Uncontrollable behaviors are difficult to deal with, whether they occur at home or in public. It can be frustrating when you have tried everything and nothing seems to work. Although it seems impossible to prevent and redirect such out-of-control behavior, it’s important not to blame yourself and to realize you may not be doing anything wrong. Young children don’t always know how to express their needs and thoughts, leading to toys flying across the room or a child running through the grocery store knocking cans off the shelf while Mom chases after her. Although uncontrollable outbursts often come unexpectedly and without warning, understanding the cause may help prevent tantrums, keep your child safe and save your sanity.
When you’re walking through the grocery store and your child suddenly becomes out of control, screaming and flapping his arms as he runs up and down every aisle, he could be hungry, tired, bored or overly stimulated. All of these, or any combination, can cause children to act out uncontrollably, especially if they are unaware of what’s bothering them or unable to adequately express their feelings. Overstimulation is common when children are uncomfortable due to their surroundings or unfamiliar people. Uncontrollable behaviors may also be attention seeking. Most often, the behavior results from an unmet need, and the child is unable to express his needs verbally. Chances are, if you don’t know why he’s acting out, he doesn’t know either. Another possibility to consider is food intolerance or allergies, particularly with some additives and preservatives.
Noticing patterns of uncontrollable behavior is helpful in determining the cause and finding a workable solution. Sometimes there is no pattern of behavior or it seems random and unexpected. Other times, it may feel like an “every time” occurrence. Keeping a small notepad handy and jotting down the time, where you were, what was happening and a brief description of the child’s uncontrollable behavior will help you notice patterns or similarities. For example, if the worst behaviors occur around the same time each day, you’ll want to consider whether it’s close to meal time or late in the evening. Location and surroundings are another important factor. If she becomes uncontrollable every time you go to the store, make note of how long you’re there and whether the store is crowded. Keep track of when she becomes out of control at home as well. Does she stand on top of the dresser and throw toys across the room every time you start the dishes or answer the phone? Is she fine one minute and then out of control every time she drinks a specific brand of juice or eats a particular snack food?
If the cause of uncontrollable behavior is obvious, the solution may be just as obvious -- if he’s hungry, feed him and if he’s tired, he may need a nap. Try to avoid long trips to the grocery store and keep them short and quick if that is where he has the most difficulty. Carry healthy snacks, such as granola bars or crackers, in your purse or in the car and offer it to him if he starts getting agitated. Attention-seeking behaviors often occur when the child is trying to get your attention and, as odd as it sounds, children often prefer negative attention to no attention at all. Set aside special child-centered time each day and eliminate outside distractions, such as the television or cell phone. Over time, the negative attention-seeking behaviors should decrease when he realizes he will get your full attention at another time. If the behaviors often appear after a certain food or drink, try eliminating it from his diet and see if there is a noticeable difference.
Most uncontrollable behaviors in young children result from an unmet need and are preventable by determining the cause and making small adjustments. However, sometimes other underlying causes require professional assessment and intervention, such as behaviors due to obsessive-compulsiveness, attention-deficit disorders and other mental or physical health concerns. If your child’s behaviors are dangerous to herself or to others, such as running off or physically threatening others, you’ll want to consult with a professional for immediate intervention. If she is not responding to minor adjustments and you are concerned about her well-being, consult with a qualified professional to determine the underlying cause of the behaviors. Pediatricians or other medical professionals, parent support groups, preschool teachers, behavior specialists and community offices are the best place to look for resources and get referrals in your area.