Many parents have felt frustrated when their child did not listen to them, and he or she did not behave well. In these situations, the million-dollar question arises: “What should I do when my child misbehaves? It is true that children do not come with an instruction manual and many times we need guidance to know how to handle these situations. If this is your case, keep reading for some general guidelines on how to manage your children’s behavioural problems.

What is the meaning of misbehaving?

First, we need to know what misbehaving means to you. While the answer may seem obvious, it is not. To begin with, what may seem like unacceptable behaviour to you, such as having a tantrum in a restaurant, may not have that connotation to other parents. Therefore, we must know that “misbehaving” is a meaning that we have given to some behaviours that do not fit into what we consider appropriate to the situation.

It is also important to keep in mind that when our children “misbehave”, many times they are showing that there is some need that is not being met, such as hunger, sleep, need for attention, difficulty managing their emotions, etc. Asking ourselves “Why has he/she done or is doing this?” instead of saying “He/she is getting on my nerves” or “He/she is doing that to annoy me”, will help us to handle the situation in a calmer and more effective way because it will be easier for us to know which need is not met and what is the best course of action in that situation. We will not act in the same way if he cries because he is sleepy, because he misses us or because he wants to eat a snack before lunch.

Important aspects to consider…

  • Every conflict is a situation that we can take advantage of to teach them skills that will be useful for their lives.
  • Parents are the best example to their children. We cannot tell them that they should not eat anything before dinner while they see how we eat half a loaf of bread before dinner, because they will not understand it.
  • A child is not a “small adult”. He does not have the same skills and knowledge to cope with difficulties. Demanding things that exceed their abilities, such as asking a 5-year-old to be quiet and without leaving the chair all the time when we go to a restaurant, will not work.
  • We should not focus only on the negative. Teaching him or her to highlight and exploit his or her strengths will be much more useful and reinforcing for him or her and we are more likely to achieve the expected effect.
    • Imagine that at work they only tell you what you are doing wrong but never tell you what you do well. How would you feel?
    • Saying, “I’m so glad you played with your sister today in a calm way, letting her play with your toys and not hitting her!” will have a better effect than saying, “You were so mean to your sister today!”
  • Do not say “you have been very bad”. Just because it is clear for us that we are referring to when he/she was jumping on the couch at the grandparents’ house, does not mean that he/she knows what we are referring to and may interpret that we mean a different behaviour. Therefore, it is very important to specify the behaviour as much as possible. In this case we can tell him or her: “On the couch we have to be seated because if not, it may break”.
  • Apply the consequences right after the behaviour we want to change or reinforce has occurred. This will make it easier for them to understand what we mean and to repeat it again (if we have liked it) or not to do it again in the future (if it is one that we want to eliminate or reduce). If we liked that he helped his brother get dressed in the morning, it would be better to tell him right after he does it, rather than in the evening.
  • Try to understand how they think and feel (put ourselves in his/her shoes), which does not mean always agreeing with them. Your empathy will make they feel understood and respected.
    • Ask them questions about how they feel. E.g.: “You seem angry”, “It seems complicated for you…”.
    • Accept their emotions, which does not mean that their actions are justified. E.g., “You have the right to be angry, but you don’t have the right to hit your sister because you feel angry”.
    • Encourage them to express their emotions. E.g., “You can cry if you feel sad”.
    • Listen to them calmly, without judging and paying attention to what they say, accepting their emotions.

How to set rules and limits

The rules must be set by the adult, and it is very important to decide which ones are going to be through a consensus among the adults who educate the children. If not, they will try to take advantage of (for example, “I am going to ask this to mom, because she always says yes”). Another relevant aspect is that the rules must be applied consistently. We cannot apply them on and off because the child will get confused and will not know how to act in each situation.

For the rules to be useful they must have the following characteristics:

  • Clear and simple. If the child is young, it is better not to give too many instructions because he/she may not understand them. When they are older, if we lengthen the rules too much, we will be lecturing them constantly.
  • Consistent. The rules cannot be applied arbitrarily, they must be thoroughly thought, avoiding improvisation. It is important to make them understand why these rules exist (what sense they make). If we tell them “This is because I say so”, they will not learn to have his own criteria. There is a difference between obeying out of fear and respecting by understanding the consequences and assuming responsibilities.
  • Described with consequences. Consequences must be clearly and concisely defined for everyone, and as it was already mentioned, they must be applied whenever the rule is complied with or broken.
  • Firm. It is important to use a firm but calm tone to convey the rule. The tone of voice we use has an influence and speaking very loudly or aggressively will not have a greater effect.
  • For everyone. The rules must be complied with by all the members of the family to not generate a feeling of injustice or misunderstanding.
  • Necessary and sufficient. We must select those rules that we consider especially important. To set a high number of rules does not guarantee a better functioning of the family dynamics.
  • Adapted to the children’s degree of maturity. It is necessary to consider the children’s pace of development when demanding things. If we ask for more, it can increase their insecurity, and on the contrary, if we ask for less, it favours overprotection.

These general guidelines can be very useful for a more effective management of your children’s problematic behaviours. If you have tried to implement these guidelines and you still find it very difficult, do not blame yourself (remember that each child is different!) and contact us. We will help you analyse what may be going on and offer you more concrete strategies for a better management of the situation.

Aina Fiol Veny

Psychologist Col. Nº B-02615