Navigating Difficult Behavior
Posted on October 10, 2018 by CHS
Learning how to navigate a child’s difficult behavior can be challenging for any parent. It can be especially challenging if the child is misbehaving in a public place, during a special event, or when there is already a stressful situation, such as being late to a gathering or meeting. This behavior from a child often leads to parents feeling embarrassed or frustrated if their child refuses to listen. These situations can lead to a battle of wills between parents and their child, and those involved can be left feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Difficult behavior does not have to end in tears. With some thoughtful planning and preparation parents can not only navigate difficult behavior, but also prevent it. The following tips and information will help you develop a behavior plan that works for your family. Keep in mind that you may need to try one or more strategies until you find the one, or combination of strategies, that your child responds to and understands best.
The Difference between Punishment and Positive Discipline
Punishment is an immediate, but short-term solution to a behavior problem, and it can often make behavior issues worse in the long run because punishment is about power, not understanding. Children respond to an adult’s cues rather than develop their own skills for understanding social rules to monitor and control their own behavior.
Learning self-control is an important part of child development. Children begin to develop their independence as young toddlers; as is evident when they have temper tantrums or announce loudly, “Me do it!” This is why punishment often creates a battle of wills between child and parent—the focus is on the power that both parent and child want to own.
On the other hand, positive discipline is about guidance and teaching. Positive discipline takes more work and patience, but results in positive long-term effects on the child’s behavior. When parents acknowledge their child’s emotions, identify the cause of the behavior, and guide their child to an appropriate response or solution, learning is taking place. Eventually children will begin to manage their emotions and respond appropriately in social situations with minimal guidance. As this independence grows, behavior management becomes the child’s responsibility instead of the parent’s.
Parents as Teachers
Positive behavior is part of a child’s social and emotional development. In our previous blog, Creative Solutions for Guiding Behavior (link below); we discussed the importance of building a loving, trusting, relationship with children from infancy forward. When a child has strong relationships with their parents, they are more likely to trust and accept guidance from them.
Decide on what behavior expectations you have for your child and be as consistent with enforcing them as possible. Expectations should be based on your child’s age and ability to understand the concept of cause and effect. Children typically begin demonstrating knowledge of logic anywhere between two and a half to three years old.
Sometimes there are natural consequences when children behave inappropriately (“If you throw your snack on the floor then there will be nothing left to eat.”), and sometimes parents need to create a logical consequence directly related to the behavior (“The shovel is for digging sand. If you use it to hit then I will put the shovel in time-out.”).
Difficult behavior is frequently about getting attention. Notice your child’s desirable behavior and spend some play time together every day; even if it is only 15 minutes. This will help your child understand that positive behavior is what gets your attention. When you arrive home at the end of the day, spend a few minutes sharing a book, playing catch outdoors, or participating in an activity your child enjoys.
Help your child identify emotions and practice expressing them in positive ways. You can sing songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” or read books about emotions such as The Way I Feel by Janan Cain or Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney. You can also practice making faces in a mirror or draw pictures of people who are happy, sad, or mad. Mismanagement of emotions is the cause of most behavior issues, so teaching children about feelings can often prevent difficult behavior.
Finally, the best way to teach your child about handling emotions appropriately, resolving conflicts, and demonstrating positive behavior is to practice what you teach. Be a role model of the expectations you have for your child’s behavior and social interactions. As the psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”
Guidance Tips and Strategies
- Everyone needs reminders. Remain calm when you need to explain a rule or expectation several times. Remember that children learn through repetition. Explain why that rule is important to help make it more meaningful and easier to remember. For example, “It is not safe to go out to the street for your ball because a person driving might not see you. If your ball goes in the street, tell me and I will help.”
- Set the stage for success. When you are going somewhere like the store, park, bank, or a friend’s house, explain your expectations first. Take a few moments at home to say, “We are going to the store. When I park, you need to stay in the car until I say it is safe to get out. I expect you to stay next to the shopping cart where I can keep you safe. We are only going to buy things that are on my list today.” When you arrive at the store, repeat the expectations again before getting out of the car. If children ask for candy or other items in the store, calmly say, “Remember that today we are only buying things on my list. That is not on my list.”
- Engage and involve children in routine tasks with pictures. You will need index cards or white paper, a hole punch, some yarn, glue, and pictures from the internet related to the routine. Print pictures from the internet and glue them on to an index card or a sheet of paper, then punch one to three holes on one side and bind them together with yarn. You can use these pictures as visual cues that involve your child in what you are doing and keep him busy. For example, you might collect pictures of the items you regularly purchase at the grocery store. When you go to the store, your child can hold the picture book and help you find items on the list. You can also use picture charts or books to illustrate the daily routine. You can engage your child by asking, “What did we just do? What will we do next?”
- Be prepared for meltdowns. It happens to every parent at one time or another so there is no need to be embarrassed. Focus on what your child needs instead of worrying about how other people might react. If it is safe to do so, stop and give your child time to calm down. Place a comfort item like a favorite toy or blanket next to your child and give him space. While you wait for him to soothe himself, think about why the behavior is happening. Is he tired? Hungry? Has he recently spent time with someone who gives in to tantrums and therefore he believes that he can get what he wants this way? Is the store too loud, bright, or stimulating? Understanding why the behavior is happening can help you avoid it in the future. Once calm, acknowledge his feelings, thank him for calming down, and talk about what happened.
- Use American Sign Language (ASL) with your child. Some children who are still developing verbal skills such as infants, toddlers, or a child with a special need that affects speech or hearing, may resort to biting, pinching, hitting, kicking, or pushing in order to communicate. Teach your child ASL to build his communication skills and reduce his level of stress, frustration, or anger. You might start with a few basics like: eat, milk, more, stop, and toilet. You can find more information and resources in our blog on Baby Sign Language (link below).
- Play the “Fast Hands game” to diffuse anger. Whenever you have a few free minutes with your child, you can practice the Fast Hands game. Challenge him to put his hands behind his back and clasp them together faster than you can. Explain that every time he hears the word “hands” he needs to put his hands together behind his back. Make up a short little story that uses the word “hands.” Explain to your child that whenever he feels mad he can play the Fast Hands game. If you see your child get angry say, “Let’s play Fast Hands.” This game will allow him to clench his fists, while avoiding hitting or pushing someone (The Fast Hands game is courtesy of Dr. Ann Corwin; video link below).
- Encourage independence. Allow your child to make decisions whenever possible and to help with small chores around the house. Successfully completing small tasks will build your child’s self-esteem and confidence. He will begin to see himself as competent and capable. Your child will take pride in his achievements and take more interest in managing his own behavior. For ideas of tasks children are able to do, read our blog Age Appropriate Chores (link below).
- Make a behavior contract. If your child is struggling with a particular behavior like fighting or lying, have a meeting with him and create a family behavior contract. Talk about your expectations, ask why the behavior is happening, and share ideas for handling the situation better. Involve your child in determining why the behavior is happening and in developing better solutions. Put the contract in writing. Start by writing the goals, then what your child agrees to do, and then what you will do to support him. Both of you should sign the contract. This gives your child the opportunity to consider his actions and be responsible for his own behavior.
- Practice deep breathing. Each night before bed, practice deep breathing with your child. Explain that when we feel strong emotions like anger, frustration, or sadness it can help our bodies relax to take deep breaths. Try breathing like a bunny by taking two quick breaths through your nose and one long breath out through your mouth. By teaching this coping technique to your child, you are giving him a tool to use when he needs to calm down in stressful situations. This is also a method you can use to calm yourself down when you are frustrated by your child’s behavior.
- Dance, or exercise it out. If you notice your child is having a tough day, smile, put on his favorite song, and start dancing. You can also go outside to throw and kick a ball, or throw a sponge back and forth indoors. Exercising for a few minutes opens up the lungs to get oxygen moving and creates endorphins that will improve your child’s mood.
- Remove privileges that are related to the behavior. If difficult behavior is directly related to an object or activity, removing that privilege can be an effective tool. For example, if your child is using his tablet or computer to access websites that are inappropriate or spending too much time playing games, then you can remove the device for a time, or use parental controls to block undesirable sites and limit the time spent using the device.
- Create a code word. You and your child can develop a special code word to use when both of you are feeling overwhelmed and need some time alone. Sometimes it is hard for parents and children to be honest about needing a break because they are worried about hurting each other’s feelings, but learning when to take a step back from a situation is an important skill. Agree with your child when and how to use the code word. For example, “We are going to Frank’s house for Thanksgiving. I know it can be loud and busy. If it gets to be too much and you need a break, then use the code word and I will find a cozy, quiet spot where you can read or draw.”
For further information, please explore the references and resources below.
- Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning: Family Tools
- Challenging Behaviors: Infants and Toddlers by Zero to Three
- Disciplining Your Child by KidsHealth®
- Disciplining Your Child with Special Needs by KidsHealth®
- Download Parent-Child Behavior Contracts by Understood.org
- Fast Hands Game by Dr. Ann Corwin (Video)
- 4 Breathing Exercises for Kids by Liz Bragdon
- How to Shape and Manage Your Young Child’s Behavior by HealthyChildren.org
- Parenting Cue Cards: Positive Discipline by GreatSchools.org
Behavior Resources from Children’s Home Society of California (CHS)
- Age Appropriate Chores (Blog)
- Anger Management for You and Your Child (Blog)
- Baby Sign Language (Blog)
- Creative Solutions for Guiding Behavior (Blog)
- Family Education Program brochures about child development
- Family Education Program podcasts
- Helping Your Child to Socialize with Others (Blog)
- Interactive Online Presentations