14 Effective Ways To Deal With A Difficult Child's Behavior

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Not all children are the same; some children are obedient and well-behaved, while others may be disobedient and mischievous at times. If your child seems to relate to the latter category, you may often wonder how to deal with a difficult child.

There may be a lot of reasons children begin misbehaving. For example, they may be feeling tired, hungry, bored, frustrated, or overwhelmed. This causes your child to get agitated, throw tantrums in public, and display inappropriate behaviors. Consequently, managing a child’s difficult behavior could be challenging and tiring for parents.

This post explains the possible reasons for difficult behaviors in children and tips to manage these behaviors.

Why Do Some Children Exhibit Difficult Behavior?

Some children may exhibit difficult or challenging behavior on account of several different factors. Here are a few (1) (2).

  • Sometimes, difficult behavior can be a cry for attention. Children crave for their parents’ attention to feel safe and happy. If they don’t get enough attention, they may try different antics to ensure their parents are focused on them.
  • Quite often, children lack the required capabilities to behave in an expected manner. They might find it challenging to handle emotions such as anger, fear, or anxiety and may respond by acting out.
  • A social, developmental, or emotional issue or a health condition such as anxiety, autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities can also lead to challenging behavior in children.
  • In some instances, the problematic behavior might be a response to changes in their environment and their effects on their psyche. These changes could be anything from the birth of a new baby to relocation or a change of school.
  • If your young child does not follow your instructions, lack of focus or short memory might be a possible cause in a few instances.
  • Children may react badly if they are exhausted, ill, or have not slept well.
  • Hunger or improper diet can also be the cause of difficult behavior.
  • Children need time and help to adjust to any change in their current situation or schedule. They may act out if they are unable to process the change.
  • Excess screen time can be another factor responsible for difficult behavior in children.

Behavioral Traits Of Children With Difficult Behavior

Certain behavioral traits indicate that you might be dealing with a child exhibiting difficult behavior. These include (1)

1. Defiance

Children who exhibit difficult behavior may show complete defiance toward you and the people around them. They may refuse to comply with instructions or requests, however straightforward they might be. Simple requests such as sleeping on time and eating dinner before reaching for the dessert might fall on deaf ears or be disregarded.

2. Hurting others

Children with challenging or aggressive behavior might often hurt other people. They might not get along well with their peers and resort to kicking, biting, hitting, pinching, scratching, or shoving. The physical violence may be on account of anger, disagreement, or not getting their way.

3. Fussiness

Children with difficult behavior tend to be fussy. For instance, they may refuse to eat certain foods and show their displeasure by spitting out the food or throwing it. This fussiness may extend to other areas such as clothes. They might agree to wear only certain clothes and reject the others.

4. Extreme anger

Extreme anger is a common trait amongst children with difficult behavior. If things do not happen the way they want, such children may become extremely angry and violent. They might scream, cry, and throw things to get their way.

5. Tantrums

Frequent tantrums are common amongst children with difficult behavior. They might throw a tantrum to gain attention or to fulfill their demands. If you deny such children something, a huge emotional outburst is typically their weapon.

How To Deal With Difficult Behavior In Children?

Here are a few tips for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and bringing the aggressive behavior under control.

1. Remain calm

It is easy to lose your cool if your child frequently throws tantrums. However, if you show your frustration, the situation might escalate. Remain calm, keep your tone neutral, and be objective. Instead of ordering them to do something, offer a suggestion; for instance, instead of saying “Do this or do that,” use phrases such as “Could you please…” or “Why don’t you….”

You can also try to change the topic and speak about something you both like. Discussing the issue with your partner, friends, or close relatives can also help in relieving your anger (3) (2).

2. Prioritize the issues

A child with difficult behavior might exhibit multiple behavioral issues. However, arguing over everything can be exhausting. Therefore, prioritize the key issues that require your immediate intervention and deal with them first. The less critical issues can be pushed down the list (3).

3. Maintain consistency

Maintain consistency in how you respond to your child’s actions. If you have different responses to your child’s specific behavior on different days, the child may get confused and act out more. Ensure that all the caregivers and elders are on the same page while reacting to the behavior of your child (2).

4. Explain things

When you instruct your child to do something, explain the reason behind it. For instance, tell them why it is crucial to brush their teeth before bed. If they indulge in any bad behavior, explain why the action is wrong and how it impacts others (2).

5. Show appreciation for good behavior

Positive reinforcement can encourage good behavior. If your child does something good, offer them praise and encouragement. For instance, if they finish their food without a fuss, tell them, “Good job! You did well.” You can give them a smile, hug, or kiss to indicate your appreciation and love. Use this technique to encourage the behaviors you approve of (2) (3).

6. Reward them

In addition to praising the child, you can also give them a reward when they behave well. Reserve this for those moments when good behavior is highly essential. For instance, if they assure you of good behavior in class and do the same, reward them with their favorite food item or toy (2). The reward need not be monetary. You may offer them extra privileges, such as an additional 30 minutes of playtime (4).

7. Find ways to reduce problematic situations

After noticing difficult behavior in your child for some time, you will be able to anticipate when the tantrums and meltdowns generally occur. Identify the triggers, and take the necessary steps to avoid or reduce the occurrence of such situations. For instance, if they are particularly irritable during a particular time of the day, avoid taking them to a public place, such as a park, during this time (3).

8. Decide age-appropriate consequences

While you may give your child an opportunity to change their behavior, frequent bad behavior needs to be corrected using age-appropriate consequences. The consequence should be in line with the seriousness of the child’s actions. For instance, kicking someone requires stricter disciplinary action compared to shouting. For stronger impact, communicate the consequences immediately after the bad behavior (1).

A time-out is a good disciplinary technique that may give the child a chance to introspect and modify their actions. However, the time-out should be limited to a short duration. Taking away the mobile phone, computer, or TV privileges is another technique that might help (1).

9. Be a role model

Children usually pick up on the things you do rather than the things you say. Therefore, if you want to improve your child’s behavior, lead by example. Your actions and speech should be in line with the behavior you expect from your child. For instance, if you do not want your child to scream or abuse, keep your tone mellow and avoid using swear words (1).

10. Avoid blames

Avoid blaming yourself or the child for the problematic behavior. In some cases, the behavior could be due to an underlying issue, and they might not be deliberately trying to hurt you or others. Hence, it is best not to take the behavior to heart (3).

11. Do not succumb to the child’s demands

Do not succumb to the wrong demands of your child. It will encourage difficult behavior. If your child realizes that you give in the moment they throw a tantrum, they will use it to get what they want. Stand your ground and do not give in. Taking them away from the location or even distracting them from that situation could help (4).

12. Encourage your child to convey their emotions

Young children may struggle to put their feelings and emotions into words. Teach them how to articulate their emotions by naming them. You can say things such as, “I know you are frustrated because you cannot watch TV right now.” This helps your child understand that what they feel is okay and gives them a verbal outlet to express their feelings (4).

13. Use appropriate behavior references

Appropriate behavior references can be used to reinforce positive behavior. For instance, you could say, “Hey Tom, it is nice of you to share your toys with Sam.” Or “I like how you hold my hand while crossing the road.” Seeing you acknowledging and appreciating the good behaviour can help your child practice it more often (5).

14. Determine activities that engage your child

Children who display difficult behaviors spend less time engrossed in other activities. However, the few activities they enjoy might be the key to minimizing the challenging behaviors. Find out the activities your child enjoys and increase the number of times these activities are done during the day. Schedule these engaging activities specifically when your child generally displays difficult behavior (5).

How to deal with a difficult child? This is not an easy question to answer as some may find it difficult to handle their emotions or seek more attention compared to others. A social issue, an underlying health condition, or even excess screen time may be responsible for a child acting fussy or throwing tantrums. Adopt measures such as explaining the reasons behind your instructions and appreciating and rewarding efforts to deal with a difficult child. However, seek medical advice in case your efforts are not fruitful.

Key Pointers

  • Children may exhibit difficult behavior when they need attention, face challenges to deal with emotions, are exhausted, etc.
  • Hurting others, exhibiting fussy behavior, and throwing tantrums are some traits of difficult behavior.
  • Handle such situations by staying calm, appreciating your children, explaining the reason behind certain things, and being a role model.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Challenging behavior – toddlers and young children;The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne
2. Dealing with child behavioural problems;National Health Service
3. Strategies and Solutions For Handling A Difficult Child;Healthy Children – American Academy of Pediatrics
4. 6 Ways to Deal With Your Child’s Aggressive Behavior;Cleveland Clinic
5. Tips for Responding to Challenging Behavior in Young Children;The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations
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Sadhvi Nishtha Om

Monk Sadhvi Nishtha Om is a practicing psychologist and psychotherapist in India. She has worked with children, adolescents and adults using tools such as Therapeutic Meditation, Inner Child Healing, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Emotional Empowerment Technique (EET) in a career spanning more than a decade. She holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Delhi, India.... more

Manjari Srivastava

Manjari Srivastava is a graduate of psychology. She also holds certificates in Basics In Clinical Psychology and Identifying Early Signs Of Psychosis In Adolescents And Young Adults.  Previously, she volunteered with an NGO specializing in positive psychology, where she took up individual counseling sessions for students. She also taught English to underprivileged children and helped them with their studies. At MomJunction,... more