It was one of those light bulb moments. I had got rather annoyed with my daughter, who was then about six, when she got upset because we changed our plans at the last minute. She stood with her arms crossed and refused to budge because she wanted to do what we’d arranged. “Oh, come on,” I grumbled. “Stop being so childish.”
“But I am a child,” she said. It made me think – do we sometimes expect too much of our children when childish behaviour is their default setting? Of course we have to have rules and standards of behaviour, but there may be times when we think they should act like mini adults and they’re just not capable of it.
Scientists know children’s brains are still developing and there are some things they’re just not very good at doing because their brains aren’t yet fully wired to. There are two parts of the brain responsible for behaviour and they develop at different rates.
The limbic system, which controls impulses, emotions and pleasure, matures more quickly than the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking, making decisions and anticipating consequences. That means certain behaviour might not just be down to them being naughty – they’re just not mature enough yet to behave in a way we might want them to.
Knowing this shouldn’t provide an excuse for letting them get away with unacceptable behaviour, but it might help when it comes to your ideas of what they can and can’t manage, and you can respond accordingly.
Here are some things kids do that can drive us mad and the reasons why they act that way:
Children, especially young ones, don’t know how to wait. Tolerance and impulse control take time to develop, and because it’s harder for children to understand the concept of time, that can make trying to be patient even more difficult. Giving them opportunities to practise being patient and rewarding successful attempts can speed up the process of becoming more patient.
If your five-year-old seems not to care about the fact their sibling has just fallen over and is now bleeding, don’t be too quick to judge them. Feeling empathy towards others can take time to develop. Children are instinctively very self-involved and so busy thinking about themselves that they don’t always realise how others might be feeling. Young children can feel compassion, but deeper empathy and moral reasoning may not kick in until they are teenagers.
You repeatedly tell your three-year-old to watch out for his cup of water and then wonder why you wasted your breath when he immediately knocks it over. The neurons that fine-tune motor skills aren’t fully functional, so kids aren’t very co-ordinated. In most cases clumsiness will ease with age.
When your child constantly answers back it can drive you mad. The reason they do it is because they are still learning to regulate feelings such as anger and frustration. They’re not always sure how best to express themselves and they get into trouble for being rude and disrespectful. Although it’s important for them to have good manners, it’s also vital to remember that this behaviour is usually born of frustration. Tell them you know that they are frustrated and encourage them to express their feelings in a more acceptable way. Explain they are more likely to be heard if they make their point politely. They can even practise possible scenarios, and how to respond to you in ways that won’t get them told off.
Children have short attention spans and it can be difficult for their brains to focus for a great length of time. It’s important to have realistic expectations of your children based on their age and abilities. Often they aren’t able to concentrate properly until they are about seven or eight, or even later. And rather than just telling them to concentrate on their homework, it helps to spell out just what that means. Explain they need to think only about what they are doing, ignore the noise of the TV, put thoughts of what they did at school today to one side and work through what is in front of them until it is all done.