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Child has tantrum at the supermarket

My kid is biting, hitting and kicking. I’m at my wit’s end, what can I do?

Everyone with young children experiences parenting challenges. And these are often exacerbated by parental exhaustion, financial or relationship difficulties, and work stress.

I’m a clinical child psychologist who runs a clinic for parents experiencing difficulty parenting young children. One of the first questions parents ask us is “do I need help?”

If there is more stress than enjoyment for you in being a parent, or you are becoming increasingly reactive or angry, or struggling to find things that work in your situation, the answer may be “yes”.

When parents come and see us, they might tell us their child is kicking or biting or screaming. Or they might say their child is anxious, worried or reticent. They might also say they’re getting angry and yelling at their child.

From decades of research, we know there is every chance we can improve these things. And the earlier we start, the better the outcomes.

Read more: Why do nurse home visits stop a few weeks after giving birth? Extending them to 2 years benefits the whole family

What is the science behind parenting?

Parents who seek help are often referred into evidence-based parenting programs.

The scientific evidence shows babies are born with a genetic blueprint that determines who they will become. But even identical twins arrive with unique temperaments – the outward expression of who they are.

A child’s genetics and temperament are also influenced by their developmental environment. From a child’s earliest days, the experiences they have with their parents and carers influence much of their social, emotional, behavioural and cognitive development.

Parents and carers are the most important people in their child’s life, and their attention is hugely reinforcing for the child – they are built to receive it, and develop as a result.

Man holds child
Parents and caregivers are the most important people in their child’s life. Zach Callahan/Unsplash

I do need help!

It’s important families get assistance from someone who is experienced and qualified to treat parenting difficulties.

But here’s how we work with families who are experiencing difficulties.

1) How were you parented?

We first ask parents who come to see us what their experience of being parented was like.

Sometimes they tell us it wasn’t good and now they are getting angry just like their parents did.

Other times, we hear parents are so determined not to be like their parents that they have made no rules or routine.

Sometimes we see kids who worry, who are anxious or clingy – and we see their parents working hard to protect them from the things they worry about.

Read more: Having problems with your kid's tantrums, bed-wetting or withdrawal? Here's when to get help

When parents come to us wanting to change their child’s behaviour, change generally has to start with them – and their relationship with their child.

Mum helps child cook a pasta sauce
The change starts with the parent’s relationship with their child. Unsplash/Brooke Lark

2) How reactive has the family become?

We work to calm parents who are yelling or getting angry by teaching them ways to calm and allocate their attention away from things that cause them anger.

Children who see parents regulate their emotions learn to regulate their own emotions and are better able to control their own behaviour.

Unregulated emotions, on the other hand, might result in the child hitting, biting and kicking because they’re unable to calm themselves down, or because hitting, biting and kicking ensure their parents will interact with them.

Read more: 'No, I don't wanna... wahhhh!' A parent's guide to managing tantrums

3) What are the desirable behaviours you’d like to see?

We want to know about everything the child does that their parents regard as desirable.

Parents can usually identify things they like – but sometimes they say there is no desirable behaviour. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child who only behaves badly.

Desirable might mean an anxious child behaving without worry. For a child who runs around causing mayhem, desirable might be seeing them sitting down, concentrating on colouring in. For a child who has meltdowns, desirable might be whenever parents realise the meltdown is starting to calm.

Child helps sibling up
Think about what behaviours you’d like to see. Annie Spratt/Unsplash

4) How can you reward desirable behaviour?

We ask parents to develop new habits: we ask them to start commenting on and responding in “relationally rich” ways to all the desirable things their child does. Relationally rich means parents use verbal, physical and facial responses to the child’s desirable behaviour, so it increases.

Think about a see-saw. At one end of the see-saw is desirable behaviour and we want to see that go up. At the other end is undesirable behaviour and we want to see that go down. We know, for most families, if parents increase their engagement of the child’s desirable behaviour, it will increase.

If you’re concerned about a child in your family, start by discussing getting assistance. This might be from a family GP or from a clinical psychology practice that specialises in parenting. Remember, if you need assistance, consult someone who is experienced and qualified to provide it.

Read more: Evidence-based parenting: how to deal with aggression, tantrums and defiance

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