Tools to Manage Your Child’s Challenging Behaviors

by Kristen Henderson, M.S., OTR/L
Kids Place West Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Children misbehaving or testing the limits is a normal part of childhood development.  Most challenging behaviors emerge between the ages of 3—6 when the child is developing a sense of autonomy. However, these behaviors can reach a point that is not typical.  When this occurs, it can leave parents and caregivers feeling unsure how to manage these behaviors. Try these practical strategies to eliminate negative at-home behaviors:

Planned Ignoring

Planned ignoring is as simple as it sounds – ignoring behaviors that you want to stop. This method is useful for eliminating power struggles and minor behaviors such as whining, begging, interrupting, fake crying, and minor temper tantrums. It can also be used for minor inappropriate behaviors you wish to stop such as a child making bodily noises. The key is to withhold all reinforcement, both positive and negative, and to give no attention to these behaviors. Planned ignoring can be especially helpful to use if the purpose of the child’s behavior is to gain attention. In order to be successful, planned ignoring must be combined with positive reinforcement for the behavior you want.

Example: child is whining for help with toy –> parent ignores whining –> child stops whining and requests help in expected voice –> parent praises child for asking for help without whining and provides help.

Counting

Counting should be used for behaviors you want to stop. Prior to counting, attempts should be made to distract and/or redirect the child. Modeling the behavior you want the child to imitate may be helpful as well. The procedure for utilizing counting at home is as follows:

Example: child is crying for candy before dinner

    • Set limit: “You can have candy after dinner”
    • Attempt to distract and/or redirect: “You have some time to play before dinner. Where is your red car?”
    • If attempt to distract/redirect did not work
    • More push (crying/requesting from child): wait 5 seconds and count “one”
    • More push: wait 5 seconds and count “two”
    • More push: wait 5 seconds and count “three”
    • Follow through: I told you we could have candy after dinner – escort child to time out

Time Out

Time outs should only be used to eliminate behaviors you want to stop, and are utilized in order to follow through with the original limit you set as the parent. Time out should be utilized if you have worked through the counting procedure and the child did not correct behavior before you counted “three”.

If the child corrects behavior when you count “one” or “two” a time out is not needed. On the way to time-out briefly explain the reason for the time out (“I said no candy before dinner – Time out”). Planned ignoring should be used on the way to and while the child is in time out. Arguing and talking with the child can escalate the situation, as it provides more attention and reinforcement for the child to continue the behavior.

Time outs should last one minute per age of the child, and begin when the child is quiet (ex: child is 3 years old–> time out is 3 minutes long). The child should be aware of when the time out will end, so using a timer the child can see may be helpful. When time out has ended, tell the child time out is over. Allow them to come out of the time out location in their own time.

After a time out has been completed, a child will typically not receive the item that prompted the time out. Using our example from above, if a child was in time out due to wanting candy, and you decided candy after dinner, the child does not get candy after dinner if they had to sit in time out. However, if the behavior was stopped before you counted “three” and the behavior was corrected, the child may have candy after dinner. Providing the child with the desired item can teach the child that if they display negative behaviors they can still get what they want. This can create or prolong an ineffective cycle.

Additional Tips & Tricks

Children crave structure and consistency. If you are stuck in a pattern of challenging behavior with your child, being inconsistent with your expectations can inadvertently prolong the cycle. Inconsistency will be a difficult habit to break for both you and your child. Your child may have learned that if they push hard enough they will be given what they want. Your child is prepared to be patient and do what it takes to get their desired outcome. Consistency is the key to eliminating many behaviors – It is important to follow through immediately and every time. In addition, increasing positive interaction, praising more than scolding, and modeling appropriate behaviors can help improve positive behaviors at home.