s response while the compliant child’s button pushing goes unnoticed,” she says. “For example, the compliant child took the strong-willed child’s toy, and the strong-willed child responded by hitting the compliant child.”
How to address it: Parents often address the big response (hitting) and make the strong-willed child apologize, while failing to address the issue of the compliant child taking the toy. But ignoring the compliant sibling’s part in the squabble won’t do you or your kids any favors.
According to Banta, the root cause here is attention – so always ensure that your compliant child is getting attention too, whether you praise desired behaviors or carve out one-on-one time. “Addressing these behaviors early will not only reduce sibling rivalry but also teach your child that they don’t need to resort to button pushing to get the attention they’re seeking,” she says.
In little kids, impatience – it might appear to you like grabbiness, frequent interrupting, or meltdowns when kiddos don’t get what they want at lightning speed – is common. But according to pediatrician Harvey Karp, MD, CEO and founder of Happiest Baby, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Impatience can lay the groundwork for impulsiveness, lack of self-discipline, and social issues (like refusing to share on the playground).
How to Address It: As you already know, little kids don’t have a patience switch you can just flip on. It’s your job as a parent to teach them. Karp recommends a practice called “patience-stretching”, where parents respond to a child’s demands by almost giving them what they want.
Here’s how it works: Maybe your two-year-old asks for a snack when you’re making dinner. Instead of handing them the snack, stop short and say “Oh wait, one second!” as though you forgot something. Next, look away and pretend to be busy with something else. Finally, give the snack, and praise them for waiting.
“Waiting for a bit and then giving your child what they want teaches them waiting isn’t so hard,” Karp says. “Plus, it teaches them they can count on mom or dad to keep their word.”
5. Hitting or biting
Young kids have virtually no impulse control, so its developmentally appropriate for them to occasionally hit or bite another child. But this is another instance where letting a child get away with something can become a much bigger problem down the road.
Of course, ignoring a kid’s hitting or biting can have negative physical consequences, which is enough reason to butt in and stop it right away. But according to child development expert Laura Froyen, PhD, ignoring these behaviors, even if your kid isn’t causing major injuries, can set them up for aggression later on in life.
How to Address It: Keep in mind little kids’ brains are being built in every experience, so each time they do something harmful without a consequence or parent intervention, they’re learning it’s that behavior is okay. “You want to prevent or block as much as you can to hard wire impulse control into their brains,” says Froyen.
After you ensure the person being hurt is okay, talk to your child about why we don’t use our hands or feet to express anger, and offer an alternative like involving an adult or using their words. It may also be helpful, Froyen says, to help your child practice impulse control through games like Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light.
6. Ignoring you
Ever call your kid’s name several times with absolutely no indication they can hear you? According to Froyen, this usually isn’t willful ignoring, but a product of your child’s developing brain. Little kids just don’t have mature executive functioning skills like selective attention and filtering. But again, this isn’t a behavior you want to ignore.
How to address it: “The reason you shouldn’t ignore your child ignoring you is that it can make you as a parent super frustrated, and then you get reactive and end up yelling,” Froyen says. “So it’s best to connect first, join their world, get their attention, and then give the direction – or even better, wait until they naturally look up and make eye contact.”
7. Keeping going when someone says “stop”
Whether your kid won’t quit calling a friend mean names or refuses to stop tickling their sibling, harmless playing can turn into willfully neglecting someone else’s boundaries if you ignore it. Consent is an important part of life, and it’s your job to teach that to your kids when they’re young.
How to address it: The first step to take: Interject, remove your child from the situation, and once they’re calm, explain why it’s important to stop when someone else asks them to. Part of this lesson, according to Froyen, comes from modeling. For example, when you’re tickling your kids and they ask you to stop, always stop immediately so they know you’re listening and respect their personal boundaries.
Every parent will likely hear their kid drop a curse word at some point. While it may be funny at first, it’s also a good time to teach your child the contexts they can and can’t use inappropriate words. For example, it’s okay to ask an adult what a word means, but it’s not okay to use the word about someone else or in anger.
How to Address it: To stop a kid from using inappropriate words, be careful not to make too big of a deal about them. “Making the words ‘forbidden’ will give them an allure and power they can’t resist,” Froyen says. You can slo teach your kids powerful words that aren’t curse words, because often kids are simply looking to play with new language and convey the strength of their feelings. For example, you can bring play into it by making up silly “forbidden” words like, “Make sure I don’t hear you saying ‘sticky banana fingers,’ because that would be really bad!” “Making it playful immediately sucks the power out of a situation,” Froyen says.