Pregnancy and baby

Dealing with a child's difficult behaviour

How much does my child understand about being naughty? (6 to 30 months)

Media last reviewed: 07/05/2013

Next review due: 07/05/2015

People have different ideas about what is good and bad behaviour. What you consider to be bad behaviour might seem normal to other parents, and the other way round.

Your circumstances can affect how you judge your child's behaviour. For example, it’s much harder for you to cope with your child's mess if you haven’t got much space.

Parents also react to their children’s behaviour in different ways. Some are stricter than others and some are more patient.

Your child’s character will also make a difference. For example, some children react to stress by being noisy and wanting extra attention. Others withdraw and hide away.

Possible reasons for difficult behaviour

There are many reasons for difficult behaviour. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Any change in a child’s life can be difficult for them. This could be the birth of a new baby, moving house, a change of childminder, starting playgroup or something much smaller.
  • Children are quick to notice if you’re feeling upset or there are problems in the family. They may behave badly when you feel least able to cope. If you’re having problems don’t blame yourself, but don’t blame your child either if they react with difficult behaviour.
  • Sometimes your child may react in a particular way because of how you’ve handled a problem in the past. For example, if you’ve given your child sweets to keep them quiet at the shops, they may expect sweets every time you go there.   
  • Your child might see a tantrum as a way of getting attention (even if it’s bad attention). They may wake up at night as a way of getting a cuddle and some company. Give them more attention when they’re behaving well and less when they’re being difficult.
  • Think about the times when your child’s behaviour is most difficult. Could it be because they’re tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated or bored?

If your child is behaving badly, first consider whether their behaviour is a problem. Do you need to do something about it now or is it a phase they'll grow out of? It may be best to live with it for a while.

Think about whether your child’s behaviour is a problem for other people. Behaviour that might not worry you can become a problem when it affects those around you.

Sometimes, taking action can make the problem worse. However, if a problem is causing you and your child distress, or upsetting the rest of the family, it’s important to deal with it.

Do what feels right

What you do has to be right for your child, you and the family. If you do something you don’t believe in or that you don’t feel is right, it probably won’t work. Children notice when you don’t mean what you’re saying.

Don't give up

Once you’ve decided to do something, continue to do it. Solutions take time to work. Get support from your partner, a friend, another parent, your health visitor or your GP. It’s good to have someone to talk to about what you’re doing.

Be consistent

Children need consistency. If you react to your child’s behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it’s confusing for them. It’s also important that everyone close to your child deals with the problem in the same way.

Don't over react

This can be difficult. When your child does something annoying time after time, your anger and frustration can build up. It’s easy to take your feelings out on them. If this happens, the whole situation can get worse. It's impossible not to show your irritation and anger sometimes, but try to stay in control. Once you’ve told your child off, move on to other things that you can both enjoy or feel good about. Find other ways to cope with your frustration, like talking to other parents about how you feel.

Positive discipline can help encourage your child and keep you calm. It’s easy to join a local group or find online support on child behaviour and more. Visit the CANparent website or phone 0808 800 1102.

Talk to your child

Children don’t have to be able to talk to understand. It can help if they understand why you want them to do something. For example, explain why you want them to hold your hand while crossing the road, or get into the buggy when it’s time to go home.

Encourage your child to talk to you. Giving your child the opportunity to explain why they’re angry or upset will help reduce their frustration.

Be positive about the good things

When a child’s behaviour is difficult, the things they do well can be overlooked. Tell your child when you're pleased about something they’ve done. You can let your child know when they make you happy by giving them attention, a hug or a smile. There doesn’t have to be a reason. Let your child know you love him just for being himself.

Offer rewards

You can help your child by rewarding them for behaving well. For example, praise them or give them their favourite food for tea. If your child behaves well, tell them how pleased you are. Be specific. Say something like, "Well done for putting your toys back in the box when I asked you."

Don’t give your child a reward before they’ve done what they were asked to do. That’s a bribe, not a reward.

Avoid smacking

Smacking may stop a child doing what they’re doing at that moment, but it doesn't have a lasting positive effect.

Children learn by example, so if you hit your child you’re telling them that hitting is an acceptable way to behave. Children who are treated aggressively by their parents are more likely to be aggressive themselves. It’s better to teach by example rather than behave in the way you're asking them not to behave.

There are more effective alternatives to smacking to control your child’s behaviour.

Extra help with difficult behaviour

You can get help for especially difficult behaviour, so don’t feel you have to cope alone. Talk to your health visitor or GP, or contact your local family advice service (you may be able to go without a referral).

Sometimes, a bit of support and encouragement might be all you need. Some children may need to be referred to a specialist where they can get the help they need.

Having a child whose behaviour is very difficult can put a huge strain on you. You might need help yourself. Speak to your GP or health visitor about support groups in your area.

Toddler tantrums

Get expert advice about toddler tantrums and learn why they happen and ways to deal with them.

Media last reviewed: 20/08/2013

Next review due: 20/08/2015

Page last reviewed: 23/09/2013

Next review due: 23/09/2015

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Media last reviewed: 11/03/2013

Next review due: 11/03/2015