There are many forms of problem behavior in children:
- Repeated tantrums and inappropriate behavior such as biting or hitting
- Back-talk and general bad language
- Tendency to ignore rules and boundaries
- Inability to understand the behavior expected depending on the context
- Acting first, thinking later
- Disruptive acts
- Aggressive behavior
- Selectively following rules and instructions
- Out-of-control behavior (for example excessive anger)
Although all children display some form of problem behavior at some point in their lives, everyone suffers when that behavior is persistent.
Understanding your child’s problem behavior
Most forms of problem behavior are actually normal behavior. Inappropriate behavior in children is often their way of expressing themselves. It could be their way of showing that they need more independence, their way of attracting your attention or the means through which they express their difficulty to deal effectively with difficult emotions. Problem behavior often points to your child’s lack of mastery of certain skills.
That said, we now know that certain things may make problem behavior worse:
- Your child’s diet and behavior such as skipping meals can have an impact on his behavior. The available research suggests that children’s moods and levels of concentration can be affected by unhealthy diets (too fatty, too much sugar, milk products for children allergic to them, etc)
- Your children’s models have a major impact on their behavior. In Albert Bandura’s well-known “Bobo doll experiment”, children who were shown violent models acted more aggressively than those who were not.
- Your daughter’s inability to manage difficult emotions may be expressed through problem behavior. For example, she may camouflage her anxiety, brought about by her poor reading skills, by “disturbing” her classmates.
- You have probably noticed that fatigue makes your child’s behavior worse, and this makes perfect sense: we are the worst versions of ourselves when we are tired and feeling overwhelmed.
- Feelings of powerlessness may also influence children’s behavior. Your child may feel that aggressive behavior is the only way to attract the attention he seeks.
- Your expectations influence your child’s problem behavior. The more you expect your child to act inappropriately, the more he will.
- Choosing an inappropriate discipline strategy can also aggravate your child’s behavior.
- Behavioral disorders may explain your child’s difficult behavior. This means that this behavior may be tied to his temperament. A strong-willed child is more likely to display what we refer to as “problem behavior” than a child with a milder temperament.
The good news is that a few simple strategies can help drastically reduce your child’s problem behavior. Here are just a few of them:
5 ways to reduce your child’s problem behavior
- Get to the root of the problem
If you understand the reasons behind your child’s behavior, it will be easier to deal with it. But that does not mean that this is always an easy task. Your child’s behavior may be affected by many things, and he himself may be unaware of the reasons driving that behavior.
Also, it is not uncommon for the behavior displayed to be simply a “camouflage” for other issues. For example, your child’s frustration with his inability to make a machine work may be displayed as anger (aggressive behavior, hitting, kicking the machine, etc), making it harder for you to understand that frustration is actually the underlying problem.
Observing your child’s behavior – when does that behavior occur? Does it occur on the same days or around the same time every day? What is he usually doing when he displays problem behavior? What was he doing just before displaying that behavior? – can make it easier to understand the underlying behavior.
Remember that your child’s problem behavior may also be associated with other issues such as working memory issues which could explain his perceived “inability to follow rules and instructions”, or with executive function problems. This is especially common in younger children who are yet to fully develop these skills.
2) Strengthening your child’s emotion regulation skills can help reduce problem behavior
Research has demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that an emotionally intelligent child has better social, academic and psychological outcomes. It is easier for this child to behave according to what is expected of her, ask for help when she needs it and respect general rules and limits.
The first step in boosting your child’s emotional intelligence is to help her understand different emotions in herself and others. There are books to help, but talking about your own emotions and how you deal with them is one of the most effective ways of teaching her that emotions are normal and manageable. If you need help, age-appropriate resources can provide you with the tools you need to teach your child about identifying emotions, understanding how those emotions manifest in her body, and choosing appropriate coping strategies that are right for her.
3) Focus on your child’s positive behavior to eliminate difficult behavior
It has been repeatedly proven that just as focusing on positive behavior reinforces it, focusing on negative behavior increases the chances of that behavior being repeated.
Gottman and Levenson’s 5 to 1 ratio has been found to be as effective in couple’s staying power as in strong parent-child relationships and reduced problem behavior.
These researchers found that to develop strong and positive relationships, each negative interaction requires at least five positive interactions. This means that the more you focus on your child’s positive behavior, the higher the chances that that behavior will be repeated.
In the same vein, using positive reinforcement is an effective and scientifically validated strategy that can help reduce problem behavior. That said, positive reinforcement is not designed to be a “long-term strategy”. Its objective is to help your child replace specific negative habits, with other specific positive ones. Tools exist to help you adopt a positive reinforcement strategy in a way that actually works.
4) Be clear about expectations and consequences
Much of your child’s behavior may be explained by the fact that you are not always on the same wavelength. If he is not aware of what is expected of him, his behavior is likely to worsen. Setting clear, fair and reasonable expectations is therefore an important step in tackling problem behavior. Both you and your child should know what is expected of him.
But having clear expectations alone is not enough. What happens if your child does not respect the boundaries set? If your reaction changes each time expectations are not met (for example sometimes you discipline certain behavior and other times you ignore it), you send mixed signals which is likely to aggravate his behavior.
That said, you can’t set “expectations and consequences” for ALL of your child’s behavior so choose what really matters and be willing to ignore normal childhood behavior.
5) Develop your own discipline toolbox
Positive discipline strategies can work with one child and be a total disaster with another. One child may respond to a time-in on some occasions, while another may behave even worse when time-in is used as a discipline strategy.
What we now know is that different discipline strategies work for different children, and even that the same strategy may not always work in different contexts. This means that developing your own discipline toolbox with different discipline strategies can make it easier to deal with your child’s problem behavior in different contexts.
Henry Ford once said that “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” The thing is, not every strategy will work, and it is important to know when to let go of a strategy that is making your child’s behavior worse and try something different.
When should you seek help for your child’s problem behavior?
Unfortunately, problem behavior may point to more serious issues that require professional help. Please seek help if:
- Your child’s behavior gets worse despite your intervention.
- Your child is at risk of self-harm or harm to others
- Your child’s behavior has serious implications on her home and school life
- You feel that your child may be suffering from development issues
- Your child displays excessive behavior several times a day
If you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your child’s problem behavior, a professional can help you identify appropriate strategies to help your child and your family.