Managing behavior problems can be challenging at all times but as summer approaches and schedules change behavioral issues often arise. We, at the Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, would like to share some ideas for dealing with difficulty behavior from Dr. Stacy Forcino. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct instructor in the Psychology Department at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) as well running the Disruptive Behaviors Clinic of the campus’ community counseling center.
Managing behavior problems, such as noncompliance, defiance, arguing, whining, fighting, and rule-breaking, is challenging. It requires patience, persistence, and a healthy dose of positive attitude. The following tips are intended to assist parents (or other caregivers) in helping children overcome behavior problems. My approach focuses on teaching children to behave appropriately and adaptively. Fortunately, psychological science has much to offer with this process. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits all approach. Use your judgment regarding what will work best for your child and your family. If your child continues to struggle, consider obtaining more individualized consultation from a child psychologist.
The parents I work with have often been dealing with their child’s difficult behavior for a long time. Understandably, they are fed up; but in the midst of this frustration, it can be easy to forget that children with behavior problems are really struggling. Of course a day full of arguing, whining, complaining, and fighting is tough on a parent. But it’s also tough on a child. It’s no fun being in trouble all the time. We also know that behavior problems put children at risk for rejection from peers, academic problems, and even anxiety and depression. Disruptive behavior is always worth addressing, and the sooner the better.
Helping a child overcome his or her behavioral difficulties takes patience and resolve from caregivers. So plan ahead to make sure you have the psychological resources to be your best you during the process. Seek support of friends and family and, importantly, make it a priority to get the sleep you need. A well-rested caregiver is better able to act with thoughtful intention rather than emotionally-driven impulse. This may well prove critical to your success.
Make sure your child is well rested, as well. Typically, preschoolers need 11-13 hours of sleep per day, including naps, and school-aged children need 9-11 hours of sleep per day. Sleep problems, including too little sleep, sleeping at the wrong times (e.g., too late bedtimes), or too-varied sleep schedule, can cause behavior problems, even serious ones. It’s worth ruling out. A consistent early bedtime will do no harm and may do a lot of good for your child’s ability to control his or her emotions and behavior.
Encourage appropriate, adaptive behavior.
This is where real progress can be made. A warm, positive relationship with your child coupled with proactive positive teaching strategies will go farther than discipline ever will. Consider trying the following.
- Model appropriate, adaptive behavior. Children pay close attention to their parents and often copy them. Use that to your advantage! Make sure your child sees you doing the things you ask of him: talking nicely to others, taking care of your belongings, picking up after yourself, controlling your temper, sharing, taking turns, apologizing when you’ve made a mistake, reading, and eating healthy foods.
- State your expectations clearly. Posting household rules or having regular family meetings to discuss expectations can help.
- Remind your child when there are different expectations for different settings. For example, before you walk into the grocery stores, say “Remember, in the grocery store you are to stay by Mom, ask before touching, and use your inside voice.”
- State instructions in a polite and direct manner. Avoid sarcasm and criticism. “Please put your plate in the sink,” is better than “Maybe you could clean up after yourself for once.”
- Give specific “Put these books back in the bookshelf,” is better than “Clean this stuff up.”
- When giving instructions, give a (very brief!) reason. “We’re going outside where it’s cold, so please put on your coat.” However, don’t get caught in an argument about whether your reason is valid (“It’s not cold out! … Yes it is!”). State the reason once and move on.
- If your child struggles to complete a task, break it into smaller pieces and monitor progress closely. For example, many children struggle with “Clean your room.” Instead, you might start with, “Put all the dirty clothes in the hamper.” Monitor progress and reward success (see below) before moving to the next step.
- Give your child attention frequently. With almost no exceptions, children have a need for regular social interaction. If they go too long without attention, they will seek it out! Any parent who has tried to write an email or talk on the phone with their toddler in the room knows this is true. Unfortunately, sometimes children get in the habit of seeking our attention in inappropriate ways. To avoid this, get to them before they get to you. Sprinkle your attention on your child many times throughout the day, any time that he or she is behaving appropriately. Increase the frequency at times that attention-seeking misbehavior is likely to happen.
- When your child seeks your attention in an appropriate way, such as saying, “Mom” in a nice voice or showing you something, respond with attention! Make appropriate attention-seeking work for your child.
- Frequently reward appropriate, adaptive behavior, however mundane it is, with attention. Give your attention different looks. You can make descriptive statements (“You’re putting your shoes on to go outside”, “You’re picking out a book to read”, “You’ve got your favorite teddy bear”). You can praise, if the behavior is particularly positive (“It’s so nice when you share”, “What good helping, thank you!”). You can use nonverbal displays of approval: pats, smiles, squeezes, hugs, high-fives. These bits of attention are small and deliberately placed following any appropriate, adaptive behavior. Even children with serious behavior problems engage in appropriate, adaptive behavior sometimes. Make it your mission to catch those behaviors and reward them immediately with attention.
Discourage inappropriate, maladaptive behavior.
Discipline is difficult to implement well and will only be effective if used infrequently and in combination with the tips above.
- Be consistent with rules across caregivers. If roughhousing is not allowed with mom, don’t allow it with dad either.
- Withhold all attention for minor attention-seeking misbehavior like whining, complaining, and arguing. That means no talking until your child stops that inappropriate behavior and resumes appropriate behavior.
- The best negative consequences are immediate, meaning they happen right after or soon after the misbehavior, enforceable, meaning you can actually follow through, and short-lived, meaning they don’t last very long. The latter point is worth further comment. Consequences lose effectiveness if they are too long-lasting. Life has to move on quickly so we can get back to rewarding appropriate, adaptive behavior (see above) and so that the child doesn’t give up (“What’s the point, I’m grounded forever anyway!”). A consequence for a toddler (e.g., timeout) can be very short- a couple of minutes. A consequence for a grade-schooler (e.g., loss of some privilege) may be a bit longer, but almost never would need to exceed a day’s length.
- Decide on appropriate negative consequences for common misbehaviors ahead of time. This helps to avoid giving an unreasonable or unenforceable consequence in a moment of anger (“You are not getting any birthday presents this year!”).
- When a misbehavior occurs, calmly and briefly state the consequence and the reason the consequence was given. “Since you hit your brother, you are going to have to sit in timeout.” Do not engage in any other conversation, simply follow through with the consequence.
- Avoid the punishment spiral (“You are grounded for a day… a week… a month… a year!”). This usually occurs when a child responds to a negative consequence with an escalation of misbehavior. For example, you take your daughter’s phone and she screams, “I hate you!” Don’t take the bait! Simply follow through with the original consequence.
- You do not need to be upset when disciplining in order for it to be effective. In fact, discipline is more effective if it is administered in a calm, business-like manner. “I’m sorry, but since you grabbed the remote from me, the TV is off for the next 15 minutes.” Turn off the TV and ignore any arguing, whining, or complaining. Don’t reward that kind of behavior with your attention. Just follow through with the stated consequence.
- Do not judge the effectiveness of a consequence by the level of upset your child displays. Just like you do not need to be upset when delivering a consequence in order for it to be effective, your child does not need to be upset for a consequence to work. The one and only way you know whether a consequence is working is whether it results in a decrease in the misbehavior over time.
About the Author
Dr. Stacy Forcino is a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct instructor in the Psychology Department at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She runs the Disruptive Behavior Clinic in CSUSB’s Community Counseling Center, where she and her students treat young children with behavior problems. She also maintains a private practice in Apple Valley, CA where she sees children and adolescents with a variety of difficulties. You can learn more about Dr. Forcino at www.doctorstacy.org.