Managing Difficult Behavior in Children

by Evelyn Block

Managing difficult behavior in children is always a challenge. But if you are predictably consistent, reliable and persistent in working toward the behavioral goals you have set for a child, you are more likely to get the type of behaviors you are seeking. Think of behavior in terms of CPR--only this CPR means that you are consistent in your expectations, persistent in getting the behaviors you want and reliable in terms of how you react when a child simply doesn't cooperate.

Why Children Misbehave

Children frequently misbehave when their routine has been disrupted. If you take a child into a public place and allow him to skip a routine nap, the combination of exhaustion and overstimulation is likely to cause him to misbehave. The same is true of a hungry child. Children who are ill or on the verge of getting sick are also likely to act out. Medical factors, unreasonable expectations, pain or injury are other reasons a child may misbehave. Before you begin to implement an approach to managing the child's behavior, be certain that his needs have been met and your expectations are appropriate for the developmental stage at which he functions.

Remember Who is in Charge

When your child's poor behavior has you yelling at her one moment and then pleading with her the next, there is no doubt about who is in charge. Do your best to remain calm and use the same tone of voice when speaking with a child who is misbehaving. State clearly and succinctly what you expect her to do. Try to frame it positively as in "I want you to ..." rather than focusing on what your child is doing wrong. Children tune out quickly when they realize the adult has lost control.

Take It a Step at a Time

It takes time to change behavior and the most common mistake occurs when you try to do too much at once. Pick the behavior that disturbs you the most and work towards correcting it, rather than trying to change everything at once. Each successful change will empower you to move on to correct more difficult behaviors.

Rewards or Consequences?

Decide whether the child's behavior requires a consequence when it occurs or if you want to reward the child for a particular behavior (or for not doing something such as whining in the grocery store). Whichever you choose, make the reward or consequence as immediate as you can, especially with young children. Be consistent about rewarding or providing consequences for the behavior until you get the results you want.

Spend Time and Pay Attention

Having a child with you and spending time on your cell phone does not provide appropriate attention for the child. Be sure that you have you some time set aside each day to focus entirely on the child. Talk about the day, behaviors, hopes, dreams and expectations. The more calm, neutral attention your child receives the less likely he is to demand attention with inappropriate behaviors. To elicit good behavior, you need to spend quality time with a child, not just quantity time.

About the Author

Evelyn Block has almost 30 years of experience as a family therapist, educator at the elementary and university levels, consultant to corporations and parent. She is a graduate of City College of New York, the College of New Rochelle, and the PHD program at the University of Texas at Dallas where she studied Human Development and Communication Sciences.