Dealing with Problem Behaviors


Au Pair Paula: Jennifer, who is four years old, lies to me all the time - even refusing to tell the truth when I know she is making things up. What can I do?

Answer: When faced with a child who is obviously lying, caretakers need to remember that children have a very different relationship with truth than adults do. Children lie for different reasons than adults, and may not be able to understand why they are getting into trouble for this kind of behavior.

  • Children lie to protect themselves from embarrassment (“I didn’t wet my pants.”)
  • Children lie to avoid punishment (“I didn’t hit my brother.”)
  • Children lie to express wishes (“I’m going to get a pony.”)
  • Children lie to express their imagination (“I saw a dinosaur in the backyard.”)
  • Children lie to impress other children and adults (“I can ride a bike by myself.”)

When you know for certain a child has done something wrong, instead of forcing the child to admit guilt (which can be painfully embarrassing), offer the child the opportunity to solve the problem.  

NO: “Did you break your sister’s doll?”
YES:  “I see you broke Leslie’s doll. Can you tell me how it happened? How can we fix it?”  

If you suspect (but are not sure) that the child is lying, you can still keep a positive tone:

NO: “You had better stop lying or you’ll be in trouble.”
YES: “I’m not sure it happened that way. I need you to tell me what really happened so that we can solve this problem together.”

By giving a child the opportunity to right a wrongdoing, instead of just punishing him, you will help to minimize anger and hurt feelings, and will help to build the child’s self-esteem. It will also encourage the child to solve problems with you, instead of hiding problems from you. Set an example: Avoid lying in front of the children, especially because young children don’t understand the difference between a “harmless” lie, and a “real” lie.  

Acknowledge the child’s feelings. Try to understand what the child is showing you by lying. Is she worried? Is she feeling insecure? Is she trying to impress you?  

The child says: “Mommy is getting me a dog!”
Your response:
Avoid:  “That’s not true.  You’re not getting a dog.”
Try instead: “I can tell you really want a dog.  Would you like to draw a picture of a dog for me?”

The child says: “I’m a really good bike rider.”
Your response:
Avoid: “You know you don’t know how to ride a bike yet.”
Try instead:  “You’re getting to be so big, I bet you’ll learn how to ride a bike really soon!”


Au Pair Valerie: Thomas is four years old. I looked in his backpack and I found many toys that he had taken from his school.  What do I do?

Answer: Young children don’t understand adult concepts like personal property. Toddlers really do think that everything belongs to them! Be patient and explain to the child that they cannot take things that don’t belong to them. By the time they are in first or second grade, children should understand personal property. Deal with stealing calmly and firmly. If a child steals frequently, it may be a symptom of another problem, such as anxiety or insecurity. Talk to your host parents if this behavior continues after the child has entered elementary school.


Au Pair Peter: How should I handle it when the children curse and use bad words?

Answer:  Just about all children experiment with swearing and curse words. Usually, they do it to sound adult, or to get attention. Every family has different rules regarding which words are acceptable and which are forbidden - talk to your host parents so that you can be sure what is OK and what is not allowed. Avoid getting angry, as that may only encourage the cursing. Calmly explain to the children what is acceptable language for different situations.

Temper Tantrums

Au Pair Greta: The toddler I care for screams and cries and throws a fit when she doesn’t get what she wants! Nothing seems to work! What can I do?

Answer: Anyone who works with young children knows temper tantrums - the screaming, crying, out-of-control child. Dealing with temper tantrums is one of the hardest parts of being a childcare provider. Understanding why children throw tantrums will help you to avoid these events, and to deal with them effectively when they do occur; you and the children you care for will be happier as a result.

Step One: Avoiding Tantrum Conditions   

You can avoid many temper tantrums by being sensitive to a child’s moods.

  • Tired children throw tantrums. Remember your children’s sleep requirements when you plan your day. When children begin to seem fussy - whining, complaining - it usually means they need a nap or a rest.

  • Frustrated children throw tantrums. If you see the child getting frustrated with a game or toy, suggest another game or toy, or find something else for that child to do. If two or more children are frustrated with each other, separate them for a while. Alone time can help everyone to feel better, and their next playtime will be more fun for everyone.  

  • Over-stimulated children throw tantrums. Too much excitement, resulting from a birthday party, a new toy or game, a new place, or a friend’s visit can lead to trouble. You can avoid overloading a child by providing quiet time, and by watching carefully for signs of over-stimulation - when the child starts to fuss, or shows signs of temper, he or she is telling you in their own way that they need a break.  

Step Two: Managing the Tantrum

Even if you do everything you can to help your children avoid temper tantrums, they will still happen occasionally. By preparing in advance, you’ll be better equipped to handle whatever comes your way. Temper tantrums are communication. Young children, especially toddlers, lack advanced language skills, and so they can’t always tell you when they’re angry, frustrated, sad, tired, or afraid. As caretakers, we need to listen to what the child is telling us and respond accordingly. A child throwing a temper tantrum is overwhelmed by their emotions, so it is important that we avoid making the situation even worse by responding in an emotional way. Raising your voice or losing control of your own emotions will only heighten the child’s emotional state.  nstead, speak calmly and quietly to the child. Acknowledge the child’s feelings, reassure them, and help them to deal with their feelings in a more productive way: “I know you’re really angry - can you use your words to tell me about it?”

By encouraging children to use language to express their feelings, we can help them deal with the frustration and difficult emotions that are a part of growing up - which will lessen their need for temper tantrums. If a child in your care has problems with frequent tantrums, prepare them for trips to the store and other public places. Talk to them about how they can work to control their behavior, and make sure they understand beforehand that there will be consequences for poor behavior: “Remember, Jared, when we go the library, you use a quiet voice. If you scream, we can’t go to the playground this afternoon.”

Next: Difficult Goodbyes »

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