Addressing Difficult but Expected Behavior in Toddlers and Preschoolers with Visual Impairments and Blindness

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By Carla A. Brooks

Introduction

All children have behaviors that make their parents pay attention. And some behaviors make other people pay attention. When strangers observe you in the grocery store, at church, or picking up your child from daycare or preschool, they notice the behaviors. Other parents, hopefully, will show you they understand by their facial expression or their “helpful” comments. “Ah, the ‘terrible twos’ have arrived!” It’s an old-fashioned, but recognizable, description that affirms the struggle of the toddler’s quest to grow up. These new “problem behaviors” may change with development, but they usually continue into the “threes.” And the preschool years may get better, but they have their own set of behaviors. What links these behaviors together is the fact that they are typically the result of new skill development. 

As your infant child who is blind or visually impaired enters her toddler years, you continue to observe and celebrate the development of new skills: from crawling to toddling to walking and running, from cooing to babbling to first words to word combinations, from nursing to blended foods to solid foods, from rattles to cause/effect toys to pretend toys, and from smiling to patting her sister when she’s hurt to saying she’s sorry. Your toddler is growing into “her own person” and experiencing new emotions and recognizing those emotions in others. And this is where things “fall apart.”

Difficult or "Problem" Behaviors in Children with Visual Impairments

If you’re wondering what toddler “problem behaviors" look like, just spend some time in a daycare or preschool setting. An accurate generalization might be that they are physical, and they are loud! Of course, some toddlers, especially those who are totally blind or have minimal vision, may be quiet, isolate themselves, or seek cuddles or comfort. Do these behaviors sound familiar?

  • Physical aggression—grabbing, hitting, pinching, even biting
  • Throwing toys or objects
  • Inconsolable crying
  • Yelling or screaming
  • Falling to the ground or on the furniture
  • Excited and active one minute and sad or angry the next
  • Saying “no” and then being upset because he or she meant “yes”
  • Rejecting every “outfit” that is offered when the favorite clothing item is dirty
  • Rejecting food, toys, clothing, or comfort items of particular textures
  • “Falling apart” when he or she is not understood

You really are the “parent expert” when it comes to observing and describing your child’s behaviors. You developed your expertise from the time you began watching your child at birth so you could “read” their behaviors in order to meet their needs. You have watched them develop new skills and have monitored their development and questioned the absence of expected skills. You have been your child’s best advocate, too. As “problem behaviors" emerge during the toddler years, whether resisting social play or displaying physical aggression when a peer touches her mobility device, you will also become the “behavior expert.” We all seem to recognize a typical or expected toddler behavior when we see one. Recognizing a behavior and living with a behavior are entirely different experiences. 

The Link Between Difficult or "Problem" Behaviors and Developing New Skills

Toddlers are beginning to understand that they are different people, separate from their parents, and they are trying out ways to experience that. Many want to be independent. They want to do it themselves. They want to make their own choices, and they also have a hard time waiting for you to get them what they asked for. They want to have some control over their lives. Alternatively, your child who is blind or significantly visually impaired may prefer to remain passive, leaving you frustrated if she refuses to try new activities or independently perform tasks.

And then there are preschooler emotions! Young children are confused by their emotions. There can be wild swings from one emotion to another. And the emotions just feel big to these two- and three-year-olds. 

Toddlers also have new skills they are practicing and using, and sometimes, they aren’t skilled enough to do things without help. This is particularly true for children with visual impairments who have not had the benefit of incidental learning. This causes them to be frustrated and to feel upset if you try to help them or to be frustrated if you insist they attempt a task independently. Learning to cope is hard work. Being the parent of a toddler is hard work.

What a Child with a Visual Impairment May Be Communicating with Difficult or "Problem" Behavior

Sometimes it is easy to think about what your child is trying to tell you with these behaviors, but sometimes, you aren’t so sure. Even when your child is using language, it doesn’t always make sense. This is what your child who is blind or visually impaired may be communicating with his or her problem behavior:

  • I want to do it myself.
  • I don’t want to do it myself.
  • I don’t know how to do it myself.
  • I don’t know what it is.
  • I don’t like how it feels.
  • I didn’t know it was coming, and it scared me.
  • I don’t like it when people touch me or my belongings (especially my mobility device, it’s an extension of me) without warning.
  • I don’t know what the other children are playing with; I don’t understand what they’re talking about or if they would accept me.
  • I don’t understand that concept because I’ve never seen it.
  • That doesn’t make sense to me!
  • It may hurt me. It reminds me of something that hurt me before.
  • I wasn’t finished.
  • I’m just as happy to play by myself.
  • Did you just leave me here?
  • I really don’t know what I want or need right now.
  • But I don’t want to share my toys.
  • My feelings are all mixed up.
  • But you just don’t understand! 

How to Help Your Child with a Visual Impairment Manage Difficult Behaviors

You will find that there are many resources available to guide you as you support your child through the toddler and preschool years. Websites and books about development may suggest slightly different approaches, but there appear to be consistent themes across these resources.

  • Recognize the behaviors as your child’s way of expressing her need to be independent.
  • Understand that while a certain behavior might need a consequence, using only discipline does not change behaviors.
  • Use your words to let your child know that it is hard. Empathize with him.
  • Model the language your child may not have to tell you what she needs and how she is feeling.
  • Suggest other positive ways to solve problems with siblings and peers.
  • Help your child begin to think about how other people might be feeling—at a very simple level. Intentionally teaching empathy to children with visual impairments is particularly important because the children miss many social cues such as facial expressions and body language.
  • Remember that too much talking may be overwhelming.
  • No matter what, let your child know you love him and that he can trust that you will be there for him.
  • Give choices so your child can build a sense of control.
  • Accept that your child might be “needy” one moment and then tell you that she doesn’t need you the next.
  • Be clear about rules but know that they are going to be broken.
  • Know that having self-control is an ongoing challenge.

An important question to ask is whether any of these strategies need to be modified because of your child’s limited vision. You have always used language to provide information about your child’s environment, to introduce new concepts related to her experiences, and to identify the sources of sound or voices. You have used touch to comfort and to model new skills. The best suggestion is to “do as you usually do” and ask other parents what has worked for them. Your child’s support team may have found ways to help him problem solve in daycare or at preschool that you haven’t thought about yet. Being the “behavior expert” doesn’t mean that you have to do this alone. 

When Difficult Behavior Becomes Challenging Behavior

Sometimes the “terrible twos” and “troublesome threes” seem to last longer than expected. Or, your child’s behaviors seem to be more “intense” or occur more frequently than you see in other children, or the behavior may look different than that of your child's sighted peers. When behaviors are not just frustrating but they disrupt daily life and cause significant stress for your child and your family, you may be observing what are called “challenging behaviors.” These behaviors look different, and they feel different. The causes of the behaviors are not easily linked to developmental changes. Your usual support strategies don’t work, and you might see that your child’s other team members are concerned as well. It’s time to work together to help with this challenging situation. 

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