Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
Child Behavior: What
Parents Can Do to Change their Child's Behavior
What is normal
behavior for a child?
Normal behavior in children depends on the
child's age, personality, and physical and emotional development. A child's
behavior may be a problem if it doesn't match the expectations of the family or
if it is disruptive. Knowing what to expect from your child at each age will
help you decide what is normal behavior.
What can I do to
change my child's behavior?
Children tend to continue a behavior when it is
rewarded and stop a behavior when it is ignored. Consistency in your reaction to
a behavior is important because rewarding and punishing the same behavior at
different times confuses your child. When your child's behavior is a problem,
you have 3 choices:
- Decide the behavior is not a problem because it's
appropriate to the child's age and stage of development.
- Attempt to stop the behavior, either by ignoring
it or by punishing it.
- Introduce a new behavior that you prefer.
How do I stop
The best way to stop unwanted behavior is to
ignore it. This way works best when you're able to wait for results. When you
want the behavior to stop immediately, you can use the time-out method. Physical
punishment is less effective.
Why shouldn't I
use physical punishment?
Many parents use physical punishment (such as
spanking) to stop undesirable behavior. The biggest drawback to this method is
that although the punishment stops the bad behavior for a while, it doesn't give
the child an alternative. If the child doesn't know a good behavior, he or she
is likely to return to the bad behavior. Physical punishment becomes less
effective with time and can cause the child to behave aggressively. It can also
be carried too far--into child abuse. Other methods of punishment are preferred
and should be used whenever possible.
How do I use the
Decide ahead of time the behaviors that will
result in a time out--usually tantrums, or aggressive or dangerous behavior.
Choose a time-out place that is uninteresting for the child and not
frightening--usually a chair, a corner or a playpen. When you're away from home,
consider using a car or a restroom as a time-out place.
When the unacceptable behavior occurs, tell the
child the behavior is unacceptable and give 1 warning that you will put the
child in time out if the behavior doesn't stop. Remain calm and don't look
angry. If the child goes on misbehaving, take him or her to the time-out
Set a timer so the child will know when time out
is over. Time out should be brief--generally 1 minute for each year of age--and
should begin immediately after reaching the time-out place or after the child
calms down. You should stay within sight or earshot of the child but don't talk
to him or her. If the child leaves the time-out area, gently return him or her
to the area and consider resetting the timer. When the time out is over, let the
child leave the time-out place. Don't discuss the bad behavior but look for ways
to praise good behavior later on.
How do I
encourage a new, desired behavior?
One way to encourage good behavior is to use a
reward system. This way works best in children over 2 years of age. It can take
up to 2 months to work. Keeping a diary of behavior can be helpful to parents,
to show gradual changes in their child.
Choose 1 to 2 behaviors you would like to change
(such as bedtime behavior, toothbrushing or picking up toys). Choose a reward
your child would enjoy. Examples of good rewards are an extra bedtime story,
delaying bedtime by a half hour, a preferred snack or, for older children,
earning points toward a special toy, a privilege or a small amount of
Explain the desired behavior and the reward to
the child. For example, "If you get into your pajamas and brush your teeth
before this TV show is over, you can stay up a half hour later." Request the
behavior only 1 time. If the child does what you ask, give the reward. You can
help the child if necessary but don't get too involved. Because any attention
from parents, even negative attention, is so rewarding to children, they may
prefer to have parental attention instead of a reward at first. Transition
statements, such as, "In 5 minutes, play time will be over," are helpful when
you are teaching your child new behaviors.
This system helps you avoid power struggles with
your child. However, you must live with your child's choice. If your child
chooses not to behave as you ask, the child is not punished; he or she simply
does not get the reward.
What are some
examples of this method?
Beat the Clock (best method for a dawdling
- Ask the child to do a task. Set a timer. If the
task is done before the timer rings, the child gets a reward. To decide the
amount of time to give the child, figure out the child's "best time" to do that
task and add 5 minutes.
Good Behavior Game (good when you're trying to teach a new
- Write a short list of good behaviors on a chart
and mark the chart with a star each time you see the good behavior. After the
child has earned a small number of stars (depending on the child's age), give
him or her a reward.
Marks/Bad Marks (best method for difficult, highly active
- In a short time (about an hour) put a mark on a
chart or on the child's hand each time you see him or her performing a good
behavior. For example, if you see your child playing quietly, solving a problem
without fighting, picking up toys or reading a book, you would mark the chart.
- After a certain number of marks, give the child a
- You can also make negative marks each time a bad
behavior occurs. If you do this, you only give the child a reward if there are
more positive marks than negative marks.
Developing Quiet Time (often
useful when you're making supper)
- Ask the child to play quietly alone or with a
sibling for a short time (maybe 30 minutes).
- Check on the child frequently (every 2 to 5
minutes, depending on the child's age) and give a reward or a token for each few
minutes the child was quiet or playing well.
- Gradually increase the intervals (go from
checking the child's behavior every 2 to 5 minutes to checking every 30
minutes), but continue to give rewards for each time period the child was quiet
or played well.
What else can I
do to help my child behave well?
Make a short list of important rules. Avoid
power struggles and no-win situations. Try not to go to extremes. When you think
you've overreacted, it's better to use your common sense to solve the problem,
even if you have to be inconsistent just this once. Accept your child's basic
personality, whether it's shy, social, talkative or active. Basic personality
can be changed a little, but not very much. Try to avoid situations that can
make your child cranky, such as becoming overly stimulated, tired or bored.
Don't criticize your child in front of other people. Describe the child's
behavior as bad, but don't label the child as bad. Praise your child often when
he or she deserves it. Touch your child affectionately and often. Develop little
routines and rituals, especially at bedtimes and meal times. Provide transition
remarks (such as, "In 5 minutes, we'll be eating dinner."). Allow your child
choices whenever possible. You can ask, "Do you want to wear your red pajamas or
your blue pajamas to bed tonight?" As children get older, they enjoy becoming
involved in household rule making. Don't debate the rules at the time of
misbehavior but invite the child to participate in rule making at another time.
Children who learn that bad behavior is not tolerated and that good behavior is
rewarded are learning skills that will last them a lifetime.