The Practical Guide to Dealing with Challenging Behaviour in Children

"I'm absolutely tearing my hair out! My son will not listen to a thing I say. He hits his sister and refuses to come off his computer and when I try to make him he's actually started hitting me! He's only 8 but he's strong and I'm worried about what he'll be like when he's older. I've tried everything and nothing works!"

This is a conversation I've had with many parents. They're usually tired, frustrated and angry themselves. When I talk to the children they usually (if not always) say that they do not want to be angry. They don't want to hurt people. They feel bad about their behaviour and they want to change. But often the children cannot do this by themselves. Most of them can't do it with just with my help. They need you.

I can teach them calming tools, but without your support, changing how things are done at home, and thinking about how your actions and reactions impact them then they will find those tools really hard to use in the heat of the moment.

If your child is often angry, then click here for my post about Understand Your Angry Child.

Unless you understand the reasons behind the anger you are unlikely to be able to effectively help your child to become calmer and deal with their angry feelings, so it's worth taking your time to read it!

If your child is showing challenging behaviours - shouting, swearing, hitting, refusing to do as they're asked then there are some things that you can do to help but there's something important to think about first.

Just as you need to understand the possible reasons behind why your child is acting out and feeling angry, you need to think honestly about how you react to their emotions and actions, and which of those reactions might not have been very helpful in the past.

This isn't about blame or making you feel bad, but sometimes you might try parenting strategies that your parents used with you which, on reflection, isn't working with your own child. Or it may be that you've gotten so tired and fed up of the battles that you know you're not challenging your child any more. You're not a bad parent if you've made some mistakes - that's just human - but you can become a better parent if you are willing to explore what your part in the behaviour may be.

Think to yourself:

  • Do I sometimes give in to what my child wants if they whine or become angry?

  • When I try something new, do I keep it up for a week or more, even if it doesn't seem to be working?

  • Do I shout at my child?

  • Do I praise my child?

  • Is my language towards my child positive, or do I let frustration make me negative?

  • Do I spend quality time with my child?

  • What have I done in the past that has helped?

  • What have I done in the past that has made things worse?

  • What is currently going well?

Underlying all the following advice are some things you need to do:

  • Stay calm - be their role model - if you can't stay calm, how can you expect them to? Choose right now to stop raising your voice. When you're angry lower your voice.

  • Stick to what you say. If you say no, then you cannot change your mind. If they find that by whining or hitting you'll eventually give in then obviously they will whine and hit until you do. And if you threaten to ground them for a year then expect to be spending a lot of time with them for a year - so think carefully before you set consequences!

  • Give it a chance to work - change is difficult and if you are taking back control your child's behaviour may well get worse before it gets better but don't give up! Once you get through that initial shock to the system and they realise that this time you mean it, things will get better.

  • Watch out for what triggers them - are they hungry? Is it transitions between school and home? Is it around technology? Are they tired? Try and understand when they are most likely to kick off so you can do something about it. If your child kicks off when you get home from school it might be worth giving them a snack on the way home and letting them burn off some energy at the park. If it's around coming off the computer then you might need to build in a countdown to when they come off and a chat with them to bring them back to the real world or use an app that chucks them off so you don't have to.

Tell Them That Things Are Going To Change

Choose one behaviour to focus on. This should be the one that causes most harm such as hitting, swearing or shouting. Sit down with them and let them know that you love them but you don't not love their behaviour. Give a praise sandwich:

  • Tell them what you love about them and what is great about your relationship with them

  • Apologise for your mistakes in the past and tell them you are going to try your hardest to support them in the future

  • Spell out what the behaviour is that needs to change

  • Reiterate that you love them and explain how this change will improve your lives

It might look like this:

"I love how funny and sassy you can be and how you make me laugh, and I love how gentle you are with your sister. Sometimes I shout when I get frustrated and I'm going to try not to do that from now on. I understand you get frustrated too, and that's okay, but it is never okay to hit me. I'm going to try and help you stop this behaviour. I love you and love spending time with you and I think if we can stop this behaviour then we'll all be much happier."

Ask the child what their ideas are for stopping the behaviour and whatever they come up with (if it's reasonable) then give it a go.

Finish by giving a reconciliation gesture such as a hug or giving them a cup of hot chocolate.

Pick Your Battles

Don't try to fix everything at once. If you can fix something big like aggression or shouting, then smaller problems will probably resolve themselves.

If your child is arguing about not putting on their coat on a rainy day then take it as a learning point for them and let them leave without it. Take it with you without fuss and they'll either have to put up with being wet or ask for the coat and wear it. Either way, don't say 'I told you so' just be satisfied that they have learnt a lesson there. Even if they refuse to wear shoes to school you can grab a spare pair of socks and tuck the shoes into a bag and let them learn that they would have been more comfortable in shoes.

And let them get in trouble at school - if you've told them to get their PE bag or homework and they haven't then let them learn the consequences of that.

Controlled Choices

If your child argues with you about every little thing then it may be tempting to feel like you need to be strong and put your foot down. The problem with this is it encourages power struggles, whereas giving children sense of having some control over their lives can make a real difference.

If a child is allowed to take part in decision making then they are more likely to engage in the process and you will decrease problem behaviours

Types of choices:

  • This or that? Are you going to wear your dress today or your trousers? Do you want a shower or a bath? An apple or banana for a snack? Are you going to wash up or dry?

  • How to do it - Shall we walk to school or drive? Shall we hop down the path or run? Do your schoolwork in the kitchen or the living room?

  • Who will help? Do you want mum or dad to read you a story? Do you want to put on your shoes or shall I?

  • What colour? Are you going to wear your blue pants or red ones today?

Notice that for each of these choices, you are still getting the child to do as you want them to, but they get to feel they have some choice in how it's done.

I used this with my teenage son when I wanted him to do chores. I drew up a list of chores I knew I wanted him to do, and paired each one with something I knew he wouldn't do:

  • Empty the dishwasher or pick up the dog poo?

  • Bring your plates down every day or clean the toilet?

  • Mow the lawn or wash your clothes

He chose all the ones I expected him to and even if he hadn't I would have been happy with him doing the alternatives. It saved an argument caused by him feeling like I was forcing these chores on him as he felt he'd dodged the bullet of picking up dog poo!


If your child struggles to do as they're told then try using When...Then:

"I want a snack"

"When you've taken your bag to your room, then you can have a snack"

"I want to go on the X-box"

"When you've done your English work, then you can go on the X-box"

Watch out for them being good

If you've been battling with your child for some time then you're probably both fed up of each other. It's really important to change that negative mindset and watch out for the smallest positives and praise them as soon as you see them.

Reward good behaviour. Yes, it would be lovely if they would do the right things just for the love of it, but sometimes we all need our efforts to be noticed. The majority of us wouldn't go to work for no reward (pay) so why expect your child to do something hard without reward. Praise (see below) is great but star charts and marble jars work too. Rewards can be simple things such as choosing a favourite meal or pudding on Friday night, or choosing a movie to watch together - or watching them play Minecraft (without moaning or staring at your phone).

Give specific praise

Praising the behaviours that you want to see more of is a powerful way of shaping your child's behaviour. Make it clear and specific. Just saying 'good boy' is vague, whereas saying 'I loved the way you helped your sister' is specific and lets them know clearly what behaviours will give them a positive interaction with you.

'I was really impressed with the way you came off the computer straight away'

'I really appreciated you getting dressed quickly'

'It was so nice to see you trying a new food'

Give Consequences

Just as you need to give praise, you also need to give consequences for unacceptable behaviour. It's good if these can be 'natural' consequences - these are consequences which are naturally linked to the behaviour - if they won't come off their computer they lose the use of it for the rest of the day; if they take a chocolate bar without asking they don't get pudding when everyone else does. These are teachable moments for them to see the consequence of their actions.

Ask, Tell, Consequence

Start with asking your child to do something: "Please put your shoes away"

If they have definitely heard you, tell them what to do, "I've asked you to put your shoes away. Put them away now."

If they ignore you again, calmly state the consequence, "You haven't put your shoes away so you won't be going out to play with your friends this evening."

If they then run to put their shoes away, don't remove the consequence but praise them for doing it and remind them that the consequence was for not doing as they were asked so next time they put their shoes away they won't get the consequence.

If you take away the consequence then they will learn that they can ignore you until they get the consequence and then get away with it when they choose to finally do as asked.

Get them to repeat what you said

If your child is constantly claiming not to have heard you - get them to repeat back what you said. And don't shout up the stairs. Go to their room, get their eye contact, and get them to repeat it back:

"I want you to come off the computer in 10 minutes."


"What did I just say?"

Sigh. "Come off the computer in 10 minutes"

That way they can't claim not to have heard you.

The broken record approach

Once you've told you're child what to do, become a broken record. In a very calm voice repeat the command and don't get dragged into conversation or an argument:

"It's time for bed." "But I want a drink"

"It's time for bed. Go upstairs"

"I haven't told you about what happened at school today"

"It's time for bed, off you go."

If your child is genuinely anxious or afraid then you might not want to use this, and it might help to find out what's wrong, but if they are just pushing their luck then don't get sucked in!

And don't forget - stay calm and stick to your guns. Choose an approach and trial it for a week. Watch out for positives and praise at the slightest improvement. Don't expect behaviour to change overnight but do be positive that there can be change.

Comment below if you have any approaches to try that other parents could benefit from, and don't forget to share on Facebook to help other parents find this info!

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