Addressing unwanted behaviour and the consequences
It’s not uncommon for us not to pay attention to a child’s behaviour before it becomes disruptive. As a parent, it’s a good idea to think in advance about what is problematic about the child’s behaviour and what kind of intervention might help.
Addressing problematic behaviour
Children need adults’ support in regulating their emotions, and also in challenging situations. You and your child can agree on a place where your child can go to calm down, either alone or with an adult, during a strong emotional outburst.
You can build this place together with your child beforehand, for example as a comfortable nest with things to help your child calm down, such as a soft blanket, a cushion, a soft toy or something to do with their hands like things they can squeeze or fiddle with. You can teach your child a calming breathing technique, for example through an exercise during which the child imagines blowing out a candle. It’s important not to leave your child alone unless he or she wants that. A time-out, previously commonly used as a parenting tool, should not be used as a punishment. A child should not be isolated as a punishment, because being left alone in a strong emotional state can be a frightening experience for them. An adult’s support in challenging situations sends a message of compassion to the child.
Often problems with a child are related to the fact that…
- The child isn’t following the instructions given.
- The child has severe temper tantrums.
- The child complains and resists the instructions being given.
- The child interrupts people and demands attention.
- The child is dawdling or acting up during transitions.
- The child is playing with their food or making a mess while eating.
- The child refuses to go to bed.
Different means of intervention work with different types of problems. Sometimes a parent’s intervention may be to ignore the child’s unwanted behaviour.
Ignoring a child in a planned way
Sometimes it’s best not to interfere with a child’s behaviour at all. Especially if the problematic behaviour is clearly intended to get the parent’s attention. Ignoring a child in a practical way is appropriate when a child’s behaviour is disruptive but doesn’t require rapid intervention.
Such behaviour includes:
- insisting on something when a parent has already said no
- clowning around
- making faces
- repeating silly words
If you decide to use the method of ignoring the child, it’s important to be consistent. Don’t pay attention to the child’s unwanted behaviour and don’t reward bad behaviour. Even if the child, for example, keeps on insisting on something, you must stick to your decision. Don’t forget that ignoring the child may initially confuse him or her, resulting in the behaviour possibly worsening temporarily.
When the child stops the unwanted behaviour, you stop ignoring them. If the child’s behaviour becomes too aggressive, stop ignoring it. Ensuring the safety of the child and others is of paramount importance. Behaviour that endangers the child themselves or others cannot be ignored.
Addressing unwanted behaviour when a child acts against the rules
As a parent, when we notice problem behaviour, we usually mention it to the child. You can mention it in passing, amidst noise, or even by shouting from across the room. However, when a parent notices problem behaviour, they should stop what they’re doing and intervene immediately.
When you as a parent notice that your child is behaving in an undesirable way, you should:
- Stay calm and consistent.
- Go up to the child, get down to their level and try to make eye contact.
- Give clear and calm instructions on how you want the child to behave or what you want them to do.
- If the child does as asked, praise them.
- If the child doesn’t do as asked, tell them about the consequences of not following the instructions.
- Wait calmly for a moment and if the child doesn’t act as requested, apply the consequence.
There are consequences for our behaviour. It’s important for the parent to give the child examples of this in appropriate doses and in an age-appropriate way. There are natural consequences that come automatically through some actions.
Examples of natural consequences:
- If a child breaks a toy on purpose, they will not be bought a new one and will have to face the consequences of their actions, that is, being without that toy. Of course, it’s different if they broke the toy by accident.
- If a child gets their shoes wet despite being told not to, they will have to put up with the unpleasant feeling of wearing wet shoes.
- If a child doesn’t come to the dinner table or start eating despite being asked to, their food will get cold and they will have to eat it anyway.
Examples of logical consequences:
- If a child plays video games or watches a screen for longer than the agreed time, the time will be deducted from the next day’s screen time.
- If a child doesn’t clean up their toys despite being asked to do so, the toys are put in a cupboard for a few days and the child can’t play with them.
- If siblings can’t share a swing nicely, neither of them can use it for a while. You can try again later to see if they can share it better.
- If a child can’t play with a toy calmly, the toy is taken away for a while. Later, you can try again to see if they can play calmly. Don’t forget to praise the child as soon as they act in the way you want.
Think of other consistent consequences for things that are common in your daily life. Over the next week, follow 1 or 2 of them.
A few things to remember about consequences
Don’t forget that consequences should be age-appropriate. Consequences should not be too long-lasting or severe. It’s important that the child receives immediate feedback on their actions and is soon given the opportunity to try again, do things differently and succeed.
Choose consequences you know you can implement safely and consistently. Consequences should not be something that may not be possible. If consequences are not enforced, the child doesn’t get the opportunity to learn and the parent’s authority is weakened. Implement the consequences as quickly as possible. Young children don’t know how to look far into the future. For example, saying “if you don’t brush your teeth, your teeth will develop holes” is a long-term consequence that a child may not be able to understand and is therefore not effective for learning.
Natural consequences must be such that they cannot lead to the child being physically injured. It’s important that the adult protects the child from those kinds of natural consequences. Try to be kind but firm when deciding on the consequences. A parent’s anger, blaming or invalidating attitude can make the child act in a disobedient way and feel ashamed. The consequence must not be such that the child feels abandoned by the parent. For example, saying “If you don’t come with me now, I’m going to go by myself and leave you here all on your own” is not a good consequence.
Discuss consequences with the child and, if possible, involve them in coming up with what they might be. You can also come up with consequences of a parent’s problematic behaviour. Also remember to notice even the little things your child does well and praise them whenever there’s cause for it. Praise from a parent will motivate the child to continue the positive behaviour.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2006). The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2–8 Years. Publisher: The Incredible Years.
Triple P – Positive Parenting Program.