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Dealing with a child's difficult behaviour

Credit: iStock.com/ Imgorthand

There are lots of possible reasons for difficult behaviour in toddlers and young children.1

Often it's just because they're tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated or bored. 

How to handle difficult behaviour

If problem behaviour is causing you or your child distress, or upsetting the rest of the family, it's important to deal with it.

Do what feels right

What you do has to be right for your child, yourself and the family. If you do something you don't believe in or that you don't feel is right, it probably won't work. Children notice when you don't mean what you're saying.

Don't give up

Once you've decided to do something, continue to do it. Solutions take time to work. Get support from your partner, a friend, another parent or your maternal and child health nurse. It's good to have someone to talk to about what you're doing.

Be consistent

Children need consistency. If you react to your child's behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it's confusing for them. It's also important that everyone close to your child deals with their behaviour in the same way.

Try not to overreact

This can be difficult. When your child does something annoying time after time, your anger and frustration can build up.

It's impossible not to show your irritation sometimes, but try to stay calm. Move on to other things you can both enjoy or feel good about as soon as possible.

Find other ways to cope with your frustration, like talking to other parents.

Talk to your child

Children don't have to be able to talk to understand. It can help if they understand why you want them to do something. For example, explain why you want them to hold your hand while crossing the road.

Once your child can talk, encourage them to explain why they're angry or upset. This will help them feel less frustrated. 

Be positive about the good things

When a child's behaviour is difficult, the things they do well can be overlooked. Tell your child when you're pleased about something they've done. You can let your child know when you're pleased by giving them attention, a hug or a smile. 

Offer rewards

You can help your child by rewarding them for behaving well. For example, praise them or give them their favourite food for dinner.

If your child behaves well, tell them how pleased you are. Be specific. Say something like, "Well done for putting your toys back in the box when I asked you to."

Don't give your child a reward before they've done what they were asked to do. That's a bribe, not a reward.

Avoid smacking

Smacking may stop a child doing what they're doing at that moment, but it doesn't have a lasting positive effect. 

Children learn by example so, if you hit your child, you're telling them that hitting is okay. Children who are treated aggressively by their parents are more likely to be aggressive themselves. It's better to set a good example instead.

Things that can affect your child's behaviour

  • Life changes – any change in a child's life can be difficult for them. This could be the birth of a new baby, moving house, a change of childminder, starting playgroup or something much smaller.
  • You're having a difficult time – children are quick to notice if you're feeling upset or there are problems in the family. They may behave badly when you feel least able to cope. If you're having problems don't blame yourself, but don't blame your child either if they react with difficult behaviour. 
  • How you've handled difficult behaviour before – sometimes your child may react in a particular way because of how you've handled a problem in the past. For example, if you've given your child sweets to keep them quiet at the shops, they may expect sweets every time you go there.
  • Needing attention – your child might see a tantrum as a way of getting attention, even if it's bad attention. They may wake up at night because they want a cuddle or some company. Try to give them more attention when they're behaving well and less when they're being difficult.

Toddler tantrums

Temper tantrums usually start at around 18 months and are very common in toddlers. Hitting and biting are common, too.

One reason for this is toddlers want to express themselves, but find it difficult. They feel frustrated, and the frustration comes out as a tantrum. 

Once a child can talk more, they're less likely to have tantrums. By the age of four, tantrums are far less common.

These ideas may help you cope with tantrums when they happen.

Find out why the tantrum is happening

Your child may be tired or hungry, in which case the solution is simple. They could be feeling frustrated or jealous, maybe of another child. They may need time, attention and love, even though they're not being very loveable. 

Understand and accept your child's anger

You probably feel the same way yourself at times, but you can express it in other ways. 

Find a distraction

If you think your child is starting a tantrum, find something to distract them with straight away. This could be something you can see out of the window. For example, you could say, "Look! A cat". Make yourself sound as surprised and interested as you can. 

Wait for it to stop

Losing your temper or shouting back won't end the tantrum. Ignore the looks you get from people around you and concentrate on staying calm. 

Don't change your mind

Giving in won't help in the long term. If you've said no, don't change your mind and say yes just to end the tantrum. 

Otherwise, your child will start to think tantrums can get them what they want. For the same reason, it doesn't help to bribe them with sweets or treats. 

If you're at home, try going into another room for a while. Make sure your child can't hurt himself /herself first. 

Be prepared when you're out shopping

Tantrums often happen in shops. This can be embarrassing, and embarrassment makes it harder to stay calm. Keep shopping trips as short as possible. Involve your child in the shopping by talking about what you need and letting them help you. 

Try holding your child firmly until the tantrum passes

Some parents find this helpful, but it can be hard to hold a struggling child. It usually works when your child is more upset than angry, and when you're feeling calm enough to talk to them gently and reassure them. 

Hitting, biting, kicking and fighting

Most young children occasionally bite, hit or push another child. Toddlers are curious and may not understand that biting or pulling hair hurts. 
This doesn't mean your child will grow up to be aggressive. Here are ways to teach your child that this behaviour is unacceptable:

Don't hit, bite or kick back

This could make your child think it's acceptable to do this. Instead, make it clear that what they're doing hurts and you won't allow it. 

Put your child in another room

If you're at home, try this for a short period. Check they're safe before you leave them.  

Talk to them

Children often go through phases of being upset or insecure and express their feelings by being aggressive. Finding out what's worrying them is the first step to being able to help. 

Show them you love them, but not their behaviour

Children may be behaving badly because they need more attention. Show them you love them by praising good behaviour and giving them plenty of cuddles when they're not behaving badly.  

Help them let their feelings out in another way

Find a big space, such as a park, and encourage your child to run and shout. Letting your child know that you recognise their feelings will make it easier for them to express themselves without hurting anyone else. 

You could try saying things like: "I know you're feeling angry about … ". As well as showing you recognise their frustration, it will help them be able to name their own feelings and think about them.


1 Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

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