How to deal with a naughty child

Child psychologist Anne O’Connor, founder of parenting website, answers a parent’s question about dealing with misbehaviour.

Q: My three-year-old has started to misbehave quite a lot recently. Although we have reprimanded him and put him to bed it does not seem to affect him. He is attending pre-school where he hears bad language from the other boys; he is now copying this and using the bad language at the childminder’s and at home. I have also found that he has become quite clingy to me and doesn't want me to leave him. How do we deal with this?

A: Before deciding on how to deal with this emergence of difficult behaviour you will need to take some time to try and figure out why it’s happening now. Children who have been relatively well behaved and who suddenly become difficult could be doing this because of a number of factors.

1. Changes in routine: Small children are essentially creatures of habit and they like to keep to the same routines, etc. If their daily schedules have been changed, they can react by engaging in difficult behaviour. Usually when the child adjusts to the new schedule the difficult behaviour disappears.

2. Worries: Sometimes children misbehave to get attention — if they are upset about something but haven't the vocabulary or don't get the time to talk about daily events they might 'act out' rather than try to verbalise worries.

3. Mimicking others: Children are great mimics, particularly at this age group. They copy a lot of things they see around them, both good and bad. Sometimes it's great fun copying the bad behaviour because it gets such a good reaction!

4. Working out the rules: The pre-school years are very busy ones during which children learn new things every day. The rules of behaviour are among the most important things that this group will learn. This age is very much an experimental one, trying to figure out where the limits are — for new parents too.

5. Curiosity: The pre-school child has an insatiable curiosity. It will often get him into trouble — seeing what's in the toothpaste tube, investigating what's inside the radio, etc. It may entail checking out things by pushing, pulling, emptying, pasting, etc.

6. Normal boisterous behaviour: Often parents find these pre-school years difficult as pre-school children seem to have a never-ending store of energy — when you are exhausted they are still going!

Taking all the above factors into account, the situation you describe sounds normal to me. The main issues for your little guy are probably a mix of curiosity and working out the rules.

In terms of the swearing he is probably mimicking the other boys, and the best and quickest way of dealing with this is to give him very little attention when he does use swear words. Simply and calmly saying something like, “We don't use that word here”, and praising him when he doesn't use it for a period of time, will probably get you over this phase quickly. Be careful of your example too — there is no point in expecting a child not to swear if you are using swear words yourself. If on the other hand he sees that you are upset by these words and gets attention for swearing (even if it is negative ) he might continue using these words.

Clingy behaviour and a three-year-old! I think many parents would agree that they go hand in hand. Children often go through phases where they become clingy to one or other parent and it can make it very difficult for this parent to leave the child even for a short outing. You leave with your child's cries ringing in your ears and of course this can spoil your day or outing.

You need to check to see if your child remains upset for long after you leave — the likelihood is that he settles down quite quickly after you are gone. If you are happy that there isn’t anything upsetting your child and that he is safe where he is, then you need to regard it as a phase and trust that your child will grow out of it. Try not to let these partings drag on for long — if you are going, it’s best to go quickly and avoid allowing your child to work himself (and you ) into a state. This clinginess may be your child's unconscious attempt to ensure that you keep thinking about him and will be anxious to be reunited with him.

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