Managing Problem Behavior at Home

A guide to more confident, consistent and effective parenting  

Melanie A. Fernandez, PhD, ABPP

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

Behavioral therapy teaches us a lot about how to maximize the kind of behavior we want to encourage, and minimize the kind we'd like to see less of. There are well-tested techniques that help make parents more confident, calm, consistent and successful at interacting with children. These techniques also help children develop the skills they need to regulate their own behavior, and have less conflicted, happier relationships with their families, teachers and peers.

Here are the basics in a form you could use at home:

ABC's of behavior management

To understand and respond effectively to problematic behavior, you have to think about what came before it, as well as what comes after it. There are three important aspects to any given behavior, and they conveniently break down into A, B and C:

A stands for antecedents, or preceding factors that make a behavior more or less likely to occur. Thinking about antecedents, or triggers, is an extremely helpful tool in PREVENTING misbehavior.

B stands for behaviors themselves, the specific actions you are trying to encourage or discourage. To change the way a child behaves it is essential that you identify well-defined behaviors as your target.

And C stands for consequences, the results that naturally or logically follow a behavior. Like antecedents, consequences—positive or negative—affect the likelihood of a behavior recurring. And the more immediate the consequence, the more powerful it is.

Define behaviors

The first step in a good behavior management plan is to identify target behaviors. These behaviors should be specific (so everyone is clear on what is expected), observable, and measurable (so everyone can agree whether or not the behavior happened).

An example of poorly defined behavior is "acting up," or "being good."  A well-defined behavior would be running around the room, or grabbing another child's toy, or sitting nicely at the dinner table, or starting homework on time. If there is ambiguity, it will be difficult for children to know what is expected of them and what exactly they need to do to achieve their goals.

Whenever possible, we try to frame goals in terms of positive opposites. Instead of working on missing the bus less, we try to think of the positive opposite: making the bus on time. This sets the stage for a more positive plan.

Antecedents to AVOID

Antecedents that increase the likelihood of negative behavior include hunger, fatigue, anxiety, and distractions.

If a child is hungry, he may be more irritable about starting his homework, or have more difficulty finishing it. When kids are fatigued, they are much more likely to respond negatively to demands placed on them. If they're anxious—about a trip to the dentist, or a task they are asked to do—they're more likely to resist complying. And if there are distractions, like a video game or toys, a child may have more trouble responding to direction.

Recognizing these factors and working to eliminate them can help reduce negative behaviors. But there are also more subtle things parents do that can undermine compliance:

Assuming expectations are understood: All too often we assume that children know what they are supposed to be doing, so we don't spell it out. In fact, children have many demands on them and the demands often vary from setting to setting. When children are unsure of what they are supposed to be doing, they are more likely to misbehave.

Calling out instructions from a distance: This limits the likelihood children will hear you and respond appropriately. Children involved in an activity may be less able to disengage because it's something far away interrupting something that is right in front of their eyes. 

Transitioning without warning: Often, children in the middle of something they are enjoying find it difficult to cooperate when they are told to transition to the next activity. Warning enhances the chance they will respond appropriately, as will helping a child find a good stopping place for an activity. 

Asking rapid-fire questions, or giving a series of instructions: Firing a series of questions or instructions at children (Lucy, can you take your shoes off? Hang your coat. Wash your hands. Then get started on your reading.) limits the likelihood that a child will hear, answer questions, remember the tasks, and do what she's been instructed to do. It can also suggest to the child that you may not be paying attention to her response, which again might undermine compliance.

Antecedents to EMBRACE:

Here are antecedents that do the opposite of those above; they encourage positive behaviors:

Adjusting the environment: For a homework session, for instance, remove distractions like video screens and toys, provide a snack for a child who might be hungry, establish an organized work space and a structure that includes scheduled breaks.

Making expectations clear: You'll get better cooperation if you think clearly about what you are expecting, and present the information verbally. For example, homework is done at the kitchen table. It starts at 4:30 on Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays and 5:30 on Thursdays. It's even more helpful to write them out and hang them up in the homework area. It also helps to give reminders at the outset of each session, even if the child "should" know what is expected. And it will be more effective if you are close to the child when you communicate expectations.

Providing countdowns for transitions: Whenever possible, prepare children for an upcoming transition. Let them know when there are X minutes remaining before they must come to dinner or start their homework. Then, remind them, when there are say, 2 minutes, left. Just as important as issuing the countdown is actually making the transition at the stated time.

Giving a choice when possible: At times, children need to be directed in certain ways. But there are many times when it is very appropriate for children to have a say. Providing two options is a good way to set up structure while also empowering children to have a say. You might ask, "Do you want to take a shower before dinner or after?" "Do you want to turn off the video game or should I?" The key is that the choice should be presented calmly and politely. Note, choices are NOT threats or they will become less effective. If the child picks a third option, the next step is to offer calmly, "Do you want to decide or should I?" Then, make sure to follow through.

Using "when, then" statements: How parents present instructions affects the likelihood of children listening. "When, then" statements are a useful tool that provides a clear expectation as well as the positive consequence that will come as a result of doing the behavior. For example: "When you complete your homework you will get to play on the iPad." Make sure you present the "when, then" calmly and limit how often you repeat yourself.

Providing instructions effectively: When you need to direct a child and there are no options—when something needs to happen—there are ways to present the information to make listening more likely. This is a list of characteristics of effective commands:

  • Commands should be given only when compliance is really necessary (to prevent kids from being instructed non-stop all the time).
  • Commands should be direct rather than indirect; in other words, stated not asked. "Please take out your math worksheet" or "Please sit down" as opposed to "Are you ready to get out your homework?"
  • Children should be told what TO do instead of what NOT to do. If a young boy is jumping on the couch and you tell him to stop jumping, he may stop while standing dangerously on the ledge. Technically, he's listened. Instead, focus on what to do: "Please get down from the couch" or "Please sit by your Dad."
  • Commands should be clear and specific. Instead of "Go ahead," say, "Please go start your reading assignment." Instead of "Settle down," "Please use your inside voice."
  • Instructions should be age-appropriate so you KNOW your children have understood you.
  • This is much, much easier said than done: Instructions should be given calmly and respectfully. When we as adults say please do X, our children learn to be polite when they speak to others. They also learn to listen to calm instructions as opposed to only when instructions are shouted or the child's name is repeated several times.
  • Keep explanations simple. Giving a rationale can increase the likelihood children will listen to a command, but not if the commands gets lost in it: For instance: "Go get your coat on because it's raining and I don't want you to catch a cold." Instead, try: "It's raining and I don't want you to catch a cold. Go get your coat on."

Providing opportunity to comply: In addition to considering when and how to give instructions, children need an opportunity to listen. So after you give an instruction, wait a few seconds, hold yourself back from repeating what you said. Children then learn to listen to calm instructions given once rather than learning that they have time before they have to listen because the instructions will be repeated. Watching and waiting also helps keep adults from doing what we've requested of the child for them. 

Consequences to AVOID

While a great deal of managing behavior is focused on preventing it, the second important piece is responding effectively. As with antecedents, it helps to look at consequences that don't have the desired effect—encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging negative ones—and then at some that do.

Giving negative attention: Children value attention from the important adults in their life so much that any attention—positive or negative—is better than none. So negative attention for misbehavior—"Don't speak to me like that", "It's not nice how you knocked over your sister's tower"—actually increases the behavior over time. And because it is critical, it also adversely affects self-esteem. If you raise your voice and command, "Stop!" it may work to startle the child and stop the behavior in the short run, but in the long run, it actually increases the behavior. 

Delayed consequences: The most effective consequences are immediate. 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 it's much less likely to actually change the behavior.

Disproportionate consequences: Parents understandably get very frustrated. At times, they may be so frustrated that they take away a privilege for a week or a month. In addition to being a delayed consequence, it may also be developmentally inappropriate for children who don't have a developed sense of time. A huge consequence can be demoralizing, so that children give up even trying to behave.  

Positive consequences: When a child dawdles instead of putting on his shoes or picking up his blocks and, in frustration, you do it for him, you're increasing the likelihood that he will dawdle again next time.  

EFFECTIVE consequences:

Consequences that are more effective begin with generous attention to the behaviors you want to encourage. 

Giving positive attention to appropriate behavior: I can't say enough about the power of positive attention as a consequence for good behavior. Catching your child being good makes the behavior you catch more likely to happen. It also helps maintain the ongoing good behavior. Positive attention helps enhance the quality of the relationship, improves self-esteem, and feels good for everyone involved. Positive attention to brave behavior can also help attenuate anxiety. Not only that, what we know from the literature is that as interactions improve with this positive attention, our children become more receptive to instructions and limit-setting.

In Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, positive attention is broken down into what we call PRIDE skills to give parents variety in catching their children's good behavior :

  • Labeled Praise: Instead of saying "Good job!" you can say, "Thank you for putting away your blocks neatly!" This increases self-esteem in your child, increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated, and strengthens the bond with your child.
  • Reflect: Repeating or paraphrasing a child's words shows that you are listening and understand, gives a child the lead in interactions, and improves a child's verbal ability. 
  • Imitate: Imitating a child's actions both teaches you how to interact at their level and helps you teach him or her how to play well with others. 
  • Describe: When you describe a positive behavior, you help the child understand exactly what is expected and help him continue to focus on appropriate behavior. 
  • Enjoy: Perhaps the most important part of interacting positively with your child: Enjoy it! And let your kid know you enjoy it, too. Children will attend more closely to the other positive attention you are giving if you are clearly engaged and in the moment with them.

Ignoring actively: The next consequence is one of the most challenging, in part because it is so counterintuitive. It is a strategy to be used ONLY with minor misbehaviors—NOT aggression and NOT very destructive behavior. It involves the deliberate withdrawal of attention when a child starts to misbehave. And withdrawal means no eye contact, no verbal interaction, and no nonverbal interaction. That means no sighing, no smiling, no nothing, just neutral.

The active piece is that as you ignore, you wait for positive behavior to resume. For whining, you are waiting for appropriate tone. For rough play, you are waiting for gentle play. You want to give positive attention as soon as the desired behavior starts. As soon as a child shifts to a respectful tone, for instance, you 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 your child what behavior gets you to engage.

Reward menus: Rewards are a tangible way to give children positive feedback for desired behaviors. Not a bribe, a reward is something a child earns, an acknowledgement that she's doing something that's difficult for her. Rewards are most effective as motivators when the child can select from a range of choices—which not only gives her agency but also reduces the possibility of a given reward losing its appeal over time.

  • A reward can be a privilege or activity (time on the iPad, a story, a trip to the playground) desirable to a particular child
  • It can be tangible rewards—small treasures like marbles or stickers, or points towards a small purchase.
  • Rewards must be linked to specific target behaviors
  • They must be delivered or withheld consistently
  • They must be updated every couple of weeks
  • They should be posted on a chart so a child can see them
  • They should incorporate your child's feedback

"If, then" statements: Contextually relevant consequences can be very powerful. The sequence begins with an instruction to do something. An "if-then" statement then clarifies very calmly what will happen as a result of not listening. For instance: "If you don't sit down to start your homework on time, you will lose 15 minutes on the iPad." Note that the child is NOT in trouble at this point. The consequences are meaningful because they will immediately affect the child and have been judged to be negative for the child. Remember your follow-through—positive attention for compliance or the specified negative consequence for noncompliance. 

Using Time-Outs: If your child does not comply, time out is one of the most effective consequences there is. It is also one of the hardest to use correctly.

A time-out done correctly and consistently is relatively brief and immediately follows a negative behavior you've identified in advance will lead to time out. If it only happens at random, and once you've been pushed to a limit, it is difficult for your child to know when it is coming and when it is not.

During a time-out, there should be NO talking to the child until you are ending the time-out. Time-out should end only once the child has been calm and quiet briefly so they learn to associate the end of time out with this desired behavior. Then, very importantly, if time-out was issued for not complying with a task, the child should be instructed to complete the original task so that the time-out didn't act as a successful escape strategy.

Published: February 10, 2012

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