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.

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.

Choose the Right Consequences

A great deal of managing misbehavior is focused on preventing it, but the second important piece is responding properly to it. Let's look at consequences that don't have the desired effect -- encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging negative ones -- and then at some that do.

Ineffective Consequences

Negative attention. Children value attention from the important adults in their life so much that any attention -- positive or negative -- is better than none. Reacting emotionally to your child's misbehavior -- "Don't speak to me like that!" -- will actually increase the behavior over time. Criticizing him in this way can also hurt his self-esteem.

Delayed consequences. It's best to respond immediately. For every moment that passes after a behavior, your child is less likely to link her behavior to the consequence. It becomes punishing for the sake of punishing, and will be much less likely to actually change her behavior.

Disproportionate consequences. At times, you may be so frustrated that you take away a privilege for a week or a month. In addition to being a delayed consequence, this may be developmentally inappropriate for a child who doesn't have a sense of time. A huge consequence can be demoralizing, so that he gives up even trying to behave.

Positive consequences. When your child dawdles instead of putting on her shoes or picking up her blocks, and you get so impatient that you do it for her, you increasing the likelihood that he'll dawdle again next time.

Effective Consequences

Praise for appropriate behavior. Catching your child being good makes the behavior more likely to happen again. Praise is most valuable when it's specific. Instead of saying "Great job!" you can say, "Thank you for putting away your blocks neatly!" Repeating or paraphrasing a child's words ("Thank you for asking me if you could use the computer") shows that you are listening and helps encourage his verbal skills. When you describe a positive behavior, you help your child understand exactly what you expect.

Active ignoring. This strategy should be used only for minor misbehaviors?not for aggression or very destructive behavior. When your child starts to misbehave, you deliberately withdraw your attention. This means no eye contact, no talking, and no nonverbal interaction. No sighing, no smiling, no nothing. The active part is that you're waiting for your child to behave properly. For whining, you are waiting for her to speak in an appropriate tone. For rough play, you are waiting for gentle play. Then give positive attention as soon as the desired behavior starts. When your child shifts to a respectful tone, for instance, you should immediately make eye contact, smile, and say, "Thank you for speaking to me nicely." By withholding your attention until you get positive behavior, you are teaching her what behavior gets you to engage.

Reward menus. Rewards are a tangible way to give your child positive feedback for desired behaviors. Not a bribe, a reward is something a child earns -- it's an acknowledgment that she's doing something that's difficult for her. Rewards are most effective as motivators when your child can select from a range of choices -- which not only gives her a feeling of control, but also reduces the possibility that a given reward will lose its appeal over time. A reward can be a privilege or activity (time on the iPad, a story, a trip to the playground) or a tangible reward (small treasures like marbles or stickers, or points towards a small purchase). Give rewards for specific target behaviors, post them on a chart so your child can see them, deliver or withhold them consistently, and update them every couple of weeks.

Time-outs. A time-out is one of the most effective consequences, but it is also one of the hardest to use correctly. A time-out should be given immediately after your child engages in a negative behavior that you've explained in advance will lead to time-out. If time-outs happen randomly -- once you've been pushed to the limit -- your child won't know what to expect. During a time-out, do not talk to your child until it is over. Rather than having a specific time limit based on your child's age, the time-out should end immediately after your child has been calm and quiet briefly, so she receives the "reward" for acting appropriately. Don't forget this last, very important, step: If you issued the time-out because your child wouldn't comply with a task, tell her to complete the original task. That way, the time-out won't have been a successful avoidance strategy for her.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles