Kids Health Info

Challenging behaviour – toddlers and young children

  • Young children experience a range of emotions and express themselves in many different ways. It’s normal for toddlers and young children to have tantrums and break rules 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.

    Signs and symptoms of challenging behaviour

    Different families will have different expectations about what is acceptable and what is considered difficult behaviour. Some behaviours that families commonly find challenging include:

    • defiance (e.g. refusing to follow your requests)
    • fussiness (e.g. refusal to eat certain foods or wear certain clothes)
    • hurting other people (e.g. biting, kicking)
    • excessive anger when the child doesn’t get their own way
    • tantrums.

    What causes challenging behaviour?

    Challenging behaviour is sometimes due to your child not having the social and emotional skills they need to behave the way you would like them to. Often when a child misbehaves, it is a response to feeling anxious, angry or overwhelmed and they are struggling with processing these feelings.

    Children need attention from their parents and carers to feel secure and thrive emotionally. Children may show challenging behaviours in an attempt to gain attention and responses from adults – for some children, even negative attention is preferable to no attention at all.

    Young children are also easily distracted and have short memories, which may be why sometimes they don’t do what you ask them to.

    There are a number of other things that might affect your child’s ability to control their reactions, emotions or behaviours, including:

    • being unwell
    • not enough sleep or being tired
    • too much screen time
    • poor diet or feeling hungry
    • a change in family circumstances or routine.

    Sometimes, ongoing challenging behaviour can indicate other health issues or an underlying developmental, social or emotional problem. It is also important to consider a child’s current situation or environment and how it may be affecting them. If you are concerned about your child, see your GP. 

    As part of healthy development, toddlers will slowly learn to control how they react to different situations. As your child gets older, they will be able to understand more about what behaviour you expect of them and be better able to control their behaviour.

    How to deal with challenging behaviours

    Setting rules is important so that your child knows what behaviour is expected of them. Keep your instructions simple and short (e.g. “No hurting other people.”), and make sure your child understands what you have told them. It’s also important to give a short and simple instruction about the behaviour you would like to see (e.g. “be gentle with your brother”).

    There are a number of options for discouraging challenging behaviours, such as:

    • Ignoring – for minor attention-seeking behaviours, it is best to ignore the behaviour (e.g. turn away from your child and respond only when they stop doing it). Constantly responding to negative behaviours can teach a child that this is a good way to get your attention.
    • Distraction – young children might stop the negative behaviour if given an appealing alternative.
    • Encouraging empathy – point out how your child’s behaviour is making another person feel (e.g. sad, hurt) and ask your child how they would feel if someone did the same to them.

    Dealing with ongoing, more serious negative behaviour can be very stressful. It is best to guide your child’s behaviour by using a positive approach.

    Positive reinforcement

    A positive approach to managing your child’s behaviour invloves rewarding good behaviours often and focusing on positive aspects of your child’s behaviour, rather than directing attention to negative behaviours.

    • Reinforce positive behaviours before they become negative (e.g. “I think you’re doing a great job at playing gently with your brother”). This encourages your child by giving attention to their positive behaviour, rather than waiting until they become too rough and having to focus on the negative behaviour. Make sure you are specific about what behaviours you really like and want to encourage.
    • Consider implementing a positive behaviour system in your home. A reward chart for younger children can add incentive for your child to increase desirable behaviours. This strategy can help you focus on the times when your child is behaving well.
    • Be a role model for your child. Children pick up clues about how to behave from watching others. It’s important to act and talk in a way that you’d like to see reflected in your child’s behaviour – if you want to discourage your child from shouting at you, it is important to try to keep a calm voice when you are becoming frustrated.

    Consequences for negative behaviour

    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 (e.g. “If you don't stop snatching from your friend, you can't play with the cars anymore”). 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.  

    Be consistent with your approach to consequences and your child will be more likely to understand what is expected of them. 

    Negative discipline can be harmful

    Physical discipline

    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:

    • increased aggression and antisocial behaviour 
    • teaching children that violence is OK
    • low self-esteem
    • mental health problems
    • a poor relationship between the child and parent.

    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 shaming

    Shouting or yelling may be an understandable response when parents are frustrated; however, studies have found that repeated shouting at children can have similar harmful effects to physical discipline.

    Being shouted at – especially by someone much larger than them – is very stressful for a child. Shouting 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.  

    Shaming, belittling and humiliating children for their actions is also very damaging to their long-term mental health, and not an effective way to improve their behaviour.

    Isolation as punishment

    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. 

    When to see a doctor

    Sometimes, severe and persistent challenging behaviour can be a sign of a developmental condition or a more serious mental health concern. If your child’s behaviour is affecting the way they cope with life you should see your GP for help and further assessment.

    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. 

    Key points to remember 

    • It’s normal for toddlers and young children to have tantrums and break rules while their social and emotional skills are developing.
    • Ignoring, distraction and encouraging empathy can help discourage negative behaviours.
    • Positive reinforcement and focusing on your child’s good behaviour is the best way to guide your child’s behaviour.
    • Setting rules and being consistent with age-appropriate consequences is important.
    • Punishing your child with physical discipline (e.g. smacking), shouting or isolation can be harmful.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    What effect will too much screen time have on my daughter? 

    Research is finding that too much screen time for very young children can be harmful to their developing brains. It can negatively affect their concentration, language development and how well they interact with other people, and it has been linked to sleep difficulties. These things can all contribute to challenging behaviour. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that: children under 18 months should avoid screen time, other than video-chatting; children aged 18 months to two years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps if adults watch or play with them to help them understand what they’re seeing; children aged two to five years should have no more than one hour of screen time a day, with adults watching or playing with them.

    How do I do ‘time-out’ in a way that is helpful? 

    Often when young children misbehave, what they need is help from their parent or caregiver to calm down. Time-out should be used as a technique to offer your child some ‘down time’ and should not be used as a punishment to make the child suffer. Time-out works best when used for short periods (maximum of one minute per year of age) and immediately after an inappropriate behaviour occurs. Sending children away or isolating them for long periods can cause greater distress, and may be unhelpful. 

    How do I know if my daughter’s behaviour is due to ADHD?

    All young children have a limited attention span and sometimes do things without thinking, but only a small number of children have ADHD. The symptoms of ADHD include inattention (e.g. difficulty concentrating), impulsivity (e.g. acting without thinking) and overactivity (e.g. constant fidgeting). All of these behaviours are very common in most toddlers and many pre-schoolers. If your child has more than one of the symptoms of ADHD and the symptoms have been ongoing for more than six months, you could consider seeing your GP to discuss your concerns. See our fact sheet Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

    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. 

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit   www.rchfoundation.org.au.

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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.