Many things can cause a child to have temper tantrums, emotional outbursts, and general bad or unexpected behavior. These can include biological reasons, like being hungry or overtired. They can also include emotional reasons, like not coping with or describing their feelings. Their environment can also influence behavior. Normal behavior in children depends on the child’s age, personality, and physical and emotional development. A child’s behavior may be a problem if it doesn’t match the family’s expectations or is disruptive.
Normal or good behavior is usually determined by whether it’s socially, culturally, and developmentally appropriate. Knowing what to expect from your child at each age will help you decide whether their behavior is expected. Children tend to continue a behavior when rewarded and stop a behavior when it’s ignored. Consistency in your reaction to a behavior is important because rewarding and punishing the same behavior at different times confuses your child. Still, simply meting out rewards and punishments often doesn’t work. Here are some ways to manage your child’s bad behavior and elicit lasting behavioral changes.
Lead with empathy and connection.
Sometimes, when children act out, it’s because they want to feel connected to you, but you’re not listening. If you send your child away to time out for bad behavior, it might make them feel like they’re disposable while rewarding them for bad conduct. Before you can effectively target behavioral change, you may need to strengthen your relationship with your child. Being empathetic to your child means that instead of immediately punishing them when they lash out, you try to get to the root of why they felt the need to misbehave. By boosting your parental relationship with your child, you may understand why your child misbehaved sooner and conclude how to fix it that doesn’t require punishment.
Borrow tactics from negotiation.
In negotiation and parenting, you need to pick your battles. Win-win in negotiation is about giving the other person as much as possible while still getting what you care about. Never say ‘This is your last offer,’ unless it is. Parents lose credibility if they don’t follow through on a threat. You should also think about your child’s interest rather than their position. Their position might be that they want more screen time, but their interest could relate to a desire to belong, which you could address in other ways. If parents want to change a behavior, they must understand its purpose. Otherwise, they will probably develop an intervention that lacks staying power.
Talk above their age or maturity level.
Research shows that children are more likely to behave when parents convey that they trust them and have high expectations. The very thing that’s missing is what you should give away, respect and authority. Parents should invite their child’s perspective on complex moral and ethical issues, ask them questions that are slightly above their age, and assign them complex tasks that align with their interests. So many kids feel essentially disrespected because no one gives them anything significant to do. Kids who are dysregulated are demanding respect, and if you don’t give it to them, they’re not going to give it to you.
Focus more on relating than teaching.
Many parents spend their time telling life lessons and teaching instead of relating to their children. That’s because they feel that teaching and relating are the same, but they’re not. When we teach kids, we bring them into the adult world, and they’re our students of us. When we relate to them, we enter their world and become their students. For example, instead of trying to teach your daughter life lessons about how to ignore gossipy girls and focus on schoolwork, you could tell a story about your experience and how you handled it. When you focus less on lecturing, your daughter’s mood and behavior will improve because she feels heard, understood, and validated.
Be intentional with vocal tone and language.
Parents should use a task tone to eliminate unhelpful emotionality when speaking to their children and make requests or suggestions feel more manageable. The vocal style is focused, steady, and directive, not shouting like a drill sergeant. The words you choose are equally important. One of the most powerful phrases you can use with your kids is, ‘I can’t make you do this.’ When you leave the decision in their hands, your child has to grapple with the situation instead of avoiding it by fighting with you. Do your best to avoid lecturing, and pose open-ended questions. For example, you might ask, “Why did you cuss at your teacher?” If your child responds, ‘I was mad,’ follow up with, ‘What are some other ways you could deal with your anger?’
Teach them how to recover from mistakes.
Instead of shaming a child or insulting their character, ask the child whether they were their best self. Then help them repair the harm—model what it means to take responsibility and make amends. If your child is weak on accountability, look at your behavior. Kids are human sponges. They’ll soak up and acquire both your good and bad habits, so any consequence should be logical and restorative. For example, if a kid is throwing food in the cafeteria, the result should be to clean the cafeteria, not just talk it through.
Examine unmet expectations.
Gather information from your child about why they have difficulty meeting expectations. Adults are famous for thinking we know what’s going on, imposing solutions, and getting mad at the kid when the solutions don’t work. However, the kid was not a party to those solutions. Parents should view their children as their partners, not adversaries, and solve problems together. Parents may fear they’re relinquishing authority and lowering expectations, but neither is true. Children’s most significant complaint about their parents is that they don’t listen, but parents feel their kids aren’t talking.
When coming up with solutions to your child’s bad behavior, the best thing you can do as a parent is trying to understand why they’re acting out instead of immediately punishing them. They may be dealing with issues you’re unaware of, and punishing them might make them shut down instead of sharing what’s wrong. It would also be best to try and relate to your children. You were a kid once, so you know everything they’ll go through. Finally, understand that you and your children are on the same team, not enemies at war.