Managing Problem Behaviors in Children

It’s often frustrating when you ask or tell your child to do something and they don’t do it. But as a parent, you can often shape or change your child’s behavior with the use of calm, clear commands. There are also times when ignoring, time out, or sticker charts can serve as helpful tools.

Here are some tips for changing your child’s behavior from the pediatric behavioral health experts at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

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How To Make Your Commands Work

When you talk to your child:

  • Get close to your child and look at them as you speak.
  • Get down to their level and touch them gently.
  • Be calm as you give a clear, concise directive.
  • Use language your child can understand given their age and developmental level.
  • Avoid giving commands in the form of a question. “Do you want to clean your room?” gives an option for your child to say “no” in response.
  • Praise your child as soon as they follow through or complete the desired task. For example: 5-year-old Ben is on top of the kitchen counter. Parent goes over to Ben, touches his arm, and says quietly, “Ben, please get off of the counter now.” When Ben gets down, parent says, “I like the way you listened and got off the counter. We don’t climb on the counter as it is unsafe.” Parent gives Ben a hug.

When To Ignore Them

When you don’t like what your child is doing but it is not causing harm (for example, whining or making silly noises), just ignore it! Your response is not responding at all.

Reactions like raising your voice in response to annoying or frustrating behaviors can have the unintended effect of reinforcing them. This can cause them to instead occur more often.

Children decrease problem behaviors when you ignore them because they are just looking for attention. To use ignoring as a response, you can:

  • Stay calm.
  • Look away from your child.
  • Move away from your child.
  • Do not show any reaction on your face.
  • Ignore your child completely.
  • Make sure that other people in the room ignore the behavior.

It is possible that behaviors may increase at first when you begin ignoring them, but stay consistent and they should eventually stop.

Note: Parents should not ignore a child if they are causing physical harm.

Time Out

Use time out to stop problem behaviors and to help your child gain inner control. Do not use it as a punishment. Use it to help your child calm down.

Time out works best for big behavior problems, like hitting or out-of-control screaming. Try using time out when all else fails. Stay consistent with your time-out process each time.

Here’s how:

  • Calmly tell your child what they are doing wrong and how you want them to behave. Do not argue with them.
  • Put them in a quiet place for time out. Facing the corner and bedrooms are not recommended. Use a special place like a chair in the hall or the last step of a staircase.
  • Keep your child in time out for one minute per each year of your child’s age. It should last between three to 10 minutes. You can use a timer to keep track of the time.
  • Tell your child: “Time out begins when you are quiet. You need to stay in a quiet place where you can calm down.” Let them know that they are there to gain control of their behavior. It’s OK to sit with your child if that will help them calm down.
  • When time out is over and they have calmed down, praise your child for gaining control.
  • Don’t lecture your child. Let them go back to what they were doing. You can talk more about behavioral expectations later, at a time when things are calm, or
    during play.

Sticker Charts

As opposed to disciplining your child for problem behavior, sticker charts are a tool for rewarding children for good behavior. Tell children how the chart will work and how they have to behave to get their stickers.

When they earn a certain number of stickers, give them a special reward that you have chosen together. Sticker charts can help your kids learn to make their beds, clean up, do homework, etc.

Here’s how to use them:

  • Tell your child what they have to do to get a sticker. For example: They must make their bed each morning.
  • Make a chart with your child. Let them help make the chart and pick stickers (or you can just draw stars.)
  • Let your child help decide what reward they will get after they get enough stickers on the chart. Rewards can include activities to do together (for example, time at the park, a special hike, a dance party, or a movie night). Fun activities together can often be even more incentivizing than things like toys or candy!
  • Put a star or sticker on the chart each time they do what they should.
  • Praise them as soon as possible.
  • Start by making it easy for them to get stickers.
  • Then add to the number of stickers it takes for your child to earn the reward.
  • Do not use a sticker chart for more than four weeks at a time.

If these strategies do not appear to help manage behaviors, and you need additional support, speak with your pediatrician. They can help you access appropriate services to help your child and family.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.