Happy New Year!
Let’s start 2023 off with a question that parents ask me often,, which is: “Why is my child testing me, and what can I do about it?”
This is an inevitable, but extremely frustrating, developmental stage that almost all kids go through. Let’s say your kid is kicking against the back of your seat while you’re driving. You patiently ask them to stop.
Then, looking you dead in the eye, they lift their little feet… and keep kicking. Argh!
Rest assured -- this is a normal, and an even healthy, part of development for children, especially when they’re around the preschool and early school year age. But why do they do this, and how can you, as a parent, react? Let’s delve in.
Why do children test their parents?
First of all, know that you’re not alone. Many young kids in the preschool years -- maybe even all of them -- test their parents’ limits at least sometimes. This is normal behavior for a child this age, and there probably isn’t anything “wrong” with your child. Testing parents’ boundaries and challenging rules is actually a sign that your child is developmentally right where they need to be.
But why do kids do this? There are many reasons. Mostly, it comes down to this: children often test their parents to make sure that their relationship with you is unbreakable.
Think about it like an experiment your child is conducting. They know the rules, but they need to test them out to see what the consequences are for themselves. In other words, what will happen if they boldly disobey you immediately after you’ve asked them to do something? How will you react? Will you react predictably, in the same way that you did the last time they broke the rules? How much can they get away with?
And, perhaps most importantly, will you still love them when they misbehave?
Sometimes, this type of behavior can be stronger in kids with an insecure attachment style. Studies show that up to 30% of kids have an insecure attachment with their caregivers. A child with an insecure attachment could either be too clingy and needy, or too avoidant or aloof. They could feel less secure in the connection they have with you and be more inclined to test its breakability more often.
But that doesn’t mean that testing boundaries is always a sign of an insecure attachment. Like I said before, testing your limits is a normal part of the toddler to early school-aged years.
On top of testing your relationship, young children can also test boundaries just to assert personal freedom and their own identity. They’re see-sawing between being completely dependent on you and wanting to try things out on their own. They’re still learning who they are and are developing new skills every day.
Children this age can also experience big emotions that they need your support managing. They might test you or break the rules simply because they’re tired, hungry, angry, or cranky.
Lastly, preschool and early school-aged children need a lot of attention. If they learn that testing your limits is a sure-fire way to get your attention (even though it’s negative attention), then they will do it.
What should you do when your child is testing you?
How you react when your child is testing you is the most important piece of all of this. Trust me when I say, I know firsthand how hard it is to know how to react when your child is blatantly pushing your limits.
But, there is a way to deal with it in a way that’s compassionate both to your child and to yourself.
Reframe “challenging” as “testing the connection”
When we think of our child’s behavior as “challenging” or “disobeying” us, this naturally makes us feel more upset as parents. Try to reframe testing behavior as, literally, testing the connection with me. Your child is just experimenting -- they’re testing the waters and trying to figure out what happens when they do so. They aren’t intentionally trying to manipulate you or push your buttons.
In this “experiment” of theirs, how you react is what matters most -- it’s the answer they’re trying to get to.
Connect with your child in the way they need
No two children are alike. How does your child best feel loved and cared for? Is it through having some one-on-one time with you? Is it through physical touch, like a hug or a snuggle? Is it through play?
In those tense moments when your child is testing you, remember that the most important answer they’re seeking is: “Will you still love me no matter what?” Show them your unequivocal YES in the way that they need you to. Make sure they feel loved in this critical moment.
Read my 3-part series on How to Show Love to Your Child!
Be clear and consistent
As they say, consistency is key. We’ll save the discussion about logical consequences and behavior reinforcement for another day. But at the very least, try to react consistently when your child tests you. If you react with anger sometimes, patiently and kindly at other times, and simply ignore them at other times, then your child won’t get the answer to their “experiment” that they’re seeking.
Identify their needs
Try to help your child figure out what their needs are and get them met in a different way. For example, are they testing you because they’re hungry or tired? Do they simply want to see for themselves whether they are capable of doing something?
Be patient with yourself
Lastly, be kind and patient with yourself! Parenting is a hard job, especially when your child tests you in this way. Just like it’s normal for your child to test boundaries, it’s normal for you to be upset about it. Take it a day at a time, and allow the love that you have for your child to guide you.
If you’re a Single mom who tends to get stuck in a cycle of self-criticism or wonder whether you’re doing a “good enough” job as a parent, then my Single Mom support group for Women of Color may be a good fit for you. This group is for you if you’re longing for a judgment-free zone to connect with other Latina moms and learn ways to feel less guilty about parenting and feel more confident. You can get in touch with me to join. First meeting starts January 21st, 2023.
As always, I believe in you! You got this.
One question parents ask me often is: What do I do when my child is manipulating me?
Maybe they go behind your back and ask their other parent or another adult in the room, for something you’ve already said no to. Maybe they throw a temper tantrum until you “give in” to what they want. Whatever it is, it feels manipulative, And you’re at a loss for what to do.
The good news is that this type of behavior is common, and is often harmless. And it doesn’t mean that your child is out to get you! But I hear you: It can be infuriating, exhausting and even hurtful, to say the least.
Here are a few things your child might be trying to tell you when they display these “manipulative” behaviors, and what you can do about it.
What causes manipulative behavior in kids?
Just so we’re clear, children – or at least the vast majority of children – aren’t inherently manipulative by nature.
Manipulation, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage.
In other words, we often think of manipulation as someone purposely using their behavior to try to trick or exploit us in some way. Kids at a young age don't understand this level of exploitation. Yes, they are smart and know how to work us but more on this later.
As a mom, I completely understand that our children’s behavior can sometimes feel very manipulative. Sometimes, it feels like they are behaving in a certain way intentionally to push our buttons. And often, children do learn how to use their charms – or disruptive behaviors – to change our opinion and get us to do something for them.
For example, they might whine about a decision we made until we change our mind. You might also notice your child demonstrating "manipulative" behaviors toward their siblings or friends. For example, they might tell a lie to a younger child to get something out of them.
For many of the parents I work with this can be very concerning for them. The question I inevitably get is – why do kids behave in “manipulative” ways sometimes?
The answer is usually they are just doing what they have learned gets them what they want. In other words, kids "manipulate" because it works. They aren’t scheming "little brats" or as some parents will say "a**holes". They’ve simply learned how to get you (or other people) to give them what they want by behaving in a certain way.
These types of behaviors also aren’t usually intended to hurt or annoy you, even though it might feel like that sometimes. Your child probably doesn’t even realize how much these behaviors upset you. They’re simply trying to get their needs met in any way they can.
So, what can you do about “manipulative” behavior?
If you’re anything like me, what usually happens when your child shows manipulative behaviors is: you become upset, take it personally, assume you're being taken advantage of, or that your child is intentionally trying to outsmart you. All of which can make you feel angry.
You may feel like you are being challenged into battle with them and therefore need to “fight” or show them who’s boss and nip this behavior in the bud.
The problem is that children aren’t yet at the developmental level to do battle with us. It feels like they’re inviting us into battle, and I totally get that – but try to remember that what we see as “manipulation” is just a way – albeit a maladaptive way – your child is trying to get their needs met.
Instead, the next time you feel like your child is “manipulating” you, try these things.
Try changing the way you think about the behavior you are noticing. Instead of viewing it and describing it as manipulation, focus on what strengths this type of behavior represents in your child. For example, do these behaviors show cleverness? Creativity? A flair for the dramatic arts?
One thing I often highlight to parents is how this type of behavior means their child is smart – they have learned what they need to do to get what they want and they are using it. This skill is definitely something that can serve them better later in life and even when negotiating play with other children.
The next time you feel like your child is manipulating you, you might say to yourself: “They don’t have the developmental capacity to intentionally battle with me. They’re behaving this way because they have a need, and are simply replicating what has worked for them in the past."
Check in on yourself
Again, children often use ‘manipulative” behavior in a maladaptive effort to get what they want. They learn that they can influence people in this way. One effective strategy is to check in with how your reactions to your child’s “manipulative” behavior might be causing it to continue.
For example, let’s say that you tell your child they can’t have a certain item from the store. Your child begins to cry and may even escalate into a temper tantrum. Eventually, out of embarrassment, exhaustion, etc. you give in and give them what they initially wanted.
While I understand all the factors that come into play into giving in - unfortunately, by doing so, we are teaching the child that they can change our mind by behaving in a certain way. So, why would they behave any differently despite our reminders, pleads and negotiations.
Be mindful of how you and other adults might be contributing to conditioning behavior. This is not me saying it is your “fault,” but it does mean it is an area that needs modification so you can teach your child that such behavior isn’t the way to get their needs met.
Check in with your child
Lastly, check in with your child needs. Remember, most kids show these types of behaviors as a way to get their needs met. Instead of focusing only on the behavior, make sure you’re also looking at what your child needs. For example, are they hungry? Are they tired? Do they need more attention from you?
Or could something deeper be going on? Could they be sick, anxious about something or experiencing any kind of sensory issue? Figuring all of this out can be overwhelming and this is usually when child and family therapy can be helpful.
Young children either don’t have the vocabulary to describe how they’re feeling or express their deepest needs or don’t know which words to use. As a result, we see a lot of "misbehavior". I specialize in working with children aged 3 to 9 and their parents to help figure out what the child's needs are and how to reduce "tantrum/manipulative" behavior.
Get in touch with me to join my waitlist! If you are not interested in therapy right now but want to get some monthly parenting support, check out my latest support groups.
As we close out this year, I would like to thank you for all of your support in reading and sharing my blog posts. I hope they are helpful to you. Wishing you and your loved ones a very happy holidays. See you next year!
Many parents have gone through this situation, and maybe you have, too. You tell your young child that it’s time to stop playing a game, with their toy or their electronic device and get ready for bed. They’re upset, which sometimes looks like them yelling, screaming and even sometimes throwing things. But, now you notice a new behavior - they are hitting themselves in the legs or banging their head against the wall.
You’re bewildered. It’s confusing, and it can even be frightening. Why is your child hitting themselves? And is this normal behavior, or do you need to be concerned?
Why does my child hit themselves when angry?
It can be really alarming and confusing when you see your child start hitting, biting, or scratching themselves. For many of the parents I work with, their first question is, “Why would they do something like that to themselves?!”
For many kids, hitting themselves is a way of self-expression. Basically, it’s similar to a temper tantrum. Your child may not have gotten something they wanted, or they might feel angry or frustrated for another reason. When this feeling becomes overwhelming, they need to express it somehow.
For young children in particular, they often don’t have the vocabulary or skills to express strong emotions with words. Hitting themselves, or throwing things, might be a way of letting you know, “Hey! I’m struggling and I need you to know it!”
They also probably get your undivided attention when they hit themselves - known as a secondary gain. This gain, inadvertently, might teach them that when they hit themselves they will get your undivided attention - even if it is negative.
Other kids might hit themselves for sensory stimulation. Some kids need more sensory input than others – these are the kids who seek stimulation in all ways, like listening to music really loud or testing their own limits with pain. Sensory cravings are sometimes linked to diagnosis like ADHD or autism, but not all the time. It could just be soothing to them.
If you’re concerned about your child hitting themselves, or if the behavior is getting worse, then a good place to start is by talking with their pediatrician about what you are noticing.
How do I stop my child from hitting themselves?
Although this behavior can be common, it’s natural that as a parent you want to stop it. It can be frightening when your child starts to hurt themselves, and you may be worried that it can become unsafe. Here are some things to keep in mind to try to curb these behaviors when you see them.
1). Keep them safe
Safety should always come first. If your child is hitting themselves enough to actually cause damage, then safety is the first thing that needs to be addressed. Clear the space around them so that it minimizes who or what they can hit.
If they are using their own body to inflict hurt, gently and firmly try to physically restrain them. Try holding whatever part of their body they are using - typically it is hands and legs - so that they can no longer hurt themselves. Some children also respond just by having their loved one kneeling or sitting near them and speaking to them reassuringly.
2). Speak to them calmly
A common mistake I see some parents make, including myself, is to yell at the child when they are hurting themselves. This is understandable because it is usually coming from a place of fear or frustration. It is also how many of us were taught to react. Yelling, however, might only worsen the situation.
Instead, speak to your child in a soft, yet firm voice. Tell them that they will hurt themselves if they continue this behavior, and that you love them and don’t want to see them get hurt.
You can say something like, “I love you, and I’m not going to let you hurt yourself. I’m here to keep you safe.” Keep in mind that some kids (especially younger toddlers) simply don’t know that they could get hurt by hitting themselves.
3). Stay with your child
Don’t let your child go through these big moments on their own. Having big, powerful, and painful emotions like this is hard enough for adults – it’s even harder for kids. Your child needs you to stick around to learn how to regulate themselves and to know that they are still worthy of your presence.
While it may be overwhelming and tempting to give them some space, resist the urge to walk away. If your child is old enough, talk to them about how they’re feeling and help them use their words to express themselves.
4). Reflect and validate
Remember that your child is probably hitting themselves and acting out in this way because they’re having some big, overwhelming emotions. Try your best to reflect these emotions back to them. Be validating, instead of dismissive.
For example, don’t say, “What the h*ck are you doing?! Stop doing that!!.” Instead, you can try, “Looks like you’re frustrated and angry right now. It’s okay to feel angry but it’s not okay to hurt yourself. I am going to help you if you can’t stop on your own.”
It’s also important to reflect on whether this is a learned behavior. In other words, in some cultures/households hitting is what is done when someone has done something wrong. It is important to consider whether your child may be “copying” what they see before jumping to the conclusion that something is wrong with your child.
5). Join my online parent support group
Lastly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with your child having such tantrums (or any other aspect of parenting), consider joining my online parent group- a supportive place where you can learn how to get the support you need. We also talk about how to parent our kids in ways that are different from how we were raised, and work on increasing self-compassion.
Reach out to me to get on the waitlist!
Thank you for reading. I’ll see you next month!
Christine M. Valentín
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