Much of children’s behavior is normal. Tantrums are common in kids under age six, young children are more likely to struggle with impulse control and children who have not yet learned to deal with big emotions are more likely to hit, scream, bite or act aggressive. Adopting appropriate discipline age-appropriate strategies often make it easier to deal with normal misbehavior. But there are times when your child’s behavior is not normal, and it is not always easy to know the behavior to correct, the behavior to ignore and the behavior to worry about.
Understanding disruptive behavior in your child
There is no easy answer to the question “should I worry about this?” Part of the reason is that childhood is a period fraught with uncertainty, meaning that your child may act angry, stressed, anxious or hyperactive in some situations but not in others. Your son may be an anxious mess at the thought of changing classes and be totally comfortable starting a new extracurricular activity in a place he has never been to and with a teacher he has never seen before. Or your daughter may have a hard time keeping still and paying attention in class, then be the very model of attentiveness during her piano classes.
What this means is that there is no reason to worry if you perceive frequent changes in your child’s behavior. It is not uncommon for that behavior to change, usually because of changes occurring in your child’s life. That said, there are several warning signs that can help you determine whether your child’s behavior is problematic.
Six signs that point to disruptive behavior in children
- Duration of the behavior
If your child continues to display the same behavior days after the event that caused the behavior has passed may be the sign of problem behavior. Also, if your child always seem to display the same behavior irrespective of the situation (for instance, he is always angry, nervous, defiant, argumentative, etc.), this could mean that he needs help.
2) Intensity of your child’s behavior
Intense reactions are not uncommon in children, especially when they are faced with new situations. However, there is cause for concern if your child’s reactions are always out of proportion to the actual situation. This may look like:
- Intense clinginess
- Panic attacks when faced with an unthreatening situation
- Violent outbursts for no apparent reason
- Intense reactions in the face of a situation she is familiar with
- Crying spells that last way too long
3) Harmful behavior
Harmful behavior, irrespective of whether that behavior is targeted toward himself or others, is always cause for concern. This may involve:
- Engaging in self-injurious behavior (head banging, bruising, scratching the skin, etc)
- Breaking things because he didn’t get his way
- Being aggressive toward others (biting, hitting, kicking, etc)
- Deliberately hurting animals (hitting, mistreating etc.)
4) Developmentally inappropriate behavior
After age six, children tend to have fewer and shorter tantrums because they can deal with their emotions more appropriately. Also, as children get older, they tend to be able to focus and concentrate for longer periods or to be less hyperactive. Your child’s developmentally inappropriate behavior means that he needs your help to acquire certain skills he may be lacking.
5) Context in which your child’s behavior occurs
Children tend to “act worse” at home, because that is where they feel safest to be themselves. There may be a problem with her behavior if:
- You constantly get reports from school about her inappropriate behavior.
- Her behavior is disruptive to your family life. For instance, your family decisions may revolve around how she will react to a certain situation.
- Her siblings never want to play with her because of her behavior
- Constant sibling fights often sparked by her behavior
Although regression in children is fairly common, it may be a cause for concern. This could look anything like:
- Going back to thumb sucking when she had stopped months earlier
- Refusing to use the toilet although she’s mastered toilet training
- Refusing to do things (get dressed, shower, brush teeth, etc. ) she used to do by herself
- Display separation anxiety when she had always loved going to school
- Disrupted sleep
There is no need to panic if you have noticed any of these signs in your child. An age-appropriate discipline strategy can help change the behavior of even the most “difficult” kids. Instead of thinking of your child as disruptive, it may help to think of her as “in the process of acquiring important skills”.
Much evidence suggests that most children behave “inappropriately” because they lack the skills or the information they need to deal with problems that overwhelm them. That is why a child who is anxious or worried will throw a tantrum because she is unable to put her emotions into words, or a child who is frustrated will lash out in an attempt to calm his feelings of frustration. Researchers such as Adele Diamond have shown the extent to which your child’s self-regulation skills affect his behavior and even the development of skills such as the ability to focus, listen to, and follow directions.
When your child’s inappropriate behavior persists despite any of your discipline attempts, it may be time to look at different ways of dealing with that behavior. The good news is that the effectiveness of certain discipline strategies has been repeatedly proven.
Here are three things you can start doing today if you are worried about your child’s behavior.
Three practical tips to deal with your child’s disruptive behavior
- Positive discipline strategies can improve your child’s behavior
If you are struggling with your child’s negative behavior, you know by know that harsh discipline strategies rarely work. Time-out is likely to be ineffective, yelling rarely gets you the behavior you want, and your child’s behavior seems to get worse no matter what discipline strategy you try.
There is much evidence that positive discipline strategies are remarkably effective in reducing misbehavior because:
- They show your child that you believe he is capable of success
- They help your child feel good about himself
- They help re(establish) the parent/child bond, which makes your child want to behave appropriately to please you
- They help your child feel like he is responsible for his own behavior
It is important for your child to believe that he is capable of displaying appropriate behavior. This is especially important because “disruptive” children tend to be described using negative labels, and they may learn to believe that they are incapable of behaving otherwise. The Pygmalion and Golem effects have shown that expectations influence behavior. While the Pygmalion effect suggests that having appropriate behavioral expectations leads to appropriate behavior, the Golem effect shows that when you have low behavioral expectations of your child, he will fulfill them.
Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective positive discipline strategies that can help your child believe in his ability to “behave appropriately”. This means focusing on his positive behavior and ignoring negative behavior when you can (for instance the behavior that is not harmful to himself or others). But positive reinforcement has nothing to do with “bribing” your child to act appropriately. It is about teaching your child the behavior that is inacceptable and helping him understand the behavior with which he can replace it, first using positive reinforcement, then getting him to behave in a specific way without reinforcement.
To be effective, this discipline approach must be applied effectively. You must choose your child’s behavior calendar and behavior incentives wisely, watch out for common pitfall, and adopt the strategy in a way that ensures your chances of success. The Positive Behavior Kit has all the resources you need to successfully apply this strategy in a way that will reduce your child’s problem behavior.
2) Strengthening your child’s emotion regulations skills can help reduce problem behavior
Children who have not learned to manage their emotions are a disadvantage compared to those who have. Science says that these children:
- Are more likely to display inappropriate behavior when faced with difficult situations (biting, hitting, head banging, throwing and breaking things, etc.).
- Are more likely to struggle with making and keeping friends.
- Are more likely to “camouflage” their emotions. For instance, a child who is anxious because he is frustrated with his reading skills may constantly be aggressive toward his classmates to hide his feelings (or she may believe that acting that way will help her feel better)
Teaching your child to understand different emotions is therefore essential to reducing your child’s inappropriate behavior, and it is never too early to start. There are many great tips your can start using from today to help your child understand different emotions. Talking about emotions is a great start, but it is insufficient on its own. Your child needs to know what triggers those emotions, how those emotions feel in his body and, most importantly, how he can deal with those emotions in an appropriate manner. Certain age-appropriate tools can provide you with the tools you need to boost your child’s emotional intelligence.
3) A strong parent/child bond reduces disruptive behavior
The more your child feels that you share a strong bond, the more he will try to please you. That makes perfect sense: we do our best when we are among people we appreciate. Several studies have found that children are most disruptive when they feel that they no longer have a strong connection with their parents. This lack of connection makes them feel like they “no longer have anything to lose”, and therefore has an impact on their behavior.
The 5:1 relationship ratio was developed by Gottman and Levenson. This ratio suggests that for strong relationships, each negative interaction requires at least five positive interactions. Concretely, after a reproach, a positive interaction may look like giving your child a hug, praising specific behavior, reading a book together, going for a walk together, making a meal together, etc.
If you are struggling with your child’s behavior, strengthening your family’s bond is an easy and effective way that can help reduce misbehavior. The good news is that there are easy ways to get started:
- Start a family tradition that the whole family can participate in (movie night, game night, family reading marathon, Sunday brunch, a pancake day, video game night etc). Remember that for this to work, everyone has to participate!
- Start a morning or evening routine
- Find at least one thing to do everyday for five minutes with each of your kids (don’t just say you’ll do it, grab a sheet of paper and write exactly what you’ll do, when, and with each kid. Or try the 30-day challenge below.
When to seek professional help for your child’s behavior
Before age nine, most of children’s behavior can be managed by adopting appropriate discipline strategies. The key lies in finding an approach that works for both you and your child and understanding different strategies and which one you can use depending on the situation. Resources such as the Discipline Bundle can help familiarize you with different discipline strategies you can incorporate into your discipline toolbox.
That said, in certain situations, your child’s behavior may require the intervention of a professional. Please seek help if:
- Your child displays behavior that is harmful to himself or others
- Your child’s behavior is causing you and your family great distress
- Your child’s behavior is interfering with his school and home life
- Your child’s behavior seems to get worse despite all your attempts to help him replace negative behavior with positive behavior
A good rule is to seek help any time you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your child’s behavior. Remember that this rarely has anything to do with your parenting skills and is often determined by specific behavioral disorders or by your child’s temperament. The good news is that professionals can help you adopt a strategy adapted to your child’s needs.