Have you found that anger and frustration have increased in your child recently? At many stages in a child’s development there may be good reasons why this happens. It might include dealing with a difficult life event or transition, physical and hormonal changes to their body, friendship issues or academic pressures.
You may also find that over time your family rules and boundaries have slipped. Managing difficult behaviour at home is not easy at the best of times, but when children are feeling stressed or troubled it’s a lot harder to stay in control. If this sounds like your family, read on!
How To Firm Up Your Boundaries
Boundaries are so important. They help keep everyone safe. Just as importantly, they help us feel safe at a deeper level, as long as they are set with fairness and kindness, because we know what to do, and what to expect. Now might be the time to refresh family rules and firm up your boundaries. Managing difficult behaviour at home is much easier when you have a framework to work to!
Make some family rules. Try to include all family members so that everyone is invested in the rules. Exactly which behaviours are unacceptable? Which behaviours are you going to ignore? For example, you might decide that you are prepared to ignore swearing, even if you don’t like it, but you’re not prepared to ignore personal insults.
Connection and Mutual Respect: Foundations for Behaviour Management
Maybe your child’s behaviour has been challenging for a while. Maybe your family has been through a tough time. You may have been focused on surviving rather than thriving. That’s understandable. However, if you want to get your child’s behaviour back on track you need to work on the connection you have with your child. Have you heard the saying “connection before correction?” Boundaries simply won’t work without connection and mutual respect.
It’s important that you know how to listen to your child with empathy and understanding, and that they respect you enough to listen to you. Don’t worry if your relationship with your child is not as close as it could be. The good news is you would be surprised how quickly you can change that. I highly recommend book called Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat by psychologist Oliver James. It’s an easy read, full of helpful case studies. In essence it’s about the incredible power of one-on-one time with your child.
Take some time to think about your relationship with your child. What little things could you do to build that connection? Think of this process as the essential foundation for strong boundaries and positive behaviour. For example:
- Show an interest in someone they admire (such as an influencer/role model) and ask some questions about them.
- Do a small task or project alongside your child, e.g. tidy their desk together, plant some flowers, make a meal as a team.
- Pay your child a sincere compliment.
Managing Behaviour Strategies For Parents: The Traffic Lights Technique
Traffic lights is a framework for management of behaviour which I have used for twenty years as a psychologist and a parent. This technique is a great way of setting clear boundaries in a simple, visual way which everyone can follow. It is an easy way to gently shape your children’s behaviors.
In fact, the traffic lights system encompasses the most effective behaviour management techniques under one neat umbrella.
Behavioral management systems like the traffic lights strategy help massively when it comes to managing difficult behaviour, because you don’t have to think on your feet.
Red behaviours are those where someone gets hurt or something gets broken. These are things you can’t ignore. Each traffic light should have no more than 3 things next to it. You must decide on a consequence if anyone does one of the things that corresponds with the red traffic light. The consequence is given not during the “incident” but later on, when everyone is calm.
Amber behaviours are those which you want to discourage but aren’t as serious as the red ones. Think of “ambers” as undesirable behaviour that may be annoying or frustrating but isn’t harmful. You are going to “pick your battles” and ignore the amber behaviours. Trust me, it will help you and your child to feel much clearer about the red behaviours, which are the really important ones to tackle.
Green behaviours are those you want to encourage, like co-operating with a sibling or making a parent a cup of tea. When this positive behaviour happens, use plenty of praise, warmth or hugs, or a small reward if you choose. If your child has behavioral issues it may not come naturally to look for opportunities to praise them. But in the long run it’s vital for their self-esteem and mental health that they also have positive moments with you where they are recognised for their positive attitude or showing that they’re making an effort.
Download Your Free Behaviour Management Strategy Worksheet PDF For Parents Here
Consequences as a Behaviour Management Strategy
It’s important to note that psychologists do not encourage shaming or punishing children for their behavior. We prefer to focus on using positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior and offering support and guidance to help children learn from their mistakes.
However, there are times when consequences may be necessary in order to deal with particularly challenging behavior effectively. In these cases, you should always use consequences as a learning opportunity rather than as a form of punishment.
Natural Consequences For Managing Behaviour
Natural consequences are the natural outcome or result of a child’s behavior without any intervention from parents. Allowing natural consequences can be helpful to teach your child about cause and effect, responsibility, and accountability.
For instance, if a child refuses to wear a coat on a cold day, they may feel cold and uncomfortable. This discomfort is a natural consequence of their behavior.
Similarly, if a child refuses to do their homework, they may receive a poor grade or struggle in class, which is a natural consequence of not completing their work.
By allowing natural consequences to occur, your child will quickly learn from their mistakes. But natural consequences must be appropriate and not harmful or dangerous to the child. You should always prioritize your child’s safety and well-being.
Logical Consequences For Managing Behaviour
Logical consequences are an effective strategy for managing challenging behavior in children. Unlike natural consequences, which are a direct result of a child’s behavior, logical consequences are imposed by parents (or teachers).
The consequences should be logically related to your child’s behavior and be reasonable and proportionate to the situation. Physical punishment is never acceptable.
The goal of logical consequences is to help your child learn from their actions, take responsibility for their behaviour, and make better choices in the future.
Here are some examples of logical consequences that parents might use in response to challenging behavior:
- If a child refuses to clean their room, the logical consequence may be that they cannot go outside to play until the task is completed.
- If a child refuses to turn off the TV and go to bed at bedtime, the logical consequence may be that they lose the privilege of watching TV for the next evening.
- If a child hits their sibling, the logical consequence may be that they have to apologize and make amends by doing something nice for their sibling.
Logical consequences can make everyone in the family feel safe and contained, including a sibling who may have got hurt. As well as helping the child who did the difficult behaviour to learn, the consequence should ensure that any “victims” of the behaviour feel that something has been done to ensure it won’t happen again.
In all of these examples, the consequence is related to the child’s behavior and helps them understand the impact of their choices. The consequences should be clear and consistent, and parents should take the time to explain to the child why the consequence is being imposed. Remember that the goal of logical consequences is not to punish the child, but to teach them responsibility, accountability, and positive behavior.
In your traffic lights poster, the consequence for each member of the family might be different. Work with your child to agree in advance what their consequence will be if they do a red behaviour.
The Timing of Consequences
The timing of consequences depends on your child’s developmental stage.
With younger children logical consequences should happen very soon after the negative behavior, otherwise they will not be able to make a clear link between the behavior and the consequence. However, you should always wait until your child has calmed down. Imposing a consequence right the in the middle of an anger outburst or meltdown could escalate the situation even further.
With older children the consequence can be delayed (for example, less screen time the next day) as long as you make clear links between the behaviour and the consequence. Again, always wait until your child is calm before discussing the consequence.
Behaviour Strategies: Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is vital for encouraging the behaviour you want to see in your child. It’s so important to give your child attention for the things they are doing well, not just what they’re doing wrong. This is where the green behaviours come in!
Positive reinforcement can be positive feedback, rewards or praise when a child displays desirable behavior.
This behaviour strategy helps young people learn what behaviors are expected of them and reinforces their efforts to behave in positive ways. Giving positive attention to appropriate behaviors helps your child build a stronger sense of self-worth and identity. In family life, positive reinforcement can strengthen family relationships, build trust, and encourage cooperation.
Here are three examples of positive reinforcement for children of different ages:
- For young children: When a toddler puts their toys away without being asked, parents can offer praise and a high-five to reinforce the positive behavior. The child will learn that cleaning up after themselves is desirable behavior and be encouraged to repeat it in the future.
- For school-age children: If a child helps their younger sibling with homework, parents can offer extra screen time or a simply praise and an extra hug as a reward for their helpful behavior.
- For teenagers: If a teenager consistently completes their chores on time and without reminders, parents can offer an allowance increase or an opportunity for a fun family outing. This will encourage the teen to continue being responsible and independent.
In all cases, positive reinforcement should be specific, timely, and sincere. By using positive reinforcement, parents can foster a positive family environment that encourages children to make good choices and feel confident in their abilities.
Psychologists understand that there is always more to so-called bad behavior than meets the eye. Of course you need effective behaviour management strategies, but if your child’s behaviour is consistently challenging, you must look beneath the surface to understand what might be causing the behavior. It could be down to a range of factors including as unmet needs, stress, anxiety, or a lack of appropriate skills or coping mechanisms.
By understanding the root cause of the behavior, you can work with your child to address the underlying issue and help them develop more positive ways of responding.
Persistence and Commitment
Make sure you are persistent and you are committed to your new behaviour system. You might encounter some resistance to begin with. Stick to your guns and know that things ay temporarily get worse before they get better. Explain to everyone in the family that this is the new system you’re going to use to help everyone feel calmer and happier. Make sure there are copies of your traffic lights poster around your home so that everyone can use the system confidently.
A United Front
One crucial boundary that’s vitally important is to make sure any major disagreements between adults happen away from the children. This helps children feel that you are “containing” them by managing things as adults. You need to present a united front when it comes to managing difficult behaviour.
Getting More Help To Manage Your Child’s Behaviour
If you have tried the traffic lights system for a few weeks and your child’s behavior problems are not improving, you should consider if help from a child behaviour specialist is needed. If your family is going through a difficult time, seeking extra help might feel like admitting failure, but it could be the best thing you do for your family. Meeting with somebody who is viewing the situation from the outside can give you clarity about how to best managing challenging behaviour in your specific circumstances.
Child behavior specialists are usually qualified professionals such as child psychologists or social workers. There is no single profession called “child behavior specialist”. Therefore it’s important to be cautious. Always check the person’s qualifications if they are offering expertise in managing behaviour strategies for parents.
In the first instance, speak to your child’s doctor or their school. They will be aware of local healthcare providers and services which may be able to help. It you’re in the UK and looking for private support, I recommend the Association of Child Psychologists in Private Practice (ACHiPPP). This directory only consists of qualified and fully accredited child psychologists so you will be in safe hands.
It’s important to have a set of clear behavior management strategies so that you feel in control as a parent. Most of all it’s important because it will help you stay cal and avoid knee-jerk or harsh punishment. Having planned ahead, you will know exactly what to do in difficult situations when your children’s behaviour is less than ideal. The traffic lights strategy is a clear and simple way of implementing set rules consistently, in a way that meets your child’s needs.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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