Your child is a person to understand, not a problem to solve”
— Lina Acosta Sandaal, MA, LMFT

What the Science Tells Us

The Brain and Behavior

  • The connection between non-verbal and verbal communication in the brain is a long term process happening between 0 – 4.5 years of life, hence the ability to verbally label an emotion is non-existent and is often the cause of the challenging behavior
  • Children feel the physiological characteristics of emotion(tight throat, sweating, tense muscles) before they know what those responses are, often the true culprit of challenging behavior
  • Neuro-scientists understand that emotional regulation and cognition to make decision with said information does not finish developing until about 25- 30 years of age.  The foundation for this activity in the brain is set primarily between 0-3 years old.
  • Children between 5-7 years old have concrete thinking.  When they see themselves as “bad” they may defend against which can be experienced by an adult as oppositional or difficult behavior.
  • The brain develops from bottom to top and right to left.  Each hemisphere having a different process and function.  The task in parenting and in the full development of the brain is for all areas to work together.

What creates Challenging Behavior

The Primary Social Emotional Skills to Attain to follow rules:

  • Frustration Tolerance
  • Delay of Gratification
  • Impulse Control
  • Empathy
  • Social Reciprocity

The Feelings to tolerate to follow rules are:

  • Frustration
  • Disappointed
  • Sad
  • Patience
  • Fear

Parenting and Behavior

  • When parents are not on the same page or respond differently to their children they cause confusion and challenging behavior in the child
  • Parents often speak too long and with complicated messages causing a child to misunderstand and act out behavior rather than ask about their confusion
  • Attempting to “fix, avoid, or distract” an emotional outbursts creates most if not all of the challenging behavior in children.  For example if your child is persistent about what they want/need and you “sometimes” give in to their wishes because “you’re done” then by default you have created this pattern of behavior
  • ·All children, in particular, children under the age of 5 will “show” you how they feel rather than “tell you”.  When your child displays difficult behavior wonder what is the behavior telling me, rather than why are they behaving this way?
  • Children need to connect to the parent to understand that they are seen, safe, and soothed.  Turn the phrase “they need my attention” to “they need my affection” most behavioral issues will lessen


Prevention with Routine, Rules and Rituals

Children understand time and feel safe when they can predict and know what comes next.  Set up a routine that you follow most days than not and most behavioral problems will lessen. 

Time- not so important - it is about the sequence of the routine rather than the time of day.  Here is an example of typical day routine for children under 3:

  1. Awake
  2. Breakfast
  3. Outside play/walk
  4. 1st nap
  5. Floor time play/book
  6. Lunch
  7. Play/activity
  8. Afternoon nap
  9. Play/activity
  10. Dinner
  11. Bedtime Routine

Here is an example of typical day routine for children over 4:

  1. Awake
  2. Breakfast
  3. School/Activity on the Weekend
  4. Lunch (Weekend)
  5. Homework/Play/activity/Family time
  6. Quiet moment (Weekend)
  7. Dinner
  8. Bedtime Routine

The basics eating and sleeping

  • Most of the time behavior is linked to sleep deprivation and hunger
  • Most children need to eat every three hours, make sure they are having meals and snacks throughout the day to keep them from feeling hungry.  Some nutritionists agree that a diet high in protein and vegetables can help children remain leveled and less hyper.  Visit this website for great tips on eating:
  • A child is sleep deprived when they have not had the allotted time needed for their body and neurology to recoup

Sleep statistics (primary source Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s research and

0-4 months

  • Most newborns 0-4 months will sleep a total of 16-17 hrs. in a 24 hour period with the longest sleep period being 4-5 hrs.  If your under-4-month-old has a consolidated night time sleep of 4-5 hours, they are sleeping through the night.
  • Do not expect predictable sleep patterns before 4 months


  • Sleep a total of 14-15 hours in a 24 hour period
  • Take 2-3 naps, lose 3rd nap around 9 months, daytime sleep totals 3-4hours
  • Sleep approximately 11 hours a night
  • Most wake up at night to feed 2 times. No need for feeding after 9 months.  This is different if breastfed and in the family bed, as those babies eat, sometimes without waking, at night indiscriminately

1-2 y.o.

  • Sleep a total of 12.5-14 hours in a 24 hour period
  • 82% of 1 y.o. have two naps lasting about 3.5 hrs. total
  • 56% of 2 y.o. have one nap lasting 1.5-2 hours total
  • 26% of children wake up at night at least 3 times a week
  • 20% of children wake up at night five or more times per week
  • Consolidation of sleep is not yet learned at this phase

3-6 y.o.

  • 3-5 y.o. sleep a total of 11 to 12.5 hours in a 24 hour period
  • 5-6 y.o. sleep a total of 11 to 12 hours in a 24 hour period
  • 91% of 3 y.o. still have one nap lasting 1.5-2 hours
  • 50% of 4 y.o. have one nap and 25% of 5 y.o. nap; 
  • naps are usually gone by age 6


  • Sleep a total of 9 to 12 hours in a 24 hour period
  • Most go to sleep later than their younger friends ranging from 7:30-9 pm

When Stuck in a Daily Repetitive Behavioral Issue:

ASK Yourself:

  1. What is their goal?
  2. What do they gain from the behavior?
  3. How often have they attained their goal with this negative behavior?
  4. Change your response

Handling Loss of Control or Reactive behavior:


  1. Pause – Breathe and calm yourself first.  Never meet their energy, your energy needs to be soothing and slow.
  2. Narrate and label feeling (you're very frustrated, let's take a moment to settle down before we continue)
    • Empathy and responding by stating you understand what they are feeling cuts down reactive behavior by almost 60%
  3. Go silent and stay near by – look at the clock – tantrum can take anywhere between 1.5 to 20 minutes
    • If child is in a safe space let them stay where they are
    • It is not advisable to leave a child alone while in a tantrum
    • If you need to move them to safety, narrate what you will do to them and their body while moving them (ie. “I’m going to move your body to put you in a safe space until you feel better”)
  4.  If your child is hurting you or others you can hold them BRIEFLY, again narrating what you are doing and why you are doing it (“you’re angry its not okay to hit mommy)


Once the reactivity starts to lose intensity

  1. Give them the option to be held or to be near by
    •  For some children, being held while in a tantrum feels constraining
    • They feel the ambivalence of wanting to be comforted but also attempting to assert their autonomy, hence the loss of emotion


When calm and in your arms or near by

  1. Describe BRIEFLY what just happened including
    • What they felt
    • What they wanted that you stopped
    • What to do next time
  2. Later (bedtime, bath-time, dinner), during a quiet moment, narrate and tell the story of the reactive behavior by:
    • Describing what happened 
    • Labeling the different feelings the child showed &/or expressed
    • Giving ideas on how to handle situation “next time”, if child is over 3.5 ask them “how can we solve your problem, next time” giving them autonomy to come up with their own solutions

When to seek professional opinion

  • If child is older than 5 and you have implemented these strategies consistently for at least 6 weeks and there is minimal change
  • If child seems to seek or avoid sensorial experiences (ie. Spinning, not sitting still, covering ears to sound) and parent has observed that reactivity is triggered by this
  • If the child has experience major loss, changes, or out of the ordinary events that the entire family is still attempting to manage and process

Do Time Outs Work?  watch to get the answer

The top question at our center is how to manage challenging behavior in young children. This video gives a quick tip on how to manage.