Responding to Problem Behavior

When kids are acting out parents often feel powerless. You may have tried different techniques for discipline, but without much success. In fact, trying too many different strategies for managing disruptive behavior can sometimes be part of the problem, since kids respond better to firm boundaries that are consistently reinforced. But if you haven’t seen progress before now, don’t feel discouraged, because parents have more power than they may realize when kids are being oppositional. By using strategies that are informed by child psychologists who specialize in behavior management, you can begin to improve kids’ behavior and even improve the parent-child relationship.

This section begins with some general rules of thumb recommended by behavior experts as effective strategies for responding to problem behavior in the moment. Next it examines problem behavior in greater depth, which can be helpful for parents who want to understand more about why kids act out, and how to tackle specific behaviors you would like to change.

Tips for responding in the moment:

  • Don’t give in. Resist the temptation to end your child’s tantrum by giving her what she wants when she explodes. Giving in teaches her that tantrums work.
  • Remain calm. Harsh or emotional responses tend to escalate a child’s aggression, be it verbal or physical. By staying calm, you’re also modeling for your child the type of behavior you want to see in him.
  • Ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior. Ignore minor misbehavior, since even negative attention like reprimanding or telling the child to stop can reinforce her actions. Instead, provide lots of labeled praise on behaviors you want to encourage. (Don’t just say “good job,” say “good job calming down.”)
  • Use consistent consequences. Your child needs to know what the consequences are for negative behaviors, such as time outs, as well as rewards for positive behaviors, like time on the iPad. And you need to show him you follow through with these consequences every time.
  • Wait to talk until the meltdown is over. Don’t try to reason with a child who is upset. You want to encourage a child to practice negotiating when she’s not blowing up (and you’re not either).

Targeting specific behaviors

When you are trying to manage disruptive behavior, it is helpful to identify specific behaviors that you are trying to change (or encourage). It’s true that when families are feeling overwhelmed sometimes it can seem like every interaction is a struggle. However, identifying specific behaviors is an important first step to effective discipline. Taking behaviors one at a time allows you to be more focused, gain a better understanding of why the behavior is happening, and have a greater sense of control. Of course, there may be multiple behaviors that you would like to change, but evaluating them one by one is important.

Target behaviors should be:

  • Specific (so expectations are clear to everyone in the family)
  • Observable
  • Measurable (so everyone can agree whether or not the behavior happened)

An example of a poorly defined behavior is “acting out” or “being good.” A well-defined behavior would be running around the room (bad) or starting homework on time (good).

Before the behavior happens

When you are thinking about a particular behavior that you are targeting, it is important to think about what generally happens before that behavior and may be triggering it. This helps parents understand not only why a child might be acting out but also how anticipating certain triggers might help prevent those behaviors from happening. Parents can also examine the triggers that make positive behaviors (like obeying a command on the first time) more likely.

Potential triggers to avoid

These things often lead to misbehavior.

  • Assuming your expectations are understood: Kids may not know what is expected of them — even if you assume they do. Demands change from situation to situation and when children are unsure of what they are supposed to be doing, they’re more likely to misbehave.
  • Calling things out from a distance: Tell your children important instructions when you are face-to-face. Directions that are yelled from a distance are less likely to be remembered and understood.
  • Transitioning without warning: Transitions can be hard for kids, especially if they are in the middle of doing something they enjoy. When kids are given a warning and have a chance to find a good stopping place, transitions can be less fraught.
  • Asking rapid-fire questions, or giving a series of instructions: Delivering a series of questions or instructions limits the likelihood that children will hear, answer questions, remember the tasks, and do what they’ve been instructed to do.

Potential triggers to embrace

These are things that can bolster good behavior.

  • Adjusting the environment: Try to manage environmental and emotional factors that can make it much more difficult for children to rein in their behavior. Things to consider: hunger, fatigue, anxiety or distractions. When it’s homework time, for instance, remove distractions like screens and toys, provide snacks, establish an organized place for kids to work and make sure to schedule some breaks.
  • Making expectations clear: You and your child should be clear on what’s expected. Even if he “should” know what is expected, clarifying expectations at the outset of a task helps head off misunderstandings down the line.
  • Providing countdowns for transitions: Whenever possible, prepare children for an upcoming transition. For example, give her a 10-minute warning when it is time to come to dinner or start homework. Then follow up when there are 2 minutes left. Just as important as issuing the countdown is actually making the transition at the stated time.
  • Letting kids have a choice: As kids grow up, it’s important they have a say in their own scheduling. Giving a structured choice — “Do you want to take a shower after dinner or before?” — can help them feel empowered and encourage them to become more self-regulating.

After the behavior happens

Considering what happens after a targeted behavior is important because consequences can affect the likelihood of a behavior recurring. That is true for consequences that are positive (like getting an extra 10 minutes of screen time) or negative (like getting a time out).

Some consequences are more effective than others. Ideally consequences create structure and help kids understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. However, consequences can also do more harm than good when they are sending the wrong message. Understanding how to use smart and consistent consequences makes all the difference.

Consequences that aren’t effective

These types of consequences are common, but they generally don’t have the desired effect.

  • Giving negative attention: It seems counterintuitive, but consequences that seem negative to us (like raising your voice or spanking) can sometimes reinforce the very behavior we are trying to prevent. That’s because children value attention from the important adults in their life so much that any attention — positive or negative — is better than none. That’s why negative attention can actually increase bad behavior over time. Responding to behaviors with criticism or yelling can also adversely affect children’s self-esteem.
  • Delayed consequences: Immediate consequences are the most effective. Children are less likely to link their behavior to a consequence if there is a lot of time between the two, which means delayed consequences are less likely to actually change a child’s behavior.
  • Disproportionate consequences: Parents can sometimes become so frustrated that they overreact when giving consequences, which is understandable. However, a huge consequence can be demoralizing for children, and they may give up even trying to behave.
  • Consequences that are accommodating: When a child is slow to doing something you want him to do, like picking up his toys, many parents will become frustrated and just do it themselves. While this reaction is also understandable, it also increases the likelihood that he will dawdle again next time.

Consequences that are effective

Consequences that are more effective begin with generous attention to the behaviors you want to encourage.

  • Positive attention for positive behaviors:Praising children when you “catch them being good” makes them more likely to repeat that good behavior in the future. Positive attention is also a good thing for the parent-child relationship, improves a child’s self-esteem, and feels good for everyone involved.
  • Ignoring actively: This consequence might seem counterintuitive, but child behavior experts often teach “active ignoring” as an effective behavior management strategy. To perform active ignoring, deliberately withdraw your attention when a child starts to misbehave. As children learn that acting out doesn’t get them your attention, they will begin to do it less. An important component of active ignoring is to immediately give a child positive attention as soon as he exhibits behavior you do want to see, like sitting calmly. Of course, this consequence should be used only for minor misbehavior — active ignoring is not appropriate when a child is being aggressive or doing something dangerous.
  • Reward menus:Rewards are a tangible way to give children positive feedback for desired behaviors. Rewards are most motivating when children can choose from a variety of desirable things: extra time on the iPad, a special treat, etc. Rewards should be linked to specific behaviors and always delivered consistently.
  • Time outs: Time outs are one of the most effective consequences parents can use, but also one of the hardest to do correctly. The next section in the guide gives parents tips on how to have a successful time out.

Example: Targeting a specific behavior

Set a specific behavior that you want to target

Stop jumping on the couch

Examine triggers

Your daughter often starts jumping on the couch when you go to change the baby’s diaper or give him a bath.

Possible solution: Come up with ways your daughter can “help” you do these tasks. Her assistance may slow you down slightly, but it gives her something positive to do — and it makes her feel like she’s still getting your attention. When she helps out, praise her for being such a good big sister.

Examine consequences

Ineffective consequence: Yelling, “I’ve told you this a million times, Katie, you can’t jump on the couch! Why do you keep doing it?!”

Effective consequence: Send to time out immediately.