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Parenting Young Children with Behavior Problems


Some children present special parenting challenges. We often label them "difficult" or "disobedient" or even "bad." These children don't intend to try their parents but rather are born with a challenging temperament.

Unfortunately, most young children with behavior problems provoke negative reactions from adults. These reactions tend to make the child's behavior worse, starting a harmful pattern that can continue throughout a child's life.3

Constructive reactions, on the other hand, can help children improve difficult behavior. With the help of researchers who have studied children with difficult behavior, parents of difficult children can learn how to interact constructively with their child.1

Temperament, Parenting, and Behavior: A Continuing Cycle

A child's temperament, or behavior tendencies, is an inborn trait. Researchers Forehand and Long believe that temperament problems can create a negative cycle between parent and child.1 A child with a difficult temperament behaves badly, and in turn his parents react with ineffective or inconsistent discipline. This cycle has to be broken.1 Below are parenting habits that can contribute either positively or negatively to this cycle.

  • Modeling. "Modeling" is learning by watching others. Children tend to do what they see others do. If parents or siblings model bad behavior, a child is likely to behave badly in the same ways.
  • Reinforcement. "Reinforcement" is rewarding a child for his behavior. Sometimes unacceptable behavior is unintentionally reinforced. For example, parents sometimes laugh at a bad word their child said because it seemed cute or funny. But laughter tends to reinforce a behavior.
  • Punishment. It's easy to punish a child out of anger, but this reaction does more harm than good. Harsh punishment or using punishment too often can create feelings of resentment in a child. It also teaches him to obey just to avoid punishment rather than to obey because he understands right from wrong.1
  • Reciprocal escalation. This occurs when parents become aggressive toward their child because the child behaved aggressively. Reciprocal escalation tends to make a bad situation worse.5
  • Complementary escalation. This occurs when parents give in to the demands of a child.5 Rather than respond appropriately to aggressive behavior, parents ignore it so they can avoid conflict. Usually the more parents cave in to a child's demands, the more demands the child will come up with.5

Strategies for Overcoming Difficult Behavior

Child development experts suggest a five-step method parents can use to help a child improve difficult behavior. The steps build on one another, so each one is important.

1. Attending

Attending is simply reinforcing desired behavior by describing it aloud with enthusiasm, such as "Look how high you're stacking your blocks!" or "You're talking with your inside voice." Attending can be a powerful foundation for changing behavior because it helps parents relate to their child through constant, positive attention. It also improves the parent-child relationship.4

2. Rewarding

Rewarding is showing a child approval for her good behavior. Rewarding doesn't take the place of attending but rather adds to it. As parents describe their child's appropriate behavior, at times they should add rewards and praise.1

3. Ignoring

Ignoring is a very effective way to reduce a child's unacceptable behavior, and it is much easier to use than punishment.4 But ignoring should never be used alone. Instead, once your child stops the unacceptable behavior, immediately reward him for his now-acceptable behavior.4 Ignoring also should not be used when a child's behavior is potentially dangerous to himself, others, or property. Instead, use more active measures, such as a time-out (McMahon & Forehand, 2003). Examples of behaviors that can be ignored include whining, nagging, temper tantrums, and interrupting.4

4. Giving Directions

Parents sometimes give directions that are hard for a young child to follow. "Chain direction," for example, is when a parent gives several directions at once.1 Instead, parents should give one direction at a time. "Vague directions" aren't specific enough, such as "Behave yourself" or "Be nice." Instead, parents should say exactly what they want their child to do.

"Question directions" ask a child to do something rather than tell him.1 For example, "Will you please stop jumping on the couch?" Instead, parents should deliver their request in the form of a statement: "Please stop jumping on the couch."

Finally, directions are ineffective when followed by a reason. For example, "Pick up your toys because Grandma is coming over, and it would be nice if the house was clean when she got here." Instead, parents should make sure the direction is the last thing a child hears. For example, "Aunt Laura is coming and it would sure be nice if the house was clean. So please pick up your toys."1

5. Using Time-outs

It takes time to help a child change difficult behavior. Even if you're using all the right techniques in all the right ways, your child might continue to behave badly, especially at the beginning stages of using a new approach. Time-outs are a helpful consequence for non-compliance, especially when they're used consistently.1

Promoting Changes in a Positive Environment

While helping a child change is not easy, it can become easier and more effective when he or she has a positive environment. Parents can do many things to make the environment of their home more positive. Forehand and Long suggest the following:1

  • Have fun with your child.
  • Communicate "I love you" often.
  • Have structure and routines.
  • Participate in family traditions and rituals.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Request feedback from your child and take turns talking.
  • Work on developing patience.
  • Build your child's self-esteem.
  • Help your child solve problems with peers.


While helping your strong-willed child change his behavior is not easy, it is very important. The progress may come slowly. It will require much time and patience, and at times you might feel like his behavior is not improving. When you feel discouraged, it might be easy to slip back into old discipline habits, but it's important to stay constant in your efforts. If you do, you will eventually help your child improve his behavior and you will strengthen your relationship with him.4

Written By McKenzie Young, Research Assistant and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University


  1. Forehand, R. & Long, N. (2002). Parenting the strong-willed child. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Magg, J. W. (2000). Managing resistance. Intervention in School and Crime, 35(3), 131-140.
  3. Mandal, R. L., Olmi, D. J., Edwards, R. P., Tingstrom, D. H., & Benoit, D. A. (2000). Effective instruction delivery and time-in: Positive procedures for achieving child compliance. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 22(4), 1-12.
  4. McMahon, R. R., & Forehand, R. L. (2003). Helping the noncompliant child. New York: The Guilford Press.
  5. Omer, H. (2001). Helping parents deal with children's acute disciplinary problems without escalation: The principle of nonviolent resistance. Family Processes, 40(1), 53-66.
  6. Whaler, R. G., Vigilante, V. A., & Strand, P. S. (2004). Generalization in a child's oppositional behavior across home and school setting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37, 43-51.