Managing Difficult Behaviour


Leonardo Rocker

Managing Difficult Behaviour

Children are more likely to behave the way we would like them to when we create an environment that reduces opportunities for challenging behaviour. This means an environment that is rich in age-appropriate, stimulating experiences but also one that minimises “triggers” for challenging behaviours like tantrums, aggression and defiance. The most important part of a child’s environment is the relationships that inhabit it.

Relationships that are built on warmth and mutual respect will teach children prosocial behaviour and encourage them to live up to our expectations. Prevention is better than cure so with a few measures in place; an environment can be created in which behavioural challenges are less likely to arise, and we can be better prepared to respond when they do. So how do we create this environment?

Below are tried and tested suggestions we provide parent that visit us at The Quirky Kid Clinic.

Set clear rules and boundaries

Rules that are clear, reasonable and meaningful, help children to understand what is expected of them and provide you with simple reminders that you can give to children before situations get out of hand. After all, how can we expect them to behave in a certain way if we haven’t told them what that is? Only a few rules are needed and ideally, children will be involved in creating these as part of a team effort. You may even like to write up a family contract to sign and display somewhere in the house, (make sure the grown-ups sign too)! Keep the language positive and make it a project that everyone wants to be a part of.

Children are more likely to follow a rule if they feel an agreement has been met rather than that they have had something imposed upon them. Also, decide and make clear what the consequences will be for breaking the rules and always remember to follow through. Logical consequences like removing a toddler from the sandpit when they are throwing sand at their sibling work best for younger children and time-out can be helpful from about three years if used appropriately (e.g. one minute per year of the child’s age and minimal interaction so that the situation can defuse). Withdrawal of privileges such as loss of Gadgets time is only effective once the child is old enough to link their behaviour to a consequence that occurs later in time (about six years and up).

To be meaningful for children, consequences need to be immediate. It is most important that when enacting rules and boundaries parents are predictable and consistent. Studies have shown that children can sense when one parent has a different parenting style to another and this can lead to an increase in behavioural and emotional concerns.

Teach and support communication

Behaviour is communication. Usually, children behave in a certain way to tell us something and achieve a certain goal. They haven’t learnt the communication skills to tell us what is bothering them or what they need, and so they show us through their behaviour. As long as the message is getting across and their needs are being met the behaviour will continue. Look for what the message is behind the behaviour and help children to build their emotional language “I can see you are very angry!” Give them alternative, more appropriate, ways to communicate as you support them in navigating the purpose behind their behaviour. This may be through the use of visual prompts or teaching and practising specific skills such as asking for help with a difficult task that would normally lead to frustrated outbursts. This goes both ways; it is important not to assume that communicating verbally is enough to tell a child what they need to know. Timers, visual schedules and stop signs are great tools for this. Quirky Kid has developed a tool called Tickets, to assist parents to do just this. It is popular and worth a try.

Provide Emotional outlets & Play!

Give children a chance to let it all ‘hang out!’ Children get stressed, anxious and frustrated just as we do so plenty of opportunities to express this in a safe and appropriate way will decrease the chance of these emotions bubbling over. Put on some music, paint, draw, dance and sing. Stomp around like angry monsters or just go for a run outside. Play is also an important way for children to learn emotional regulation, problem-solving and social skills. Take the opportunity to play with your child and hand over the controls. Giving them a chance to lead you in their choice of games is an excellent way to give children the sense of control that they often seek.

Further Reading


7 Signs Your Child Needs Psychological Support

Catch them getting it right

Children seek out both positive and negative attention and can draw their parents in by doing the wrong thing. Be mindful of this and avoid giving attention to this kind of behaviour, consider giving yourself a time out if you need to. Save your attention for the behaviours you would like to see more of.

We almost certainly will tell a child when they are doing the wrong thing, but what about when they get it right? Plenty of specific, meaningful praise will remind children of the kind of behaviour you like to see and will encourage them to continue in the same way. Tell them exactly what would like to see more of, e.g.

“I really love the way you took your plate to the dishwasher before I had to ask, thank you!”


“That was such a kind thing to say to your sister, you have been playing together really nicely today.”

Reward schemes can also be helpful when you are trying to target specific behaviour. Agree with your child on a reward that is meaningful to them and remember to reward but never bribe! As with consequences for challenging behaviour, rewards should be immediate. Also, they should not be taken away once they have been earned. Again, Quirky Kid has developed a tool called Tickets, to assist parents to do just this.

Know yourself and your triggers

Tired? Stressed? Had a bad day? Be mindful of how this can affect the way you respond to your child’s behaviour. Think about what your buttons are and how you can respond with a level head when they are pushed. If you feel yourself being drawn into an argument, take a step back and try not to react in an emotional way as this usually adds fuel to the fire. Having some pre-planned strategies of how you will respond when certain behaviours occur will help you to feel calm and in control.

Finally, remember to look after yourself! Talk about that enormous tantrum and how it made you feel with someone you trust. Laugh about it, cry about it and take the time to refill your cup by doing the things you love. Think of the team of adults you have around you; consistency across parents and other caregivers will help support you in supporting your child.

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View article references

  • Australian Psychological Society. Parent Guide to Helping Children manage Conflict, Aggression and Bullying
  • Berkien et al. (2012) Children’s perception of dissimilarity in parenting styles are associated with internalizing and externalizing behaviour.
  • Brotman et al. (2011) Promoting Effective Parenting Practices and Preventing Child Behavior Problems in School Among Ethnically Diverse Families From Underserved, Urban Communities.
  • Sutherland & Conroy (2012). Best in Class - A classroom based model for ameliorating problems behaviours in early childhood settings.

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