Mom consoling child with hands over her face in frustration, challenging behaviors

When children engage in very challenging behaviors that don’t improve with our typical parenting approaches, adults need to step back and re-evaluate.  Taking time to come up with a new approach or plan is worth the effort.

Extreme behaviors, such as long tantrums, hurting others, destroying property or chronic defiance of adults, are not only hard for the misbehaving child and their parents, they are also disruptive to the family as a whole. Other siblings notice and sometimes model the witnessed misbehavior to get attention. The other parent sometimes feels helpless because neither parent has been able to find a solution to the problem. Fortunately, with reflection and changes on the part of the adults at home, it’s possible to help children with challenging behaviors make positive changes.     

5 Ways to Work Through Difficult Behaviors

1. Look at a child’s biology.

When children misbehave in an extreme manner, take a close look at any biological factors that may be contributing, such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, an undiagnosed medical condition or undiagnosed childhood psychological issue such as depression, which often presents as irritability. A problem in any of these areas will decrease a child’s ability to think clearly and control their emotions when they are frustrated or angry. 

Once you identify a possible biological cause for misbehavior, take steps to address it directly and chart your progress. Let your child know that you think their body may need help so that they can cope better and, if possible, include them in the plans for better sleep, nutrition or more physical exercise. If you suspect that your child’s behavior has a physical or biological cause, make a specific appointment about behavior concerns with your pediatrician. Ask for extra time with the doctor so you can explore the issue in depth.  

2. Change the physical environment.

Sometimes the environment where children learn, play or live plays a role in their misbehavior. Children with too many toys and games have trouble cleaning up their messy room. Children who destroy property during a tantrum have access to too many things to break. Children without a quiet space to calm down and get “re-regulated” need to find a new quiet space. Where children sleep may be causing problems with siblings, or may inhibit their ability to get enough rest. Look at the child’s environment and try making changes. Another advantage of making a change to the environment is that it is a concrete symbol to your child that their behavior is being taken seriously and requires effort from everyone to figure out the issue at hand. 

3. Increase children’s coping skills.

All children experience situations that are frustrating and challenging, but children with fewer emotional coping skills act out their frustration in extreme ways. To lessen challenging behaviors, children need lots of practice when they are calm to learn the specific skills they will need to use when they are very upset.

Children need us the most when they are at their worst.

Karin Watson, parent educator

At calm times, teach children skills to identify when they are becoming angry as well as techniques to reduce anger, such as deep breathing, physical exercise or thinking more positive thoughts. Self-awareness is a key coping skill. Help your child learn to notice what their body is doing when they begin to get angry. Let children know it is OK to walk away from a tense situation. Teach children to calmly say out loud what they are feeling and what they need. All these skills need to be practiced when children are calm and receptive so that they draw on these important coping skills when tensions rise or they feel upset.   

4. Increase rewards for positive behavior.

If we want to see new positive behaviors, they need to be reinforced when they occur. We suggest starting small, noticing when your child does simple everyday tasks on time and without complaining. You can reinforce this behavior just by noticing and telling them you appreciate what they just did.

Be specific with your feedback — “Thanks for getting ready for school so quickly today. You’ll have time to play with your friends on the playground before school starts.” Make a wall chart of typical daily activities in your house that need your child’s cooperation. When they do these things on time and without complaining, put a star by that item. With your child, set a goal for how many stars they want to earn and set an appropriate reward. Rewarding even the smallest positive behavior changes the tone at home and allows everyone to have hope that the bigger problems can be solved too. 

little girl with Down syndrome laughing with parents

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5. Increase consequences for chronic negative behavior. 

Sometimes parents inadvertently reinforce negative behavior. After a long tantrum is over, parents are often relieved and then immediately proceed to a planned fun activity and forget about what just happened. Some children need to see a dramatic negative consequence to become more motivated to ultimately change their behavior and engage in increasing their own coping skills. If you are at an event and your child shows chronic misbehavior, be brave and just leave the event with your child. Your action will let the child know that their behavior is serious and needs to change. 

As the parent, it’s your judgment as to when a situation is not working and that larger consequences are called for.

Children who spend their time-outs in a room with lots of toys and games will be surprised to see all those toys put away consequently for misbehavior or destroying property. Children who damage things should pay for replacements and write detailed apology notes to those impacted by their behavior. When children have said mean things to others or have engaged in behavior that has hurt others, they need help to make a deep apology and to find other ways to repair the relationships they have damaged. You can warn children in advance that if their behavior is poor, there will be consequences, but make this warning once without repetition. 

As the parent, it’s your judgment as to when a situation is not working and that larger consequences are called for. The actions you take in response to very inappropriate behaviors will let the child know you are serious about wanting the behavior to change and will give the message to other siblings that your goal is positive respectful behavior for all.   

adoptive parents receiving parent counseling with their adopted child

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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