In this section
Children experience a range of emotions and express themselves in many different ways. It’s normal for school-aged children to show defiance or sometimes lose control of their emotions while their social and emotional skills are developing.
It’s important that you and other caregivers provide support while your child is developing and learning to manage their own emotions. Guiding your child and encouraging positive behaviours will help them learn appropriate ways to behave.
Different families will have different expectations about what is acceptable and what is considered difficult behaviour. Some behaviours that families commonly find challenging in school-aged children include:
As your child gets older, they become more aware of what behaviour you expect of them and will be better able to control their behaviour. School-aged children begin to understand empathy and are much better at planning and making decisions about their behaviour than toddlers or
pre-schoolers, because they begin to understand that their actions have consequences.
During primary school, children also begin to learn how to take on more responsibility, but they still require boundaries or limits to guide them as they develop.
Challenging behaviour is often due to your child not yet having the social and emotional skills they need to behave the way you would like them to.
There are a number of other things that may affect your child’s ability to control their reactions, emotions or behaviours, including:
Sometimes, ongoing challenging behaviour can indicate other health issues, particularly if it is affecting your child’s ability to cope with everyday life. It is also important to consider their current situation or environment and how it may be affecting them. If you are concerned about your child, see your GP.
While dealing your child’s ongoing negative behaviour can be very stressful, constantly responding to negative behaviours can teach a child that this is a good way to get your attention. Effective ways to discourage challenging behaviours in your child include:
The best way to guide your child’s behaviour is to use a positive and constructive approach. Reward good behaviours often and focus on positive aspects of your child’s behaviour, rather than directing attention to negative behaviours.
Set clear rules and involve your child in this process. Setting rules is important so that your child knows what behaviour is expected of them and what the consequences are if they decide to break the rules.
If your child is breaking the rules, communicate to them that they are doing the wrong thing and, if appropriate, give them a second chance to correct the behaviour. If the negative behaviour continues, there should be a logical, age-appropriate consequence that you are willing and able
to carry through with. Immediate consequences are fairer and more effective than delayed consequences.
Time-out is a common way to deliver an immediate consequence, but it needs to be used appropriately to work well. Keep time-out as a consequence for more challenging behaviours (e.g. deliberately hurting others, dangerous behaviours or deliberately breaking things) rather than behaviours that can be ignored (e.g. whinging, swearing).
Time-out should not be used to make the child suffer (e.g. isolating them for long periods), but can be used to remove your child from the situation for a few minutes and give them an opportunity to change their behaviour. Generally, it is recommended that your child stays in time-out for a maximum of one minute for every year of their age, and that you allow them out of time-out when the time is up, even if they are not yet calm or quiet. Leaving your child in time-out or isolation for longer periods is likely to cause them to become more distressed.
If your child continues to misbehave after the time-out has finished, they can be put back into time-out for another session or two if their inappropriate behaviour continues.
Taking away privileges can be an alternative consequence to time-out. The privilege should be taken away within a few hours (or the next day) of the negative behaviour (e.g. “If you don't stop hurting your friend, you won't be allowed back on the trampoline for
the rest of the day”).
Be consistent with your approach to consequences and your child will be more likely to understand what is expected of them.
Physical discipline is anything that is done to a child to cause physical pain or discomfort in response to their behaviour. Physical discipline includes smacking, hitting, spanking, slapping, pinching or pulling.
Many studies have found that physical discipline can have long-lasting negative effects on a child, including:
Physical discipline is also not effective in improving behaviour in the long term – while it may stop a child’s unwanted behaviour at the time of the punishment, it doesn’t help them learn the more desired behaviour. This can result in repeated unwanted
If there is violence or aggression in your family, you feel unsafe, or you or your child is at immediate risk of harm, contact emergency services on 000.
Shouting or yelling may be an understandable response when you are frustrated; however, studies have found that shouting at children can have similar harmful effects to physical punishments. By shouting at children, you are not modelling acceptable behaviour or showing
their children how to deal with anger and frustration appropriately.
Being shouted at – especially by someone much larger than them – is very stressful for a child. Shouting at, shaming, belittling and humiliating children does not improve children’s behaviour, and it can lead to more behavioural problems (e.g. increased aggression) and mental health issues (e.g. anxiety,
depression) in the future.
Spending long periods in isolation without explanation or emotional support can be harmful for young children. Being isolated (especially at a time when they are upset) can be perceived as rejection, which can cause distress and confusion for your child. At times it can be effective to take your child away from a challenging situation and have a quiet change of scene, but it is not helpful to keep them away for longer than the recommended period of one minute per year of age.
Sometimes, severe and persistent challenging behaviour can be a sign of a developmental condition or a more serious social or emotional problem. A GP can investigate this and refer you to a specialist if needed.
Challenging behaviours include behaviour that disrupts a child’s learning, interrupts or interferes with others and behaviour that causes the child and family distress. Behavioural challenges can have an ongoing, negative impact on family life. If you are having difficulties managing or coping with your child’s behaviour, you
can talk to a GP who may refer you on to a specialist in paediatric behaviours.
What effect will
too much screen time have on my daughter?
Studies have found that being ‘addicted’ to screens, in particular for internet and gaming use, can cause changes in the brain that affect emotional processing, decision making and ability to control behaviour. Too much screen time can lead to poor quality sleep, which can contribute to
challenging behaviour. Furthermore, spending lots of time on a screen means less time exercising, getting fresh air and spending time with family and friends, which can also negatively impact on mental and physical wellbeing.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that for all children aged five to 18 years, screen time should be reduced where possible. Screen time should not replace time needed for sleeping, eating, being active and interacting with family or friends.
Is using a behaviour chart
to offer rewards a good idea? I don’t want my son to
start expecting rewards for the chores he helps with.
Sticker charts or reward charts are a great way to encourage and reward good behaviour, but should only be used in certain situations. If rewards or charts are used too often or for the wrong type of behaviour, children may become reliant on rewards, and may then develop an
attitude where they only help with tasks around the house or behave appropriately if they get something out of it.
Reward charts work well when children are learning a new skill (e.g. making their bed) or when you want to teach them a new behaviour (e.g. saying ‘please’). The chart should only be temporary – rewards should be offered less frequently and sporadically as the skill or behaviour
develops and then phased out completely.
Reward charts should also never be used on their own to try to ‘fix’ a behaviour. Always use charts in conjunction with other positive parenting strategies, including positive reinforcement and setting boundaries.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Community Information, Department of Adolescent Medicine, and The RCH Child Health Poll. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
First published October 2018.
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