Our children are very good at pressing our buttons, picking their moments and coming up with new and inventive ways to challenge us. As parents, we need a selection of tools for coping with challenging behaviour. Being able to pick and choose from a variety of techniques means we can adapt our approach according to the child and the circumstances. Simply being able to surprise a child with a new response to an old battle can be enough to help restore order and calm.
Plan and agree your family’s approach to discipline
Before you find yourself trying to cope with a challenging situation, take time to think about what unacceptable behaviour means in your family. Talk about it with your partner and the other people who care for your children so you can all present a united front. Every family is unique and will have different definitions of what is acceptable and it might take a little time to develop an approach that works for your particular family. It is also useful to discuss and agree the discipline techniques you are planning to use as different parents can have very different approaches to discipline.
The “Five Cs”
As the adult, it is your job to set rules and boundaries and you need to be able to stay calm and in control in difficult situations. The “Five Cs” will help you get into the right frame of mind for dealing with challenging behaviour:
- Be Calm: Stand back for a moment while you stop and think. Some people find it helpful to take a deep breath; others count to ten in their heads. If necessary, step out of the room until you feel calmer. It is OK to say “I am feeling angry. I’m going into the kitchen and will deal with this when I feel calmer”. You have a lot of power, use it sparingly and know when it is time to stop.
- Be Confident: believe in your own ability to resolve the situation and your right, as a parent, to set limits and rules.
- Be Clear: be clear in your own mind about what you want to achieve. What is unacceptable about the behaviour? How would you like your child to behave? What sanctions or discipline techniques are you going to use? Be sure to use clear, simple language so your child understands you too.
- Be Consistent: make sure your child knows that challenging behaviour will always lead to the same response. If you sometimes let your child get away with pushing your limits, they will learn that it is always worthwhile trying to push you – because perhaps this time you will give in. Similarly, your child should get consistent messages from all the adults that care for them. If you have said that they can’t have sweets before tea, but your partner says they can, your children will try to play you off against each other.
- Seek co-operation: Your child wants your approval and wants to co-operate with you. Work with your child to negotiate a solution. Any solution you find together will be more effective and long lasting than one that is imposed on your child without their agreement.
Praise the good and ignore the negative
Children love to get lots of attention from the adults who look after them. Recognising and praising good behaviour is a great way of rewarding your child and encouraging more good behaviour in future. Be sure to tell them exactly what they have done that is good. Make the praise specific: “you’ve been playing really nicely with your brother” is much more effective than a vague “you are a good girl”. Sometimes we need to catch our children behaving well, so we can praise them for it, as good behaviour often goes unnoticed. Good behaviour, rewarded with praise, is likely to be repeated by the child.
Children need attention so much that if they can’t get your attention by playing and behaving well, then they will try to get your attention in all the wrong ways. Don’t reward this bad behaviour by giving your child lots of attention. Ignore the bad behaviour and it is less likely to be repeated.
Tell your child the things you do want them to do, and reward them with praise when they succeed. For example, ask a child to close the door quietly and then thank them for listening, instead of telling them not to slam the door.
Try to avoid telling your child that they are bad or naughty. If a child is told that they are bad, they will start to believe it and also believe that they have no choice but to behave in a bad way. It is better to label the behaviour as naughty instead of labelling your child. For example you might say “Snatching toys is a naughty thing to do” instead of saying “You are naughty for snatching the toy”.
Prevention is better than cure.
There are also some useful ways of preventing tricky situations spiralling out of control:
- Watch your child. You will find you can anticipate situations which are ‘hot-spots’ and regularly cause problems. Once you know that a ‘hot-spot’ is looming, you can take avoiding action. E.g. some children are grumpy, tired and argumentative when they get home from school or nursery. Changing their routine to include a short chill-out period (with a drink and snack) will help recharge your child’s batteries and avoid a meltdown.
- Have clear, simple rules and routines which both you and your child stick to. If the bedtime routine is always bath, story and lights out, then your child will come to accept it is an inevitable and unbreakable pattern which is simply not worth fighting about.
- Take time to explain what is going to happen, before it happens. Give your child a timescale for events and give them some reasons for what is about to happen. E.g. Instead of interrupting your child’s favourite TV programme by saying “put your shoes on, we’re going out”, say “When your programme ends, we are going to the shop to buy bread for tea. You will need to put your shoes on”. Then remind them about the plan when the TV programme ends.
- Check that your child is listening to you and that they have understood what you are saying. Make sure you have eye contact and that there aren’t any background distractions. Ask your child to repeat back the key part of your message. Young children usually enjoy being co-operative, but simply may not have heard or understood you properly.
- Young children can be easily overwhelmed by their feelings or by unfamiliar situations. They lack the ability to be able to control their responses without your help. By reassuring and guiding your child through the situation, you are helping to prevent them spiralling into a tantrum or unacceptable behaviour. You are also teaching them ways of coping with their feelings in future situations.
- If you have a baby or toddler, look around your home and see if there are any changes you can make to avoid conflict. Precious ornaments can be packed away until your child is older. If your toddler loves playing with your keys (and hiding them), get into the habit of storing your handbag out of reach.
Coping with challenging behaviour
There are lots of different methods you can use to cope with challenging behaviour. Trying out new ideas can be a useful way of tackling recurring problems:
- Distraction: divert attention away from the problem on to something (anything) else. Asking your child to help find the tomatoes in the vegetable aisle, might be enough to distract them from the display of sweets.
- Remove the culprit, not the victim: if your child is fighting with a friend or sibling, lavish all your attention on the victim. This means that the bad behaviour is not getting rewarded with your attention.
- Challenge unacceptable behaviour: firmly, positively and consistently challenge unacceptable behaviour every time it occurs. Don’t justify your decisions, just repeat what it is you want to happen e.g. “You are going to put your shoes on so we can go to school”.
- Be honest: about how your child’s behaviour makes you feel. Be ready to admit that you have feelings too and that you don’t always know the answers. If you get it wrong, don’t be afraid to apologise to your child. Show your child how to behave in an argument by modelling good behaviour yourself.
- Avoid global criticism and lectures: it is easy to allow an argument to become a chance for unloading all your issues at once. It can make the child feel hopeless, as though everything they do is wrong. It can also distract you both from effectively dealing with the original challenging behaviour as you argue about things that may, or may not, have happened in the past. Avoid saying things like “You always….make a mess”; “You never…play nicely”; “And another thing…”
- Acknowledge feelings: help your child to recognise and talk about their feelings and emotions. Let them know that it is normal to have negative feelings, that it is OK to feel angry or sad, but help them find better ways of handling these big, scary, complicated emotions. E.g. “It is OK to feel angry when your brother takes your toy, everyone feels angry now and then. But it is not OK to hit anyone, perhaps you could tell them how you feel instead”.
- Say No: try not to say “no” all the time, but when you do say “no” mean it and stick to your decision. Try using the broken record technique: say “No, we are not going to do…”, and then say “No, we aren’t”, then carry on repeating “No” in a calm, boring voice. Speak softly and get down to the child’s level if you can.
- Use warnings, choices and consequences: warn your child what is about to happen, give them a simple choice about what will happen (making sure you are happy with either choice) and let them know what the consequence will be if they do not co-operate. e.g. “In 5 minutes we are going out. You can choose to wear your trainers or your wellies. If you don’t choose, then I will choose instead.” Make sure that the consequences are appropriate to the behaviour and apply them at once. If consequences bear no relation to the ‘crime’ or are delayed until a much later time, your child will not be able to understand the connection between what they did and the consequence.
- Involve in problem solving and negotiating: once you child is slightly older, you can involve them in talking through the problem, generating ideas and choosing solutions. Remember to review the success of your child’s solution, so that you both can consider alternative solutions if necessary. For example, if your child’s room is messy, involve them in working out a plan for keeping it tidy to a standard and timescale that you are both happy with.
- Three is a magic number: try saying “I’m going to count to 3 and then I need you to…” count slowly and make sure you have a consequence up your sleeve just in case you get to 3 and nothing has happened. Alternatively, tell your child “I’ve told you 3 times that it is time for … now I need to you do…”
- Time Out: this popular method can be a really useful last resort. Please read our separate article on “Time Out” for more information on using this technique effectively.
- Giving rewards: using rewards, perhaps via a sticker chart or similar scheme, can be a useful short term method for tackling established patterns of behaviour such as a child who delays going to bed or tries to avoid having their teeth cleaned. Rewards become less effective if the reward is for something vague like “being good” or if a reward chart becomes an almost permanent feature. Children are good at thinking up ways to get their reward, without changing their behaviour. Be careful that your child doesn’t get the message that they should expect rewards for normal day-to-day behaviour.
- Learning experience: Review problem behaviour with your older children after the event to see if you and they can learn new and better ways of handling the situations. Teaching your child to reflect on their behaviour and generate new ways of coping with their feelings and emotions will give them useful skills and may help them to avoid repeating the situation.
Whatever approach you choose to use, try to avoid shouting or smacking your child as research suggests these techniques cause more long term problems than they solve.
Recommended reading and links
“Raising Happy Children: What Every Child Needs Their Parents to Know – From 0 to 11 Years”
By Jan Parker and Jan Stimpson