Family Therapy UK

How to deal With Difficult Behaviour in Children (Up to about the age of 12)


Who this advice is for:

These are some suggestions for dealing with difficult behaviour in children up to the age of about eleven years.  See my handout on teenagers for advice on older children.

Why children misbehave

When you visit a professional person or talk to friends and family about difficulties you have with your children, you will be given a lot of advice. Sometimes this advice is upsetting because it makes you feel bad, or people contradict each other. It can be very confusing.

It becomes even more confusing when you ask people why your child or children act in the way they do. Typically, children may misbehave because of family difficulties, such as bereavement, illness, divorce, remarriage, school problems, bullying, lack of confidence, problems with friends or brothers and sisters and such like. There may be medical problems such as ADHD or other rarer conditions. Even if this is the case, you may find this information helpful. It is useful to think of bad behaviour as a sign that something is wrong. If you think about it, most people want to be liked and helped, not to remain angry, hurt and isolated.

Whatever the reasons for bad behaviour, try to talk to your child about their emotional distress and feelings. It is often more useful to guess how a child is feeling rather than to ask them. For instance, you could say, "I guess you are angry (hurt, upset etc.) about something and that is why you are acting this way". This can help the child to open up more, believing you understand and connect with their feelings. You will often find that if you ask a child how they are feeling that they become confused or simply refuse to tell you. Enlisting the help of your partner, relative, friend or teacher can make it easier for your child to talk. Sometimes, a professional counsellor with experience of talking to children can help too.

Don't expect talking to sort it all out. Sometimes it does, but you will be lucky if this works on its own. Sometimes children refuse to talk as a way of expressing how they feel and refuse to talk to you however reasonable you may be towards them.

Children who are very naughty, defiant or aggressive often feel out of control. When out of control children talk about how they feel, they often express how frightening it is to be this way. They want to get better control of their feelings or for someone else to help control them. Children who are out of control often feel unsafe, sad, upset and helpless. They can feel isolated and lonely. This may be hard to believe when you are facing a cheeky and defiant child.

Planning for change and getting support for yourself

Getting control of difficult behaviour in children can be difficult, time consuming and tiring. You have to think of the long term and a happier future together. This is not always easy, so try to get some support.

Support means having someone around to help you. For some parents, this will be their partner. For others, grandparents or close family friends can offer support and encouragement. If you have young children there are health visitors to support you, and other professionals if your children are older.

Getting support for yourself involves being open with people close to you about what you are trying to change in your relationship with your child. It means asking for help and learning to accept your need for help as a necessity, not a failing. Think about getting a break from the children from time to time and having some time on your own as a couple or as a single parent. This involves asking people to look after the children occasionally. This can be family members or a trusted friend.

First steps

If you have a partner or other adults close to your family, such as grandparents, you need to work together to deal with the children. By together, I mean that you make a clear plan about how to tackle the child or children and that you adopt a consistent way of dealing with them. Together means:

Supporting each other in front of the children.

By not disagreeing with each other in front of them.

Working to find ways that work for you both when dealing with the children.

Trying not to fall out over the children.

It means not criticising each other and thinking you know best, or that one of you is a better parent or better disciplinarian, that someone is too soft or too hard. There is nothing worse that being put down when you are working hard to change things for the better.

Discussing your differences away from the children. Find solutions to the differences between you, such as how to discipline the children. At times, you may have to compromise with your partner. This means you have to trust your partner and to admit when you get it wrong.

If you cannot do the above, it will be very difficult to get the children to change. If you, as parents (or family), cannot organise yourselves, it will be difficult for the children to change. Children expect their parents to take the lead.

If you are having difficulties agreeing a plan, then you may need to talk it over with a professional or some other person you trust.

Choose one aspect of your child's behaviour to change.

Make a list of your child's difficult behaviours. If you have a partner, involved family member or friend, get them to do the same.

Decide which behaviours bother you most. When you have done this, choose one behaviour that you feel you could begin to deal with. If they all feel as bad as each other just select one.

Make sure it is clear what actual behaviour you want to tackle and that this behaviour is something you can clearly describe to your child. For instance, you can do something about a child who refuses to do as he is told, because you can clearly see what behaviour is taking place. It is hard to confront a "bad attitude" because a bad attitude is harder to explain to a child and involves many different types of behaviour. The key is to keep it simple. This way you avoid confusing your child and can clearly see whether their behaviour is improving.

Another reason to concentrate on one behaviour at a time, is to avoid you ending up confronting your child all the time. This would lead to them becoming distressed and you becoming exhausted. You need good times with your child as well. Children, like most people like attention. If the only way they get attention is by misbehaving, then you will reinforce poor behaviour by constantly confronting it.

By now, you should have agreement from your partner, relative or friend (or all of them) on how to tackle your child's behaviour. You should have decided what behaviour you are going to tackle first.

Deciding on Consequences

The next thing to do is to decide on how to discipline the child/children by using consequences. It is worth considering what discipline is for. Discipline is about correcting children's behaviour. It is about helping them to make good decisions and develop proper control of their lives and relationships with other people.

How parents choose to discipline children is complicated. There are debates about styles of discipline. Some people for instance, feel physical punishment is wrong. Others say psychological punishments are harsh too, but in a different way. Whatever your individual thoughts, you need to be very clear about how you will discipline your child. If you are a couple, or if other adults are closely involved with your children, you need to agree on how you are going to discipline the children in a consistent and reasonable way.

Research shows that the most important aspect of discipline is being consistent in your approach. This means doing as you say and not threatening things you will never carry out. It helps if you give warnings about poor behaviour as soon as you feel it is becoming a problem and if you don't over-react to situations. Very harsh punishments lead only to resentment and fear, not to trust and respect.

Applying consequences

Consequences are not just punishments - they are ways to help children think and learn about their behaviour and how this affects their relationships. There are many types of consequences for good and bad behaviour. For instance, a consequence for poor behaviour could be to make someone sit in a chair for two minutes or to tell them you will not speak to them for ten minutes. Alternatively you could switch the TV off for their favourite programme or ban the computer for an hour. For good behaviour, you can reward a child with praise, a hug, some special time together - whatever feels appropriate to you.

When applying consequences to children, bear these points in mind:

Remember to support and back up your partner or other involved adults. Sit down, at a convenient time for you both, and share how it is going, what you think is useful and what you might need to change in your plan. If you fall out over these discussions, find another time to discuss it. Try not to disagree in front of the children.

Get your child's attention first. You can do this by getting them to look at you, by getting them to repeat what you have said or by placing your hands on their shoulders and getting their attention.

Be very clear about what behaviour you want to change. You can predict how you fear it may end up and how this could make you both feel. For instance: "I can see that you are getting worked up. I am worried that if you do not calm down, we will end up feeling angry with each other".

Give only one warning before applying a consequence.

When you give a consequence, stick to it. Try not to get involved in arguments or justifying your decisions to a child. You do not have to justify yourself to your child.

Explain how their behaviour is affecting your relationship with them - how it makes you feel in relation to them, whether it makes you feel close or far away from them.

For example, a parent might say to a child who is defiant:

"Listen to me David. When you refuse to do as I ask, it makes me feel angry. That makes me feel I do not want to be close to you. I would prefer it if you were more helpful and pleasant! If you do not stop being so defiant, I will give a consequence."

For good behaviour you might say something like:

"When you do as I ask, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like we are close." This could be followed by a hug, or just a touch. Try to avoid bribes and rewards such as sweets or money. What is important is your relationship with your child.

This may sound over deliberate and drawn-out, but it is important to let your child know how their behaviour affects their relationship with other people. As a parent, you are a significant person in their lives, and how you respond to them will teach them how to relate to you and other people in an appropriate way.

Sometimes your child may be so angry that it is difficult to get them to listen to you. Don't worry about this, you can say it again when things have calmed. Trying to explain or justify yourself to an angry or defiant child, is a waste of time. Later on, when things have calmed down, you could say something like this:

"I'm sorry I had to stop you watching the television after you refused to tidy up your toys. It makes me sad when I have to give a consequence, but it is important to me that you help out."

Be consistent. If the same problem occurs, deal with it in a similar way. If the problem persists, try changing the consequence without over-reacting.

Remember to keep focused on one area of behaviour. You will still need to intervene if your child is being naughty in other ways, but try to pay particular attention to the behaviour you most want to change. If you try to change everything at once, it will be too difficult for you and your child.

Once you begin to bring about change in one area you will notice that children begin to respond in other areas of their behaviour too.

Preparing your child

Find a suitable, calm time to tell your child about your decision to tackle their behaviour. Let them know that you are upset about this and explain that you want to change things. Tell them that your goal is to improve your relationship with them (in an age appropriate way). If there are two or more of you tackling these difficulties, try to have everyone present when you have this talk. Be fairly business-like in your approach. Don't be distracted by a child who wants you to justify everything. Remember you are the adult.

Let your child volunteer any information or thoughts about your plan, but remember you are in charge of how you are going to deal with these difficulties The important thing is to let your child know what you have decided and planned.

If your child does not want to listen, try again later. If this does not work, you will have to apply your plan despite their refusal to listen. At least you can say to yourself that you tried. It is not your fault if they will not listen - all you can do is try. You may be able to explain it at another time.

Reactions in your children

Sometimes children say they are not bothered when you apply a consequence. Sometimes their behaviour becomes very good and then goes back to how it was, or becomes much worse in order to break your resolve.

Remember, it takes time for things to change and your new way of dealing with the children will need to become a normal part of your relationship, not something you try for a few weeks.

If your child says they are not bothered or don't care about your consequence, remind yourself that they have still been given it by you and that puts you in charge - not them. If a consequence does not work over time, change to another. It's a good idea to change them from time to time anyway. Don't expect your child to be grateful, or particularly helpful. They will have got used to how things are and may test you out to see if you really can stick to your plan. Think to yourself that you are saving yourself upset in the future and that you will help them develop better relationships with other children and adults if you get control of them now. If you fail, it will be harder the next time and harder as they get older.

Comment on good or positive behavioural changes in your child without spoiling or over-indulging them. Your praise should be enough - do not start to give sweets or rewards for things they should be doing anyway. Your praise can be combined with a hug, smile, pat on the back - whatever you feel comfortable with. After some time, you can show your approval for good behaviour by relating it to your improved relationship with your child. For instance:

"I think we'll go to the cinema today. You have been so helpful just lately that I feel like going somewhere special with you."

This way you keep the focus on your improved relationship, not just the reward.

If this is too hard for you:

If trying to do this seems too hard for you, seek some professional help. You can find out where to get help from your GP. If you have a Health Visitor, ask them or seek advice from Social Service departments. Ask at your library if there are any support groups for parents in your area.

Take things one day at a time. Try to start every new day with hope. Try to end the day on good terms with your child, as the night can otherwise seem very long (especially for a child) and it sets you up for a bad start the next day. Take it half a day at a time, or an hour, whatever you feel strong enough to cope with if a day feels too long. Bear in mind that this method is harder at first and should become easier over time.

Check out the "Finding Help" article to find out how to get additional support and information.


For young children:

Christopher  Green "Toddler Taming - A survival guide for parents"

Web Sites:

General advice for parents

How to deal with teenagers:

My handout on understanding teenagers


Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

1st May 2008

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