Care 101: Behavior Problems in Children

May 30, 2017

Every parent's how-to guide for dealing with difficult behaviors in children. Learn how to replace your kid's bad behaviors with more acceptable ones.



"I will never let my kids get away with that!" You've probably held this attitude toward other kids' bad behaviors at some point. But now that your child is testing boundaries, you're starting to see how parents can sometimes cave. Whether out of fatigue, forgetfulness, uncertainty, or just plain old guilt, even you may have let some bad behaviors slide. So how do you teach your child that what they're doing is not appropriate?

For tips on dealing with behavior problems in children, experts Dr. Ray Guarendi, a psychologist and parent of 10 children, and Dr. Michele Borba, a parenting expert and author of the "Big Book of Parenting Solutions," offer advice you and your child's caregiver can start implementing today.

Replace Bad Behaviors
When your child is misbehaving, it's important to recognize their bad behavior and call it to their attention. The first step to addressing a bad behavior is speaking to your kid about it, and discussing how that behavior makes those around him feel. But eliminating a bad behavior is only half the battle, suggests Dr. Borba. More importantly, you should teach your child a replacement behavior.

"Behavior will not change permanently unless the child is taught a substitute behavior to replace it," she says. "Without an alternative, the child will naturally revert to the old misbehavior." For example, when you see kids excluding one particular child, encourage your child to invite everyone to play. When you see your child grabbing a toy away, gently remind your child to ask.

Does the replacement behavior seem awkward and unrealistic even as you instruct your child to implement it? Practice it together in a calm setting. One of the things kids love most is make-believe, so during a downtime, say "Let's pretend we're kids on the playground." Assign roles that will put the child in a position to choose to do good. For example, a bullying scene where your child gets to be a hero by suggesting a game that all the kids can do together. "Okay, you stand there and pretend I'm an unhappy kid, and I just pushed you and took your toy. What do you do? Lights, camera, ACTION!" Be sure to put a few silly jokes in there so that the exercise is lighthearted and fun.

Introduce Consequences
After that, it's time to follow through with consequences when the behavior is inevitably repeated as the child learns. "To deal with tough behaviors, you have to be willing to follow through on what you said," says Dr. Guarendi. "Discipline is action, not words." Let your child help brainstorm consequences for poor choices, so it will not be a surprise when it's time to implement them. For small children, social isolation is very effective; for older children, loss of privileges motivates change.

Reward Good Behaviors
Dr. Borba says that it takes 21 days to establish a new behavior as permanent. And eventually, these measures will do more than stop behavior problems in children -- you'll get to witness character change. "Every so often, lessening a discipline consequence or its duration because your child has shown the maturity to accept it without resistance or stubbornness is also no sign of parental weakness," says Dr. Guarendi. "It is a sign of mercy. And mercy is not inconsistency." Overcoming behavior problems takes time, but if you and your caregiving team are consistent and calm, and if you positively reinforce your child when he's showing good behavior, you'll all get through this together.

Remind Caregivers to Follow Your Plan
According to Dr. Borba, support is crucial. "Other caregivers must be on board -- be it spouse, grandparents, teachers, coaches or babysitters -- use the same makeover plan together," she says. "The more you work together, the quicker the problem will be history." Plus, the support you have from other caregivers will be a balm to your heart when you have to discipline your little one.

For more on discipline planning, check out Time Out: How to Create a Discipline Plan.

Bethany Johnson, a professional writer from Washington D.C., specializes in the quirks of family life and relationships. When she's not writing, Bethany and her husband raise both free-range chickens and free-range children on their organic farm in the suburbs.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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