Parenting Strategies For Difficult Behaviors: Strategic And Science-Backed Parenting

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It can feel overwhelming when children exhibit challenging behaviors. As a caregiver, you know you need to respond, but it can be hard to know the most appropriate reaction. How you react to their tantrums, defiance and mistakes can significantly impact their development. 

Many parents benefit from outside advice and support. Speaking with a therapist can help you to develop parenting and communication skills to better relate to your child. A therapist can also help your child express and process their emotions in a safe space. 

Read on to learn more about research-backed strategies to handle difficult behaviors as a parent or guardian.

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Are you experiencing parenting difficulties?

Why do children misbehave?

Research from the Child Mind Institute suggests that children with frequent emotional outbursts may have undeveloped coping skills to help them handle feelings like anger, frustration, nervousness and fear. Some children may also experience difficulty with boundaries and meet rules with defiance. To counterbalance these behaviors, you may begin to track when they begin. You might consider watching for patterns during specific tasks or times of day, such as bedtime or during homework. Doing this can be the first step to addressing your child’s behavior successfully. 

We do want to note: Tantrums and misbehavior can be a normal and developmentally healthy part of childhood — possibly indicating that your child is seeking more independence as they grow. Teaching your child skills such as problem-solving, negotiation, impulse control, communication and self-control can help reduce instances of misbehavior.

Now that we have covered possible reasons for misbehavior, we can begin to explore different supportive strategies to overcome it. 

Strategy #1: Establish consistent rules and consequences

According to recent research, children may feel safer when consistent rules and consequences are present, as this can help them to develop a practical understanding of the boundaries they are expected to operate within. 

Rewarding positive behavior and sticking to the results for negative behavior can help to reinforce how you want your child to act. Children can be creatures of habit, so you might choose to work talking about rules and consequences in your routine early. Making this a routine occurrence can make it easier for your child to understand their limits. However, it can be important to remember that pushing boundaries and testing limits within reason are generally normal and healthy behaviors in moderation for most children. 

A therapist can help you determine healthy rules and consequences if you’re struggling to find something that works for your family. Trying too many strategies for disruptive behavior can lead to problems or internal confusion, as children generally respond best to firm boundaries and consistent behavior management. 

Strategy #2: Identify the possible triggers

When children act out, they may be upset about something else. Once the meltdown is over, you may choose to talk to your child and identify what triggered the problematic behavior. In most cases, part of teaching your child emotional intelligence and emotional literacy is helping them identify and communicate their emotions.

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How to identify behavior triggers

  • Talk to your child. When the difficult behavior has passed, and your child is calm, consider talking to them and trying to get to the root of the problem. You can use specific language, such as, “Do you know what made you so upset you had to yell and throw things?”
  • Observe and investigate on your own. Does your child act out while doing homework, or come home from school in a terrible mood? Pay attention to the situations around your child’s misbehavior for clues to the underlying cause.
  • Consider your child’s perspective. Things can look very different from their point of view. You may try to ask them about their experience and what they were thinking at the time of the outburst. 

Strategy #3: Give clear, concise warnings

You may find it helpful if your child knows that they will receive a consequence after one warning if they continue displaying unsafe or inappropriate behavior. You may choose to tell them what impact they can expect. After you give them this warning, consider following through with whatever consequence you set out. This can help them to understand that you have limits they must respect if they don’t want to deal with a consequence. 

Strategy #4: Avoid negative language, profanity and spanking

In addition to presenting a calm, composed face to your child during challenging behavior, you might try to avoid using negative language and profanity when dealing with misbehavior. Foul language can teach your child that it is an acceptable way to react to stress. Likewise, spanking your child for misbehavior may teach them that it is okay to hit people when they upset you. 

Strategy #5: Responding calmly in the moment

You may feel powerless as a caregiver when your child acts out, especially if you’ve tried multiple techniques to manage their behavior without success. While every situation and child is different, these tips may help you through a challenging situation. 

Parenting tips during difficult behavior

  • Consider standing your ground, even if your child is upset. Giving your child what they want to end the behavior can teach them that tantrums work to sway your position on certain boundaries. 
  • Wait until your child calms down to talk. Encouraging a calm mindset for negotiation can benefit both of you. You might gently tell them you will speak to them when they are relaxed, and ignore other negative behavior they may engage in. 
  • Praise positive behaviors and ignore negative behaviors. Instead of reinforcing minor misbehavior by calling attention to it, you may choose to ignore it and specifically praise the behaviors you want to encourage. 
  • Stay calm and avoid harsh responses. This is because addressing negative behavior may escalate a child’s aggression and frustration. Remaining calm can also give your child an example of how to deal with difficult emotions.
  • Take your child to a quiet place. Going somewhere with less stimulation can help them to sort through their emotions and calm themselves down. 

Strategy #6: Take a moment to consider your reaction

According to recent details from the National Health Service, it can be important not to overreact when responding to your child’s challenging behavior. While it might be normal to allow frustration or irritation to show, you might try to stay calm and demonstrate emotional control for your child. Emotional or harsh reactions can escalate the situation. If you need a moment to take a breath and calm yourself, you might choose to take it — returning to the situation with a refreshed outlook. 

After an outburst: How to rebuild

While you may be upset with your child’s behavior after an outburst, it doesn’t generally change how much you love them. This can be important to communicate to your child. As they grow and learn, they may make mistakes, and feeling safe in their parents’ love can give them a solid foundation in a changing world. 

If you lose your temper, you might consider apologizing to your child when you’ve calmed down, reassuring them that you love them. Taking responsibility for poor behavior and correcting the situation can be helpful to model for children, as it can show them healthy ways to handle their mistakes. 

“Parenting is a tough job, and you’re bound to make mistakes. If you yelled at your children for dropping peas in the heating vent, don’t beat yourself up. Apologize for losing your temper and start over. Your children will learn how to apologize from your example. And they will learn that parents can get angry at their children and still love them,” said researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

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Are you experiencing parenting difficulties?

Tips for parenting toddlers

  • Consider setting clear expectations and modeling desired behaviors
  • Continue to build positive behaviors into your family routine
  • Teach your child to talk about their feelings to potentially enhance their communication skills 

Tips for parenting young children

  • Consider listening to their needs and thoughts without judgment
  • Attempt to stay calm and don’t overreact if you’re told something that is out of the norm
  • Consider meeting their desire for more independence with age-appropriate responsibility and consequences

Tips for parenting teenagers

  • Consistently follow up on broken rules calmly and firmly
  • Keep communication lines open, and consider talking to your adolescent about their problems 
  • Pick your battles. Everything isn’t worth the energy and stress of negative feedback — so you may try to be strategic about what you bring up with your teen. 

Reach out for help if you suspect a problem

Certain medical conditions, such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may involve atypical behavior, which can seem like willfully bad behavior. If you have noticed concerning behaviors from your child, you may consider contacting your physician or therapist to inquire about testing. If your child has been diagnosed with behavioral conditions, you may consider educating yourself on how their disorder works and how it’s likely to impact your child’s reactions and responses. 

Is therapy effective for children’s needs?

Finding effective and healthy ways to manage your child’s problematic behaviors can be challenging — and the prospect of taking them to a new environment to do so can feel overwhelming. If you’ve noticed that none of your behavior management strategies seem to be working or your child is acting out more often, online therapy may be a helpful solution. A therapist can help you learn parenting skills to cope with negative behaviors and may teach you more effective ways to communicate with your child. We do want to note — online therapy can be reached from your home or any other safe space on your smart device, allowing you to connect to support whenever you need it. 

How can online therapy help children manage difficult behaviors?

 Recent research published in the International Journal of Environmental & Residential Public Health suggests that internet-based parenting interventions such as parent-child interaction therapy could be as effective as traditional in-office treatments. 

Takeaway

Knowing how to handle your child’s complex behaviors can be challenging. The strategies outlined in this article may help you provide the support and guidance your child needs to develop healthy ways to deal with intense emotions. Online therapy can be an available option to leverage to support your child’s development. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
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