Skip to content

Surgery Door
Search our Site
Tip: Try using OR to broaden your
search e.g: Cartilage or joints

Dealing with difficult behaviour

People have very different ideas about good and bad behaviour. What’s bad behaviour to you may be accepted as normal by other parents, and vice versa. Sometimes it’s a matter of a particular family’s rules. Sometimes it’s more to do with circumstances. It’s much harder to put up with mess if you haven’t got much space, or with noise if the walls are thin.

People react to their children’s behaviour very differently. Some are tougher than others, some are more patient than others, and so on. It’s not just a matter of how you decide to be. It’s also how you are as a person.

It’s best to set your own rules to fit the way you live and the way you are. And it’s best to deal with your child’s behaviour your way.

But for all parents there will be times when your child’s behaviour gets you down or really worries you. There are times when nothing you do seems to work. What do you do then?

Understanding difficult behaviour

Try to step back and do some thinking.

Is it really a problem?
In other words, is your child’s behaviour a problem that you feel you must do something about? Or might it be better just to live with it for a while? Sometimes it’s trying to do something about a certain sort of behaviour that changes it from something that’s irritating for you into a real problem for your child. But if a problem is causing you and your child distress, or upsetting family life, then you do need to do something about it.

It’s also worth asking yourself whether your child’s behaviour is a problem in your eyes, or only in other people’s. Sometimes some kind of behaviour that you can happily ignore, or at any rate aren’t worried about, is turned into a problem by other people’s comments.

Is there a reason for your child’s difficult behaviour?
There usually is, and it’s worth trying to work it out before you do anything. Here are just some of the possible reasons for difficult behaviour.

  • Any change in a child’s life, like the birth of a new baby, moving house, a change of childminder, starting playgroup, or even a much smaller change, can be a big event. Sometimes children show the stress they’re feeling by being difficult.
  • If you’re upset or there are problems in your family, your children are likely to pick that up. They may then become difficult at just the time when you feel least able to cope. If a problem is more yours than your children’s, don’t blame yourself for that. But try not to blame your children either.
  • You’ll know your child’s character and may be able to see that a certain sort of behaviour fits that character. For example, some children react to stress by being loud and noisy and wanting extra attention, others by withdrawing and hiding away.
  • Sometimes your child may be reacting in a particular way because of the way you’ve handled a problem in the past. For example, you may have given your child sweets to keep him or her quiet at the shops, so now your child screams for sweets every time you go there.
  • Could you accidentally be encouraging the behaviour you most dislike? If a tantrum brings attention (even angry attention) or night-time waking means company and a cuddle, then maybe your child has a good reason for behaving that way. You may need to try to give more attention at other times, and less attention to the problem.
  • Think about the times when the bad behaviour happens. Is it, for example, when your child is tired, hungry, over-excited, frustrated or bored?

Changing your child’s behaviour

Do what feels right
For your child, for you and for the family. If you do anything you don’t believe in or anything you feel isn’t right, it’s far less likely to work. Children usually know when you don’t really mean something.

Don’t give up too quickly
Once you’ve decided to do something, give it a fair trial. Very few solutions work overnight. It’s easier to stick at something if you’ve someone to support you. Get help from your partner, a friend, another parent, your health visitor or GP. At the very least, it’s good to have someone to talk to about progress or lack of it.

Try to be consistent
Children need to know where they stand. If you react to your child’s behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it’s confusing. It’s also important that everyone close to your child deals with the problem in the same way.

Try not to over-react
This is very hard. When your child does something annoying not just once, but time after time, your own feelings of anger or frustration are bound to build up. But if you become very tense and wound up over a problem, you can end up taking your feelings out on your child. The whole situation can get out of control. You don’t have to hide the way you feel. It would be inhuman not to show irritation and anger sometimes. But, hard as it is, try to keep a sense of proportion. Once you’ve said what needs to be said and let your feelings out, try to leave it at that. Move on to other things that you can both enjoy or feel good about. And look for other ways of coping with your feelings.

Children don’t have to be able to talk back to understand. And understanding might help. So explain why, for example, you want your child to hold your hand while crossing the road, or get into the buggy when it’s time to go home.

Be positive about the good things
When a child is being really difficult, it can come to dominate everything. That doesn’t help anybody. What can help is to say (or show) when you feel good about something. Make a habit of often letting your child know when he or she is making you happy. You can do that just by giving attention, a smile, or a hug. There doesn’t have to be a ‘good’ reason. Let your child know that you love him or her just for being themselves.

Rewards can put pressure on a child, when maybe what’s needed is to take the pressure off. If you promise a treat in advance, and your child doesn’t manage to ‘earn’ it, it can cause a lot of disappointment and difficulty. Giving a reward after something has been achieved, rather than promising it beforehand, is less risky. And after all, a hug is a reward.

Smacking may stop a child at that moment from doing whatever he or she is doing, but it is unlikely to have a lasting effect. Children learn most by example. If you hit your child you’re telling the child that hitting is reasonable behaviour. Children who are treated aggressively by their parents are more likely to be aggressive themselves and to take out their angry feelings on others who are smaller and weaker than they are. Parents do sometimes smack their children, but it is better to teach by example that hitting people is wrong.

We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.