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Managing difficult childhood behaviour

Managing difficult childhood behaviour

One of the challenges of being a parent is dealing with difficult behaviour, wherever it is exhibited. Every child displays episodes of behaviour that are challenging to handle and some do this more often than others. There is a huge range of behaviours and some are more difficult to deal with than others.

These include being:

  • Aggressive
  • Clingy and shy
  • Defiant
  • Stubborn
  • Whiny
  • Loud
  • Over active
  • Negative

Dealing with difficult behaviour is one of the trickiest aspects of parenthood because it is tempting to shout and scream. Children do not know what is expected of them, and what is 'against the rules' unless they are told. It is important to set the limits in a simple way and be consistent with discipline and expectations.

The first avenue in trying to manage difficult behaviour is, therefore, to talk. Tell the child quietly, but firmly, how you expect them to behave in the future, with the promise of some reward if they change their behaviour in a positive way. Children's psychology is not so different from adults: we all like a reward for doing something right rather than punishment for doing it wrong. It may not work the first time, but try to keep it going.

Dealing with aggressive children

Many young children have difficulty learning about the idea of sharing. If they want to play with a particular toy that someone else is playing with they often will just snatch it away. This is not a deliberate act of aggression. Children of this age are very focused on themselves and their own needs and desires. Most will need to learn about sharing, it is not something they will suddenly realize how to do. Parents can help children by showing how sharing works. You might bring in some chocolates that you know the child likes, and talk to the child about how good it is to share. You may then ask the child to share something with you. Over time, by giving children instant praise and rewards if they do share, they will usually learn its advantages.

Letting parents go - dealing with a clingy child

Young children can be clingy and may react in an emotional way when the parent leaves. Be honest and explain that you will be coming back - and then come back. If a longer separation than the child has ever had before is on the horizon, for example if the child is to go to nursery school, it is important to build up to it by gradually prolonging the length of separation.

When you do go, say goodbye properly, rather than just disappearing (which can be tempting, when you know the reaction will be floods of tears). That way you will show that you mean what you say.

The other important thing to remember is that the emotional tears and pleadings of children when you leave them are often temporary. If you are leaving them at a playgroup or nursery, they will be playing happily after 5 or 10 minutes.

Dealing with a defiant and stubborn child

It can all be frustrating when children will not co-operate with you in getting dressed, having a bath, letting you wash their hair or putting their shoes on. The chances are the child sees the activity as not very interesting. The task for the adult is to help the child to learn that there is a reason for doing things. Try explaining that once you have completed the activity, you can both go out and do something the child enjoys. Again, instant rewards (stickers, ticks in a 'good behaviour' chart) can all help encourage positive behaviour.


The strange voice that children (and sometimes adults) use when they are whining is often an attention-seeking device when they are feeling stressed and anxious. Because it is so irritating, it often works. But if you want to reduce the whining you need to ensure that the child feels they can get attention from you without the whining. Sit the child down and keep good eye contact. Talk to them with an even quiet voice, allowing the child's anxiety to reduce. Let them know you are listening to them. It may not work the first (or second) time, but eventually the child should see they can have a conversation telling you what they want without whining.

Loud children

Children all have periods when they make a lot of noise. But if your child is very noisy most of the time he or she may be trying to engage your attention. Reassure your child that you are listening to the child even when they are not shouting or speaking loudly. Some children who are much noisier than their peers turn out to have hearing problems, so if you continue to have any concerns, see a doctor about a hearing test.

Over activity

There are degrees of over activity. Some children just seem to be on the go more than others. It helps to build routines for these children during the day, so they know what to expect, and when they can expect it. Turn off all adrenaline-pumping television and computer games at least an hour before bedtime. Some parents find that a healthy diet with less sugar and food additives helps, although the idea that additives and a 'junk diet' are the direct cause of hyperactivity is controversial.

In extreme cases of hyperactivity, advice from a doctor may be helpful, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a possibility.

Negative behaviour

There comes a time for most parents when the child begins to assert his or herself and begins to refuse to co-operate, or to do something in particular. It is of little comfort at the time but this kind of flat refusal is part of the child growing up to be an independent person.

There are some approaches suitable for toddlers. With older children there will be times, perhaps most of the time, when negotiations and compromise are the answer.

It is important that if your child is being difficult, you do not 'give in'. Explain to your child, in a calm manner, why their behaviour is unacceptable. In this way, your child will know exactly where they stand with you and what is expected of them. Learning how the adult world works can be rather bewildering for children - so try to be patient!