There are many things that 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. It can include communication issues related to learning challenges. It also can include emotional reasons, like not being able to cope with or describe their feelings. Their environment can also influence behavior.
What is normal behavior for a child?
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 expectations of the family or if it 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 his or her behavior is normal.
Remember, no child has perfect behavior. Your child’s doctor, preschool, and school will be helpful in setting expectations for your child and his or her age and development.
What can I do to change my child’s behavior?
Children tend to continue a behavior when it is rewarded and stop when it is ignored. Being consistent is important because rewarding and punishing the same behavior at different times confuses your child. When you think your child’s behavior might be a problem, you have 3 choices:
- Decide that the behavior is not a problem because it’s appropriate to the child’s age and stage of development.
- Attempt to stop the behavior, either by ignoring it or by punishing it.
- Introduce a new behavior that you prefer and reinforce it by rewarding your child.
Path to Well Being
The best way to stop unwanted behavior is to ignore it. This way works best over a period of time. When you want the behavior to stop immediately, you can use the time-out method.
How do I use the time-out method?
Decide ahead of time which behaviors require a time out (usually these are tantrums, or aggressive or dangerous behavior). Choose a time-out place with no distractions and not frightening, such as a chair, corner, or playpen. When you’re away from home, consider using a car or a nearby seating area as a time-out place.
When the unacceptable behavior occurs, tell the child the behavior is unacceptable and give a warning that you will put him or her in time-out if the behavior doesn’t stop. Remain calm and don’t look angry. If your child continues misbehaving, calmly take him or her to the time-out area.
Keep track of how long your child’s been in time out. Set a timer so your child will know when time out is over. Time out should be brief (generally 1 minute for each year of age) and should begin immediately after the behavior or after the child calms down. You should stay within sight or earshot of the child, but don’t talk to him or her. If the child leaves the time-out area, gently return him or her to the area and consider resetting the timer. When the time out is over, let the child leave the time-out place. Don’t discuss the bad behavior but look for ways to reward and reinforce good behavior later on.
How do I encourage a new, desired behavior?
One way to encourage good behavior is to use a reward system. Children eventually learn that bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded. This works best in children older than 2 years of age. It can take up to 2 months to work. Being patient and keeping a diary of behavior can be helpful to parents.
Choose 1 to 2 behaviors you would like to change (for example, bedtime habits, teeth brushing, or toy cleanup). Choose a reward your child would enjoy. Examples of good rewards are an extra bedtime story, delaying bedtime by half an hour, a preferred snack, or for older children, stickers, earning points toward a special toy or a privilege.
Explain the desired behavior and the reward to the child. For example, tell the child, “If you get into your pajamas and brush your teeth before this TV show is over, you can stay up a half hour later.” Request the behavior only one time. If the child does what you ask, give the reward. You can help the child, if necessary, but don’t get too involved. Because any attention from parents, even negative attention, is so rewarding to children, they may prefer to have a parent’s attention instead of a reward at first. Transition statements, such as, “in 5 minutes, play time will be over,” are helpful when you are teaching your child new behaviors.
This system helps you avoid power struggles with your child. However, don’t punish your child if he or she chooses not to behave as you ask. He or she simply does not get the reward.
What are some good ways to reward my child?
Beat the Clock (good method for a dawdling child)
Ask the child to do a task. Set a timer. If the task is done before the timer rings, your child gets a reward. To decide the amount of time to give the child, figure out your child’s “best time” to do that task and add 5 minutes.
The Good Behavior Game (good for teaching a new behavior)
Write a short list of good behaviors on a chart and mark the chart with a star each time you see the good behavior. After your child has earned a small number of stars (depending on the child’s age), give him or her a reward.
Good Marks/Bad Marks (best method for difficult, highly active children)
In a short time (about an hour) put a mark on a chart or on your child’s hand each time you see him or her performing a good behavior. For example, if you see your child playing quietly, solving a problem without fighting, picking up toys, or reading a book, mark the chart. After a certain number of marks, give your child a reward. You can also make negative marks each time a bad behavior occurs. If you do this, only give your child a reward if there are more positive marks than negative marks.
Developing Quiet Time (often useful when you’re making supper)
Ask your child to play quietly alone or with a sibling for a short time (maybe 30 minutes). Check on your child frequently (every 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the child’s age) and give a reward or a token for each few minutes they were quiet or playing well. Gradually increase the times (go from checking your child’s behavior every 2 to 5 minutes to checking every 30 minutes) but continue to give rewards for each time period your child was quiet or played well.
What if my child’s behavior is caused by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or sensory processing disorder?
If your child has sensory issues (sometimes called sensory processing disorder or SPD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he or she may be unable to sit still. Children with SPD and ADHD also may have very limited self-control. This can make parenting more challenging. Children who have these disorders often do no respond to punishments or rewards.
Most often, parenting a child with ADHD and SPD requires you to deal with their emotions first and behavior second. There are many ways to help teach a child with ADHD or SPD to deal with their emotions. These include breathing exercises, using an emotional levels chart, and using deep pressure as a way to calm them. Only after your child is calm can you begin to explain why his or her behavior was not appropriate or unexpected. Over time, he or she may begin to learn self-regulation of emotions. This may help with behavior.
What else can I do to help my child behave well?
Make a short list of important rules and go over them with your child. Rules should relate to safety, health, and how to treat others. The fewer the rules, the less rule-breaking behavior you may have to deal with. Avoid power struggles, no-win situations, and extremes. When you think you’ve overreacted, it’s better to use common sense to solve the problem, even if you have to be inconsistent with your reward or punishment method. Avoid doing this often as it may confuse your child.
Accept your child’s basic personality, whether it’s shy, social, talkative, or active. Basic personality can be changed a little, but not very much. Try to avoid situations that can make your child cranky, such as becoming overly stimulated, tired, or bored. Don’t criticize your child in front of other people. Describe your child’s behavior as bad, but don’t label your child as bad. Praise your child often when he or she deserves it. Touch him or her affectionately and often. Children want and need attention from their parents.
Develop little routines and rituals, especially at bedtimes and mealtimes. Provide transition remarks (such as “in 5 minutes, we’ll be eating dinner.”). Allow your child choices whenever possible. For example, you can ask, “Do you want to wear your red pajamas or your blue pajamas to bed tonight?” “Do you want me to carry you to bed or do you want to go all by yourself?” “Which book do you want to read?”
As children get older, they may enjoy becoming involved in household rule making. Don’t debate the rules when your child misbehaves. Invite your child to participate in rule-making at another time.
Things to consider
Parents may choose to use physical punishment (such as spanking) to stop undesirable behavior. The biggest drawback to this method is that although the punishment stops the bad behavior for a while, it doesn’t teach your child to change his or her behavior. Disciplining your child is really just teaching him or her to choose good behaviors. If your child doesn’t know a good behavior, he or she is likely to return to the bad behavior. Physical punishment becomes less effective with time and can cause the child to behave aggressively. It can also be carried too far into child abuse. Other methods of punishment are preferred and should be used whenever possible.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Does my child have a behavior disorder?
- Does my child have attention deficit disorder (ADD)?
- Does my child have an autism spectrum disorder?
- Could my child grow out of his or her bad behavior?
- What should I do if I’m afraid my child could physically hurt someone?
- What should I do if I’m afraid my child may hurt himself or herself?
- Would medicine help control my child’s behavior?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.