Tips on how to manage children’s challenging behaviour

As parents, another one of our greatest challenges is the difficult behaviour of our kids, especially when we are sleep deprived or just generally exhausted.  Who can’t relate to that moment when you meet up with some friends in a café, or you’re trying to get round the supermarket, and your toddler has a theatrical, impressive meltdown?  Or you’re trying to leave a birthday party or a play-date, and your preppie just loses the plot entirely?

Often it seems like it is just your kid behaving this way and everyone else has it sorted, but given how many parents have written in to ask for some tips on managing their toddler or school-aged child’s behaviour, it’s obvious that this is something we all have to deal with at some time.

Usually your child is just pushing the boundaries as any normal toddler or child will do, or perhaps a recent event such as starting at a new school or kinder, or the arrival of a new baby, has unbalanced things.

Here are some tried and tested tips to help manage these challenging behaviours:

  • Try to ensure that your child has a routine – around meals, sleep, play-time etc.  This really is the cornerstone of behaviour management, as you will read in all the books.  Kids love routine and thrive when they know what to expect next, and that your response will always be the same.
  • Try to have some one-on-one “special time” with your child, especially if there is a new baby in the house.  Making your child feel special and important can help to minimise their attention seeking behaviour.
  • Give lots of praise for good behaviour, even if you sound silly.  Kids love to hear that they are doing stuff well rather than “no” or “don’t” all the time.  It is better to praise the behaviour not the child so that they are not labeled as “good” or “bad”.  Try to get down to their level, make eye contact and hug or cuddle them.  Give them small rewards such as a trip to the park, their favourite DVD or TV show or an extra bed-time book.  A star or sticker chart can be very powerful too, but often will only work for a period of two or three weeks before the child loses interest.  Ideally, your child should help to make the chart, choose the coloured cardboard or paper and stickers and it should be somewhere where everyone in the family can see it and be engaged in the process.  Sometimes stamps or stickers on their hands are more immediate and can also be used while you are out.
  • Ignoring is a very powerful strategy to use with kids – walk away and go and do something else if your child is deliberately behaving badly.  As soon as the behavior stops, remember to praise your child.
  • Smacking is never a good idea as children learn to hit back.  Even though we may have been smacked as children ourselves, it won’t help to change your child’s behaviour.
  • Pick the behaviours that are the hardest to deal with, for example hitting or biting you or a sibling, and just tackle one thing at a time.  You can’t take everything on all at once!  Try not to sweat the small stuff, even if it’s very trying.

Strategies to use at home, and when you’re out and about:

Time out:

Use this for the most difficult behaviours.

At home, this involves a short period of your child being on their own in their bedroom, another room or outside the back door.  The time is usually one minute for every year of their age, but two to three minutes for a three- to six-year-old is often enough.  It’s a good idea to count to three first so that they have a chance to stop the behaviour before you remove them to time out.  When you reach three, you act calmly and immediately to move them away from what they are doing.  Eventually they will stop before you reach three!

If you are at the coffee shop, the best thing to do is to take your child’s hand, stand to one side with them without talking, and wait for the crying or behavior to stop (usually only a minute or so).  Try not to rationalise with your child at this time, and keep the talking to a minimum.

Taking away privileges:

For older children, withdrawing privileges can work very well.  Again, it is good to give some warning by counting to three but then act quickly and tell them what they will be losing.  The privilege needs to be taken away within a short period of time e.g. within the next two to six hours or the next day.  Things to take away include normal bedtime (instead, go to bed early), their favourite toy, or screen time for a few days or a week.  It’s good to mix it up and take away different things.

Very often I hear parents say, “Oh we’ve tried all that and nothing works!” but sometimes you just need to go back to basics and start again.  There are no magic tricks – it is hard work and can be very frustrating.

If your child has recently been diagnosed with a chronic illness and their behavior has deteriorated, the same strategies listed here can be used to provide some developmentally appropriate boundaries for them to let them know life still needs to go on as normally as possible.

But how do you know if your child’s behaviour is in the realm of normal behaviour, or whether you need to seek further advice or an assessment?

If the pattern and severity of your child’s behaviour is more extreme than we would expect for a child of that age, you may need to seek professional help.  Maybe this is something you’ve noticed yourself, or perhaps your child’s school or kinder teacher has raised some concerns with you.

It is hard to be sure, but if your child is displaying a few of the following traits – and you’ve tried the strategies above with minimal success – you may want to seek some further help:

  • clear speech difficulties
  • social communication difficulties, such as having difficulty playing well with other children
  • being very routine driven or having significant issues with transition between activities e.g. leaving a party or play-date
  • lots of sensory issues to things such as loud noises, certain foods or clothing textures
  • intense interest in certain objects or toys
  • clear signs of anxiety, or excessive fearfulness or worry (e.g. around sleep).

If you’re concerned that there might be something else going on with your child, start by seeing your GP who may recommend that you see a paediatrician, psychologist, speech therapist or occupational therapist so that you and your child get the help that you need.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help – sometimes a burst of sessions with a psychologist can be extremely useful to help step you through the initial phase of setting boundaries.

All kids need calm, clear and consistent parenting to thrive and the basics DO work if done well, so don’t give up – and good luck!
Resources and further reading:

  1. Raising children’s network:
  2. Book: Toddler Taming by Dr Christopher Green – a great read!


By |August 5th, 2015|