Managing difficult behaviours in your child

Difficult behaviours are your child’s reaction to becoming overwhelmed and not yet having the skills to cope. They are not being deliberately aggressive or hurtful. It's important to take a moment to remember this, and consider how your feelings are affecting the way you react to your child.

You shouldn’t react with anger when your child uses difficult behaviours because it will only make them more distressed. Reacting calmly to difficult behaviour can help teach your child to manage their emotions, and reduce difficult behaviour in the future.

Remember that difficult behaviour is part of your child’s normal growth and development.

If your child misbehaves you could try to:

  • ignore minor bad behaviour - if they don’t get attention for it, they will stop
  • give them a firm, quiet explanation of why their behaviour is unacceptable
  • be consistent - if children learn their are no consequences for misbehaviour the behaviour will continue
  • criticise the behaviour not the child - for example, instead of saying “You’re so naughty, why can’t you be good?”, you could say “Pushing is not nice. It can hurt. Please wait for your turn.”
  • make sure your child is not hungry or tired - this can cause them to be upset and misbehave

Never hit your child.

If the misbehaviour becomes serious

If your child is over 3 years old and their misbehaviour becomes serious, you could remove your child from where they are misbehaving. Explain to them why the behaviour is not acceptable. Only allow the child to return to the activity when they have calmed down.

If the behaviour is particularly serious, you can put a consequence in place. Children will not learn if you don’t follow through with what you said would happen. If children are fighting over a toy or activity, you can remove it for a short period (anything up to 30 minutes is enough).

Explain that you expect them to share and you will return the toy or activity when they calm down. When you return the toy or activity, explain the rules again. If the fighting continues, take the toy or activity for a longer period.

Time out

You could take your child away from a stressful situation and put them in a place with no distractions for a short time. This is known as a time out.

Time out is not useful if your child:

  • is under 3 years old and does not understand why they are being disciplined
  • has special needs and is unable to co-operate with you in spending time alone

Alternatives to time out include ‘time in’ and planned ignoring.

‘Time in’

If your child is out of control but will accept soothing from you, physically comfort your child to help them calm down. For example, give them a hug. This is not giving in. This is helping your child to calm down so that the situation can be handled in a calm way.

Planned ignoring

If your child is out of control but not harming themselves, ignoring the behaviour can be very helpful. Paying attention to something else, like a truck passing the home, can distract your child and help move them from the distressing situation.

Reward charts

Reward charts can be helpful but they need to be specific if you want to target a particular behaviour problem. For example, if your child is hitting, look for 2 times during the day when they are not hitting anyone. Praise your child and put 2 stickers on the reward chart.

When your child has a certain amount of stickers, reward them with a treat like a trip to the park or a small toy. It is better if the treats are not food.

How you react to misbehaviour
Your child learns how to manage their feelings by watching how you react to misbehaviour.

Try to:

  • Stay calm.
  • Be realistic in what you expect from your child. For example, many small children cannot handle long shopping trips.
  • Tell your child how you expect them to behave. Explain what is wrong when your child does misbehave.
  • Set a good example.
  • Take time out, or use alternatives.
  • Remember your child is not doing this on purpose. Unacceptable behaviour is a normal part of their growth and development.
  • Ask for help – it is normal to feel angry and frustrated at times.
  • Ask for advice, especially if the behaviour continues and you feel lost.
  • Look out for parenting programmes in your area. You could learn strategies to help you promote positive behaviour.

Page last reviewed: 20 November 2018
Next review due: 20 November 2021