How should you handle difficult behavior with children?

It is completely normal to get frustrated with your children at times. Children get our best and worst traits as parents, and they have many, many opportunities to see exactly what gets your attention and reaction. From an evolutionary perspective, children have adapted to get as much attention and tangible rewards from parents as they can—the more we can help our children survive and thrive, the better our species continues.

When kids are engaging in some type of problem behavior, they are getting one of four things out of it: attention, escape, sensory stimulation, or some other tangible reward. These are often called the function of the behavior.

Attention could mean attention from a parent or from siblings, and it could be subtle or even negative attention—a snort, a giggle, or a sigh could all be enough to keep a child engaged in whatever they are doing.

Escape means they are getting out of something they don’t want to do. If you tell your child to pick up their toys and they make annoying noises to the point that you tell them to just go to their room, they just got out of picking up their toys.

Sensory stimulation means something that feels good—flipping over the couch, blowing and popping big bubbles, scratching an itch—if the child is doing something that feels good to them, they will want to continue doing it.

Other rewards—If you get frustrated when your child is acting a certain way and give them some type of reward to get them to stop (letting them play on the iPad or doing something else they enjoy), they will learn and you will see more of this behavior in the future!

The best way to handle problem behavior depends on the function of the behavior. If a child is doing something so they can get attention or a reward, or if they are trying to escape from what they are doing, the best strategy is to ignore the behavior. If you don’t give in and do not give them the attention or reward they are seeking, the behavior will go away after a little while. It’s worth noting that when you ignore a behavior, it sometimes gets worse before it gets better—kids essentially dig in their heels to try harder to get your reaction before they give it up, so be prepared for this!

If children are doing something because it feels good, you might need to do something different, since your reaction isn’t really what they are getting out of it. In this case, giving them some rules or guidelines for certain behavior, or providing some type of alternative (less annoying) activity that would elicit the same good feeling would be the best strategy.

In many cases, kids’ behavior changes on its own, and kids grow out of things quickly. If ignoring a behavior or providing alternatives isn’t working, a method of systematically reinforcing or punishing the behavior can be effective—sticker charts, allowance with money lost for negative behaviors, or time outs can work well. For parents who are really struggling, child psychologists and child therapists are used to working with families to help develop family systems to address behavior problems in the house.

Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) is a special type of behavior family therapy which helps address behavior problems with young children. It involves parent coaching with daily home practice, where parents have the opportunity to learn and practice skills which help improve the parent-child relationship and then improve the discipline in the household. It is evidence-based and very effective with many children. I love helping families improve their relationships with their children and reducing the stress and frustration they have when they come in for therapy.

If you are looking for help with your young child’s behavior at home, reach out to me at so we can discuss how we can work together!