Three strategies for your parenting toolbox
The pediatric professionals at Clay recommend the following three strategies as building blocks to better understand and respond to your child’s challenging behaviors. Challenging behaviors are a normal part of development for young children. We hope you find these evidence-based tools helpful when caring for your young child.
1. Behavior is communication
It can be very helpful when parenting to remember that children often “talk” with their behavior. By pausing and taking a moment to be curious about what our children are communicating, we can better predict, manage, and understand the meaning of their behavior.
Picture their behavior as an iceberg above the water. Now imagine viewing the iceberg below the surface of the water. What in reality could be going on to cause the behavior above the water? For example, is your child whining because they are tired, hungry, overstimulated, or don’t have the words to express their emotions? Use this handout to remind yourself to look below the surface to best understand and manage challenging behaviors.
2. Avoid power struggles
An important and healthy developmental task for preschoolers is to learn how to make their own decisions and assert their independence. During this time in development, young children often seek to have more control and power in their daily lives. This desire for autonomy can lead to power struggles as children attempt to do things their way and on their own terms. Unfortunately, parents can easily get pulled into a pattern of nagging, yelling, or arguing to try to get their children to follow through with their requests during this challenging period. Sometimes, parents can even get “stuck” responding to their child at their child’s level!
Take a deep breath and remember you are in control. With a warm approach, parents can effectively support their children to respond and follow through with requests by taking a different approach and allowing their children some age-appropriate control or decision making. Use this handout (Avoiding Power Struggles) throughout the week when you are having a power struggle with your child – it will help!

3. Upstairs brain/downstairs brain

One of the most helpful proactive strategies to prevent challenging behaviors in young children is to understand what is happening in their brains when children are having trouble behaving. The downstairs brain is the area of the brain that is very well developed at birth and is responsible for basic functions (breathing and digestion), big emotions (anger and frustration), and the fight, flight and freeze response. The upstairs brain, which is very underdeveloped in young children, is responsible for mature thinking, conscious thoughts, feelings, and memories.

When a child’s (and adult’s) upstairs brain is working well, we see well-controlled emotions, thinking before acting, and considering how other people feel. The upstairs brain is not fully mature until our mid 20s!
When a young child is having a difficult time, such as falling into a tantrum, the upstairs brain stops working well, the downstairs brain receives a lot of energy, and unfortunately, the child can lose all control of their body. One of the hardest parts of parenting is remembering how important it is for us to use our upstairs brain skills in the heat of the moment. This view of the brain reminds us that our children are not just little adults. They are relying on us to help them regulate their rapidly shifting feelings!