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Positive Behavior Management

Behavior management is likely one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. Helping our children make wise choices may sometimes involve conflict, and whether it’s about self-regulation or morality, we might not always see eye to eye with our little ones. We want to set boundaries and enforce structure, but we also want to maintain a warm relationship with our kids. The key to finding this balance is positive behavior management. Let’s talk about why it’s important and examine some practical examples and strategies.

Why Must We Manage Our Kids’ Behavior?

Children lack the cognitive maturity and life experience to plan, organize, or understand consequences due to underdeveloped frontal lobes. They learn boundaries from adults and need consistent guidance to navigate the complexities of life. Without structure, children may struggle with anxiety and find it challenging to adapt to societal norms. Parents must set boundaries to prepare children for the realities they will face as they grow.

Too much freedom can be terrifying to children. It may sound counterintuitive, but your child wants to know what he or she can/should and can’t/shouldn’t do. Let’s take a look at some specific scenarios!

How does a child’s age affect behavior management?

It is important to consider the chronological as well as developmental age of the child because developmentally and experientially, the child may be encountering certain situations for the first time and may have a limited or emerging understanding of language and emotion.

Parents of young children should remember to be concise and concrete, and use repetition. There may be no need or benefit to belaboring a point with a 3-year-old, but problematic behaviors from a 10-year-old may require a longer sit down. All children can benefit from a multimodal approach: telling and showing, for instance.

What do I do if…?

My child refuses to obey my rules. They talk back disrespectfully when I try to enforce them.

It is important to be clear and consistent. Create a short list of expectations for your child. Reward and praise for staying on target. Communicate consequences consistently in advance.

Positive reinforcement typically works better than punishment for children of any age. Try to emphasize reinforcement first (things your child can earn by having a successful day—extra book at bedtime, a favorite show, 10 mins on the tablet).

Punishments should be predictable, and corporal punishment should be avoided. Loss of video games, phone, or tablet time are common ones these days. The most important factor is that it is something the child would want to avoid.

My child throws tantrums in public places when they are unhappy with something – usually a decision that I’ve made.

Shudder! These public situations are just so tough. They engage so many feelings for parents, which can sometimes cloud our judgment because we just want it to stop. Nothing to see here!

Nevertheless, the key is to take a deep breath and be calm and matter-of-fact. Recognize that this is uncomfortable but likely not as noteworthy for the “audience” as you may feel it is. Stay strong and consistent with whatever rule or boundary you have laid out. Support your child in naming his or her emotion if they have not been able to do so independently and avoid arguing the feeling with the child. They feel mad, and you won’t change their mind.

Instead, tell the child what your expectations are and what they can expect to happen next. Getting down to their level or even hugging them may be effective to de-escalate.

If such strategies are not effective, let the child know you are going to remove them from the situation (if safe) and find a quieter place for them to calm down. Remind them of any self-soothing skills they have and then take a quiet moment for yourself to de-escalate as well.

My child resorts to physical aggression (kicking/hitting/throwing things) when they are unhappy with a situation.

These kinds of situations are serious because they can potentially lead to injury. First and foremost, make sure the environment is safe for you and your child. Remove potentially hazardous things from their immediate vicinity.

If they are safe in their environment, there is no need for you to risk injury yourself—step away. Encourage others to leave you and your child alone, such as siblings who can inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) fan the flames. Children who get aggressive sometimes like an audience.

You can provide a calming presence without risk to your own safety.

If you are concerned at any point about the safety of your child or anyone else, it is wise to call 911 or a mobile crisis team. You should not attempt to transport a highly dysregulated child to the ED yourself.

My child is lazy and unmotivated in school. They do everything in their power to avoid getting work done.

Avoid making assumptions. This kind of behavior is more typical of older children, so engaging them is important. It may be that your child is lacking motivation because academic tasks are difficult, or something is going on at school that is particularly stressful for them.

Begin by making an observation in a nonjudgmental way. I.e., “I have noticed that you are not spending as much time on school-related tasks lately. You always used to tackle homework right away when you got home. Is there anything going on that I can help you with?”

If you believe your child may be struggling academically due to issues with learning or attention, consult your child’s PCP and share your concerns with the school. Your child may require a psychoeducational or neuropsychological assessment to determine specific needs or deficits. School districts can often provide a portion of the initial testing when requested.

If you believe what you are seeing in your child is related to his or her mood, it may be helpful to de-emphasize academics and instead aim to be open and supportive of your child more broadly. I.e., “I am worried about you. I haven’t seen you excited about getting up and ready the way you used you. Are you ok? Can I help?”

If it does not seem emergent, some space may allow your child to feel comfortable coming to you. If your child continues to appear de-motivated, it may be helpful to set them up with a therapist or other mental health provider for further assessment and possible intervention. Alerting your child’s PCP and teachers may also be helpful.

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!

About the Expert

headshot of Dr. Jennifer 

Dr. Jennifer Weber is the Director of Behavioral Health for PM Pediatric Care. She is involved in the development and the execution of the clinical elements of the program, including managing therapists and other staff, teaching, supervising, and performing administrative tasks. A child and adolescent psychologist specializing in trauma, identity-development, mood disorders, anxiety, ADHD, and adjustment disorders, Dr. Weber also provides therapy to children, adolescents, and emerging adults.