Most parents are aware of the “terrible twos,” a developmental period during which children undergo changes in milestones that involve cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional changes. This period is often referred to as the “terrible twos,” because children strive to be more independent, and this can lead to behavior problems such as temper tantrums.
Research by psychologists has noted that some 2-year-old children begin to exhibit increasing externalizing behaviors, such as disruptive, defiant, or aggressive behaviors. These problems may be short-term or continue as the child gets older.
Recently, a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology collected data to better understand how disruptive behavior in children can lead to intrusive or overcontrolling parenting (Yan, Ansari, & Wang, 2019). According to the researchers, “when children are defiant, aggressive, and disruptive, parents are likely to engage in a series of intrusive parenting practices to manage these behaviors, such as limiting children’s autonomous wishes, offering excessive directions, or disrupting children’s opportunities to practice efficient skills to regulate their externalizing behaviors.”
Most parents are able to manage disruptive behavior in a calm, firm manner. However, this can become more difficult depending on the temperament or personality of the child.
The data from the study by Yan, Ansari, and Wang (2019) report that “when children consistently exhibit noncompliance, aggressive behaviors toward peers, unregulated emotion outbursts, or aversive misbehaviors, parents are cognitively and emotionally challenged.” In other words, some parents may become more frustrated and angry when children maintain disruptive or non-complaint behavior.
Due to increased negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, parents may fail to display adequate cognitive resources to generate more efficient socialization practices, such as the use of reasoning and supportive behaviors (Yan, Ansari, & Wang, 2019). This may result in less optimal parenting techniques, such as yelling or punishment. This research has been generally supported for decades.
Child behavior and parenting techniques often influence each other. The researchers also concluded that “when parents react to these behaviors (e.g., aggression or disruption) with more autonomy support and less disruptive and controlling behaviors, children’s externalizing behaviors may be reduced in the long-term.”
Understanding Techniques Used by Children to Challenge Parents
As discussed above, both children and their parents behave in a way that influences each other’s responses. Below are five types of behaviors described by Thomas Phelan that some children exhibit that may lead to increased frustration by parents.
- Badgering or Nagging. The child attempts to wear you down into giving in to them by repeatedly nagging or requesting something. According to Phelan, badgering may involve the “please, please, please” tactic and may be more problematic in public, or when the child is loud and disruptive.
- Temper Tantrums. Tantrums and intimidation are often used by younger children to get what they want or to avoid doing something requested by a parent. Phelan notes that tantrums are more difficult to manage when the child has an audience, or when parents continue talking, arguing, or pleading with the child to stop the tantrum.
- Use of Threats. Some kids will use threats when they are upset as one method to get their way. Examples may include “I’m going to run away,” “I’ll never speak to you again,” or “I’m going to call CPS.” Although most parents will not give in to threats, they can lead to escalated behaviors by children.
- Martyr Tactics. According to Phelan, the child may indicate that their life is totally unfair or that “no one loves me.” Children often use this technique to make parents feel guilty about being firm or placing limits on them. Parents naturally want their children to feel loved. Therefore, this may be a great way for children to shape their parents’ behavior.
- Physical Tactics. Some children will become violent toward adults, throw objects, or break their toys. These techniques may be used more by younger children with limited language or vocabulary. This may occur in retaliation against the parent implementing a consequence for disruptive behavior, such as a time-out.
Addressing behavior problems in children is possible with professional help. Mental health therapists or child psychologists work with children and their parents to understand antecedents and identify appropriate consequences to improve the child’s behavior and the parent-child relationship. For more information on behavior problems and treatment options, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Copyright 2019 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.
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Yan, N., Ansari, A., & Wang, Y. (2019). Intrusive parenting and child externalizing behaviors across childhood: The antecedents and consequences of child-driven effects. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(6), 661-970.