Difficult Behaviour: How To Cope

Parenting isn’t easy, especially when your child is going through a period of difficult or challenging behaviour.  This could be for lots of reasons, like a significant life event or change in family circumstances.  Many parents blame themselves, whilst some blame their children, but in reality it’s more complex than that.  Significant behavioural problems often have multi-factorial causes and take time and effort to sort out. 

All children will misbehave or be naughty.  It’s a normal part of life and a normal part of growing up.  Temper tantrums and the so-called ‘terrible two’s’ are a familiar experience for many people!

Usually these problems are transient and manageable with simple guidance.  However, they can become severe and then require more structured or specialist help.  A small proportion of children with behavioural problems have an underlying neurodevelopmental or mental heath issue, or disability, and these may require specialist input.

One thing definitely works though: early intervention.  Prevention is always better than reaction when it comes to bad behaviour.  That means establishing good practices at an early age so things don’t get out of control.

So here are some tips:


1)  Structure

All children need a structured day, starting with consistent waking times in the morning, carrying on throughout the day (i.e. structured meal times) and ending in a sleep routine.  A wind-down at the end of the day, minimising use of electrical equipment, and an opportunity to have a ‘debrief’ chat with a parent are really helpful. 

2)  Activities

Keeping your child busy during the day with appropriate activities (art, crafts, exercise etc.) may help by ensuring that they are being stimulated in the right way, and are hopefully less likely to misbehave.

3)  Diet

Improving diet can have big effects on child behaviour.  Try to reduce the amount of sugar and processed things, particularly sweets and junk food!

4)  Rules & Boundaries

Make sure your child knows what is and is not acceptable by setting reasonable, realistic boundaries.  There should also be consequences when these limits are over-stepped.  However, don’t be too restrictive or punitive!  Children also need the opportunity to learn by experiencing and exploring in their own way. 

5)  Praise 

Be sure to praise good behaviour soon afterwards and make it clear why.  Lots of hugs and smiles or even rewards, but be careful you don’t reward with the wrong thing - it’s better to have something like a star chart, or fun activity, rather than a sweet treat.  Don’t forget that your child has strengths too and these are just as important! 

6)  Ignore 

Ignore bad/annoying behaviour (within reason) and children will learn that it is not effective.  If you do react then do so in a calm and authoritative way - remember, children will learn reactions from you.  Smacking is controversial because it isn’t actually that effective, may have long term consequences, and might teach your child that reacting with violence is OK.

7)  Removal or Time-Out

Sometimes taking your child out of a certain environment where they are being triggered, or having a time-out when they are kicking off is the only way to deal with bad behaviour - such as the so-called ‘naughty step’.  However, it needs to be to a place that is non-stimulating.  As a general rule, 1 minute time-out per year of age is OK (e.g. 3 minutes for a 3-year-old, 5 minutes for a 5-year-old).  Always explain to them why they are there and praise good behaviour afterwards. 

8)  Stay Calm

Children will learn how to deal with things from their parents and carers.  Your conduct needs to be good if you want your child to behave too.  Be calm but firm.  If you shout at your child, they may learn to shout back!

9)  Consistency

Parenting must be consistent over time and by different parent figures.  It is difficult, and sometimes exhausting, but sticking to your principles will work.  In two-parent families, you should work as a team and have a co-ordinated approach - that means the same rules for everyone all the time!

10)  Is it You? 

Managing bad behaviour is a two-way street.  It’s not always about the child.  Sometimes we have to ask ourselves, is it something we are doing, or not doing?  What is your behaviour like?  Do you have realistic expectations or are you being too harsh?  Are you being too lenient?  Do you need help?  This isn’t an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement that you want to do the best thing.


There are lots of places that you can go for extra help too.  Speaking to your child’s Health Visitor or school can be really useful for tips and tricks.  Some councils and community organisations run parenting support classes which are a great way to learn techniques.  If you want to talk to someone, Family Lives and Young Minds UK both have parent helplines.

Your GP is always there if there is an underlying problem that might need more specialist input (such as CAMHS, Community Paediatrics or Child Psychology).

Remember, this is not about having the perfect child, but adapting your parenting so that they can function to their best ability.  It's about supporting strengths as well as discouraging negative beahviours - and that takes time, effort and persistence!

Here’s some great information on dealing with bad behaviour from NHS Choices.  There’s also some useful advice on behaviour in children with learning disabilities here too.