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with Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

Managing a Child’s Difficult Behaviors

managing a child's difficult behaviorsManaging negative behaviors of children can be frustrating, tiresome, maddening, and even embarrassing for many parents. One of the biggest and most challenging roles a parent can face in their role as parent involves both managing and mediating a child’s defiant or otherwise inappropriate behaviors. When children engage in defiant behaviors by refusing to follow parent directives, throwing items, pushing/shoving, aggressive behavior, or throwing an all-out tantrum, parents are often at a loss of how to respond to both the behaviors and their child. Negative and challenging behaviors can be confusing for children as well as parents. Tantrums are usually carried out by children as a last ditch effort to secure what he or she wants, seek attention, and failure to negotiate desires and the need for attention appropriately.

Identification of negative behaviors

One the first steps a parent should take to reduce their child’s negative behaviors consist of defining the behaviors. By simply telling a child “no” or “stop” does not specifically identify the behaviors you would like to discourage and the behaviors you want to encourage, which can be confusing especially for small children. Behavioral management should include observable and measureable goals. Goals should be created that identifies and acknowledges behaviors parents would like their children to maintain as well and terminated. For behaviors parents would like their children to continue, they can include a verbal acknowledgement of appreciation such as “thank you”, “I am really proud of you”, “I like the way you take care of your brothers and sisters”, “you’re doing a great job”, etc. Parents should also utilize specific and measurable goals if they hope to reduce or eliminate their children’s negative behaviors by identifying the behaviors specifically. Just as a parent would refer to positive behaviors specifically they should also refer to negative behaviors specifically as well, i.e., “I would like you to stop hitting your brother”, “You make your sister sad when you scream at her”, “It hurts mommy and daddy’s feelings when you don’t play nicely with others”.

Target antecedents both encouraging and maintaining negative behaviors

Once parents have identified negative behaviors then the next step in the process of reducing their child’s challenging behaviors is to identify the antecedents precipitating the behaviors. Parents are encouraged to be vigilant about their child’s emotional and physical environment before, during, and after a tantrum occurs. By recognizing what proceeds a tantrum parents can reduce the number and rate of challenging behaviors. Hence, if parents notice a child is more likely to exhibit negative behaviors when notified of bed time, they can gradually begin the process of notifying the child bedtime is approaching, i.e., “you have another half hour to watch television”, etc. By monitoring a child’s environment as well as making necessary adjustments whenever possible parents can control to some extent the rate of negative behaviors and outbursts.

Consistent Parenting

One of the most important things parents can do to modify their children’s behavior is to utilize consistent parenting approaches. This means whenever a child engages in undesirable behaviors parents should address as well as correct the behaviors in the moment. By waiting extending periods of time between the negative behaviors and the corrective action children are often left confused about why they are being corrected, disciplined, or chastised. When parenting is confusing or conflicting for children the very behaviors parents hope to eliminate or reduce can actually become reinforced when they aren’t addressed consistently.

Effective & Appropriate Parenting

Whenever possible when a child engages in challenging behaviors it should be used as a teachable moment. Teachable moments are moments that go beyond discipline but can be used as a springboard to help children learn the impact of continued negative behaviors. By teaching a child about the consequences of continued negative behaviors a parent can then assist them with identifying options to convey displeasure and frustrations without behaving negatively. Parents should establish and maintain clear behavior objectives that will allow children to have a clear understanding of the behaviors expected. Educating and giving children more options to express dissatisfaction and frustration also allows children to have more control over their behavior, choosing when and how to handle a problem.

Appropriate Consequences

When corrective action necessary for negative behaviors it should be appropriate, specific to the behavior, and not excessive. A primary goal of managing challenging behaviors is to prevent the behavior from re-occurring as well as targeting it appropriately. Often in the area of parenting one does not need to reinvent the wheel, but try and stay consistent in what works and what hasn’t worked. Consequences for challenging behaviors should not be excessive and should weighed in accordance with the challenging act. Appropriate consequences should also be consistent, i.e., your child breaks something belonging to someone else, implement appropriate consequences each and every time, do not become selective in the process of consequences by pushing this time but not the next time he or she damages someone else’s property, etc.

Rewards and other Positive Feedback

Just like negative consequences for negative behaviors positive behaviors by children should be both acknowledged and rewarded. Rewards for a child’s positive behaviors should not include a monetary value as you do not want a child to associate positive acts with money and gifts, however it may include allowing a child to have a sleep over, extra television time, selecting a movie for the family to watch, etc. The ultimate goal for parents is to reinforce the positive behaviors by acknowledging and validating a child’s effort to behave appropriately.


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Managing a Child’s Difficult Behaviors

Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

My name is Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, BCPC I have a PhD in forensic Psychology specializing in familial dysfunctions and traumatic experience. I work with individuals and families struggling with familial dysfunctions, trauma, rape, and incest. I also have a masters in Marriage, Couples, & Family therapy. I am a certified relationship specialist with American Psychotherapy Association (#15221). I have more than 15 years in the field of mental health, relationships, and behavioral sciences.

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APA Reference
Bates-Duford, T. (2016). Managing a Child’s Difficult Behaviors. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Jun 2016
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