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Dealing with child behaviour problems

Every child will have periods of challenging behaviour. This is normal. You are not alone.

Children do not misbehave on purpose. Your child’s brain is still developing. Young children do not yet have the skills to fully manage their emotions. They need your support and help to do this.

What we mean by challenging behaviour

Examples of behaviour parents may find challenging include:

  • whining
  • crying
  • fighting
  • frustration
  • kicking
  • shouting
  • screaming
  • pulling hair
  • throwing objects

Toddler temper tantrums

Your child's way of communicating

Your child’s behaviour is their way of expressing what they need. It is important to take time to try to understand your child’s behaviour.

Behaviour is always triggered by an emotion or feeling. They are too young to have the words or skills to manage big feelings such as:

  • frustration
  • excitement
  • sadness

How to handle challenging behaviour

There are things that you can do to help your child deal with big emotions when they experience them

Do

  • be realistic in what you expect from them - for example, many young children cannot handle long shopping trips

  • stay calm

  • tune into what’s happening for your child

  • stay with your child

  • find a quiet space, if possible

  • name the emotion, for example: "I know you got angry because you wanted the toy, it's OK to feel angry but it's not OK to hit or kick"

When your child is calm you can help your child understand what they are feeling and how to support their behaviour.

Ask for advice

All parents need help sometimes. It is normal to feel angry and frustrated. Ask for advice, especially if the behaviour continues and you feel lost.

Attending a parenting course in your area can help support your child with big emotions.

Avoid time out and the naughty step

Time out and the naughty step are strategies to avoid.

They give the message to your child that they should be able to cope on their own. They can not cope on their own. They do not yet have the skills to fully manage their emotions and calm themselves.

Using time out and the naughty step may only make your child feel isolated and rejected.

Instead, be calm and loving to support them when things are difficult. This will help them to manage their emotions.

Helping your baby regulate their emotions (video)

Support your child to behave better

Do

  • praise good behaviour

  • set a good example by acting calmly and respectfully - children will copy what you do

  • have clear rules and boundaries that are short, easy to understand, fair and apply to everyone at home

  • keep to a routine - your child will feel secure if things happen at roughly the same time each day

  • explain any changes to a routine

  • be consistent - agree a consistent approach at home

Anticipate problems

If you know you are going to be waiting somewhere for a period of time, think of activities you and your child can do together to keep them busy.

Problems are more likely to happen when your child is hungry, tired or bored. Having healthy snacks to hand is often a good idea. Try not to plan activities during nap time or close to bedtime.

Things that can affect your child's behaviour

Things that can affect your child's behaviour include:

  • hunger
  • tiredness
  • frustration - when they do not have the language or skills to express themselves
  • trying to get your attention
  • expressing independence
  • feeling stressed or overwhelmed
  • being too young to understand an instruction
  • parental stress - a change in family circumstances such as new sibling
  • a new experience such as starting childcare

When you feel angry or lose your temper

Parenting can be challenging and stressful. You need to take care of yourself as well as your child

Sometimes you might lose your temper. This may be triggered by your child’s behaviour. It can often lead to you and your child being upset and feeling hurt.

Say sorry to your child. Let them see how you deal with the situation. For example, you might say "I am sorry I lost my temper and got angry and started to shout. That was the wrong thing to do."

Adults also have big emotions and feelings. It is important to recognise when you become angry.

Signs you are angry include:

  • fast heartbeat
  • quicker breaths
  • clenched jaw or fists
  • tense shoulders
  • flushed face

In recognising these symptoms you can:

  • see when you are starting to feel angry and name it by saying "I am feeling angry because…"
  • try to slow your breathing down - breath in for 2 seconds and out for 4 seconds
  • take some time out for yourself if it is safe to do so - ask a friend or partner to step in and give you a break

It might be useful to reflect on the situation so you can learn why your reaction was the way it was. This might help you identify how you might handle other situations.

Parenting advice for difficult days

Getting support

If you are finding your child’s behaviour stressful talk to your partner or a friend.

If you feel you need more support or advice contact your:

  • local family resource centre
  • public health nurse
  • GP
  • GP practice nurse

Your GP can help you if you are feeling under pressure and would like support with your parenting

You can also call Parentline on 1890 927 277

Extra support for parents

Page last reviewed: 24 August 2023
Next review due: 24 August 2026