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How to Handle Unruly Children

By Brenda Scottsdale ; Updated April 18, 2017
Remove your child immediately from potentially dangerous situations.

Every parent has had the experience of seeing her little angel instantly transform into a sulky, pouting, rude monster. Use tactics employed by teachers and pediatricians to keep your cool and quickly banish bad behaviors before lifelong habits develop. Employ rewards and consequences and get all adults in your child's life on board with the agreed upon limits and rules. A unified approach will make it less likely that your child will become confused or have the opportunity to manipulate you.

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Taming the Monster

Give immediate, consistent and age-appropriate consequences if behaviors are severe or pose a threat to safety. For example, when using timeout, the pediatric experts writing for the Ask Dr. Sears website suggest punishing your child for 1 minute per each year of his age.

Ignore minor transgressions. Some children seek attention through their misbehavior, so drawing attention to these actions might actually increase the likelihood that they'll continue to act out.

Allow your child to experience the natural consequences of her actions whenever possible so she can learn from her mistakes. Give your child a lesson she'll never forget by allowing her to feel the sting of rejection or have her peers laugh at her.

Impose parental consequences that teach cause and effect. For example, if she's abusing a video game, take the game away.

Rewarding the Angel

Give rewards to motivate positive behavior. For example, you and your child should agree that interrupting is a problem for him. Set a goal that, for each day he succeeds in waiting his turn to speak, he'll earn an hour of play with you devoted just to him. You don't need to reward everything your child does; instead, choose one or two target behaviors at a time so he doesn't become overwhelmed or lose focus.

Grant privileges if behavior significantly improves. Privileges should be natural outcomes of your child's behavior whenever possible. For example, you can say something like "Because you have been acting more mature now, you can stay up an hour later every night as long as your behavior continues."

Work with your child to make rewards something fun, achievable and simple to understand. Collaboration helps change adversarial interactions into bonding moments.

Praise behaviors that show your child is trying to change. Choose behavior-oriented observations, such as "You did a very good job cleaning your room today," rather than person-oriented statements, such as "Good boy." You don't want to label your child -- just his behaviors. Focus on only one or two areas to make praise special.

Ensuring Success

Remind your child that he's promised to behave. Sometimes, despite their best intentions, children forget a goal they're working on. Use nonverbal cues, like putting your finger in front of your mouth to remind him to wait his turn, as well as gentle verbal reminders, such as "Remember that you're working on waiting your turn."

Write down goals and post these in a central location, such as the refrigerator. For younger children, use pictures instead of words, while you can include detailed instructions for teenagers.

Teach appropriate coping mechanisms. Children who act out may not know how to manage the situation more appropriately. For example, teach your child to count slowly to 10 before reacting to control his temper. Model appropriate behaviors to reinforce the lesson.

Tip

Listen to what your child has to say. You don't have to give in, but you can let him know he's heard and his opinion is respected. When it's appropriate, negotiate to let him know that his opinions are valuable. If he feels you are working together, he might become more cooperative and positive in general.

Warning

Use nonfood items for punishments and rewards. According to Scholastic, because we need to eat to survive, food should be given unconditionally.

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About the Author

Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.

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