Health Topics

Dealing with Difficult Behaviour

It is common for children to use difficult behaviours like grabbing, hitting, biting or having a tantrum when they are angry, want something they cannot have or when they want your attention. Your child uses difficult behaviours at these times because she has not learned the words and skills to deal with her feelings.

Your child is more likely to use difficult behaviours when she feels:

  • tired
  • hungry
  • bored
  • stressed
  • unwell 

Many parents feel embarrassed and frustrated when their child misbehaves. Avoid responding to your child’s behaviours with aggressive behaviours like yelling, name calling, threatening and spanking. If you get frustrated, go somewhere quiet for a few minutes to calm down. Taking time for yourself doing things you enjoy helps you cope as a parent.

How to prevent difficult behaviour

You can prevent difficult behaviours by:

  • Watching your child and looking for signs, such as pushing away a toy or whining, showing that she needs a change in activity or wants attention from you.
  • Trying to understand how your child is feeling and responding with patience. You can say, “You’re feeling tired now, let’s save this activity for later.”
  • Helping your child use words to express feelings. Say, "You are frustrated because you want that toy."
  • Responding quickly to stop difficult behaviours such as going to a quiet spot and helping your child calm down.
  • Distracting your child when she is showing signs that she is frustrated. You can get a new toy when your child wants the toy that another child is playing with.
  • Looking at the behaviours you and others are role modelling. Your child learns how to act by watching how you act at home and with others.

Some other ways to decrease difficult behaviours include:

  • distracting and redirecting your child with another activity
  • having clear rules that your child understands
  • being consistent
  • staying calm
  • having time every day when you can play with your child
  • being kind to your child as she is learning
  • using consequences for children over the age of three

Behaviours change slowly. Your child needs time to practice and learn positive behaviours. Be patient with your child and yourself as you are both learning how to deal with difficult behaviours.

Using rules and commands are important ways to decrease difficult behaviours.

Use commands when you want your child to do something such as, “Please put your seat belt on”.
Use rules to let your child know what she can or cannot do. Rules are important to keep your child safe and to avoid harmful situations. A family rule could be “Always wear your seatbelt when you are in the car”.

Follow these tips for using rules and commands in your family:

  • Limit the number of household rules. A long list of rules is hard to remember for both parents and children.
  • Take into account your child’s age. Your child needs to be able to understand the rules you are using.
  • Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. A rule should be “walk in the house” instead of “do not run in the house”.
  • Give one command at a time. Too many commands at one time can confuse your child and make it difficult to follow through.
  • Be clear with commands and rules that you use. Say, “Keep your hands to yourself” instead of “Let’s not do that anymore.”
  • Praise your child’s effort at following rules and commands. Praising helps this behaviour continue.

It is normal for children to test household rules. It is important to:

  • Be consistent with your rules
  • Follow through on consequences
  • Stay calm
  • Be polite with your child

You can use logical consequences to decrease difficult behaviours. Logical consequences are often used with rules. Decide on rules together as family and then decide what the consequence will be if the rule is not followed.

Logical consequences make sense in a situation where the difficult behaviour has occurred or the family rule has been broken. Logical consequences are when your child:

  • loses a privilege, such as when they colour on the wall, they lose time with their crayons
  • leaves a fun place when they cannot get along with other children

When using logical consequences with your child it is important to:

  • Talk to your child about rules ahead of time and let your child know the consequence if she does not follow the rule
  • Calmly and consistently let your child know that she did not follow the rule and then follow through with the consequence
  • Avoid making further comments about the behaviour after the consequence is given; instead, start a new activity and look for a positive behaviour to praise

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