Dealing With Disruptive Behavior

Experts from the Child Mind Institute share the techniques they use with kids in behavioral therapy -- so you can use them at home to improve your own child's behavior.
Child Mind Institute

One of the biggest challenges parents face is managing their children's difficult or defiant behavior. Whether children are refusing to put on their shoes, ignoring instructions to turn off a video game, shoving a sibling, or throwing a full-blown tantrum, you can find yourself at a loss for an effective way to respond.

In behavioral therapy, psychologists or psychiatrists help parents maximize the kind of behavior they want to encourage, and minimize the kind they'd like to see less of. There are well-tested techniques that help parents become more confident, calm, consistent, and successful when they interact with their children. These techniques also help children develop the skills they need to regulate their own behavior and have happier relationships with their families, teachers, and friends.

Here are the basics of a good behavioral management plan that you can use at home.

Define Behaviors

The first step is to identify the target behaviors that you either want to encourage or discourage. These behaviors should be specific, observable, and measurable (so everyone can agree whether or not the behavior happened). An example of poorly defined behavior is "being good" or "acting up." A well-defined behavior would be "grabbing another child's toy" or "sitting nicely at the dinner table."

Set the Stage

Once you've targeted behaviors you want to see more or less of, you should focus on the antecedents, or the preceding factors that make the behaviors more or less likely to occur. These are ways to increase the likelihood of positive behavior and decrease the likelihood of negative behavior.

Adjust the environment. For a homework session, for instance, remove distractions like video screens and toys, provide a snack if your child is hungry, and schedule breaks to help him stay alert.

Make expectations clear. You'll get better cooperation if you think clearly about what you are expecting, and tell your child with words. For example, explain that bedtime is at 8:00 on school nights. It starts with putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, using the bathroom, and a half hour of reading together in bed before lights out. It's even more helpful to write expectations out and hang them up (using pictures if your child can't read yet).

Countdown to transitions. Whenever possible, prepare your child for an upcoming transition. Let her know when there are 10 minutes remaining before she must come to dinner or start cleaning up. Then remind her when there are two minutes left. Be sure that you actually make the transition at the stated time.

Give a choice when possible. Providing two options is a good way to set up structure while empowering your child to have a say. You might ask, "Do you want to take a shower before dinner or after?" or "Do you want to turn off the TV or should I?" The key is that the choice should be presented calmly and politely.

Use "when, then" statements. These are a useful tool that offers a clear expectation as well as a reward for cooperating. For example: "When you complete your homework, then you will get to play on the iPad." Make sure you present the "when, then" calmly and limit how often you repeat yourself.

Give Instructions Effectively

Psychologists help parents choose pick the right words to get the results they want.

Use statements, not questions. "Please take out your math worksheet" or "Please sit down" is better than "Are you ready to get out your homework?"

Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. If he's jumping on the couch, you want to say, "Please get down from the couch" instead of "Please stop jumping."

Be clear and specific. Instead of "Go ahead," say, "Please go start your reading assignment." Instead of "Settle down," say, "Please use your inside voice."

Give instructions calmly and respectfully. This helps your child learn to be polite when speaking to others. She'll also learn to listen to calm instructions instead of listening only when you shout instructions or her name several times.

Say it once. After you give an instruction, wait a few seconds, rather than repeating what you said. Your child will learn to listen to instructions the first time, rather than assuming you'll say them again.

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