What do I need to know about my child's behavior?
When you want to change an unwanted behavior, it helps to first understand why your child is doing it. See Understanding Behavior: a Key to Discipline for some things to think about when your child's behavior becomes a problem. Your child's developmental stage, their developmental readiness to learn new things, their temperament, their emotional needs and environmental factors should all help guide how you respond to your child's behavior.
- Find out more about temperament and create your infant or young toddler's temperamental profile ("Image of Your Child") at The Preventive Ounce.
What should I know about temper tantrums?
Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up. They are part of a child learning self-control. Usually, they are starting to phase out by age four. To help you learn why kids have tantrums and for tips on how to avoid them, see the American Academy of Pediatrics page on temper tantrums.
Call your child’s doctor if:
- The tantrums regularly last longer than 10 minutes
- Your child is often out of control
- You have concerns or questions.
Find out more: Listen to a YourChild podcast interview with UMHS pediatrician Dr. Julie Lumeng about how to prevent and handle temper tantrums.
What can I do to help my angry or aggressive child?
Anger is an emotion that is caused by frustration. Aggression means trying to hurt a person or to destroy property. It is normal to have some anger and aggression, and actually healthy. These feelings help us to get things done, when used in a positive way. But excessive amounts of anger and aggression used negatively and destructively may point toward an emotional problem.
Call your child's doctor if:
- Anyone is getting hurt
- Your child is out of control
- Your school-aged child has regular tantrums.
Find out more:
- Get some tips on discipline and responding to an angry child.
- Read about how you can better understand and deal with your young child's aggression (includes a list of strategies to help kids in different age groups control their aggression).
- Children's anger and tantrums—ten guidelines for parents who want to learn healthy ways to deal with them.
- Avoid spanking and physical punishment. It can create defiant, aggressive children, according to UM research, which analyzed 100 years of studies. Find out more in the podcast.
- In Spanish: Nalgadas.
- From Zero to Three: Chew on this: responding to toddlers who bite includes information on do's and don'ts, prevention, how to respond, and when to seek help.
How can I teach my child to stop bullying, or to deal with bullies?
Even toddlers can be "bullies" or “bullied.” In fact, aggressive behavior toward other kids may even peak around age two. Start early to teach your children how to be assertive in acceptable ways, and they will not fall victim to bullies, nor will they become bullies themselves.
- Helping Kids Deal with Bullies has more information and helpful suggestions for parents. It’s also available in Spanish: Su hijo y los niños agresores ("bullies") en la escuela.
- Understand Bullying is a column intended for teachers of young children. It includes information and ideas that would also be helpful to parents, and a list of recommended books for kids in preschool through grade four.
- For Kids: Dealing with Bullies
- For Teens: Dealing with Bullying, which is also in Spanish: Cómo reaccionar ante la intimidación
- If there are lots of behaviors you want to change, start by focusing on one or two of the most bothersome or dangerous ones. Don't try to make too many changes all at once.
- Let your child make some decisions by giving them acceptable choices. For example, ask, “Do you want cereal or toast for breakfast today?” or let them choose between the red or blue pants.
- Make sure you have realistic expectations for your toddler’s behavior. Teaching toddlers good behavior is handled a little differently from school-age kids.
- Have a few positively stated rules, and explain the reasons behind them.
- Make sure your child understands the results of breaking the rules.
- Use natural and logical consequences for problem behavior in parenting preteens and young teens. The purpose here is to get kids to make the right decision, not to bend them to your will. Be patient—it may take time for you to see results.
- Be firm and kind. Follow through on the natural and logical consequences. Consequences are best if they are immediate and consistent.
- Catch your child being good, and tell them you noticed.
- Use descriptive praise. For example, describe what you see: “Wow, this room is so neat. I see all the toys put away, and no one even had to remind you!”, rather than evaluating with praise like “You’re a good boy; good job cleaning up!”
- Find out more about positive encouragement of good behavior, in this handout called “Time-In” or, in Spanish, Tiempo con Sus Hijos.
- Redirect your child and help them find a better place, or safer way to do what they are trying to do. For example, if they want to write on the walls with crayons, give them a big sheet of paper or go outside and let them color on the sidewalk with chalk.
- Remove your child from the cause of the problem behavior, or remove the cause of the problem from the child (for example by childproofing your house).
- Learn how temperament affects kids’ behavior. If you know your child’s temperament, you can help them relate better in the world, and be sensitive in how you respond to them. This understanding can help improve behavior.
- For a wealth of information on discipline and helping kids behave, see YourChild: Parenting Resources.
When should I get help with my child’s behavior problems?
You should talk to your pediatrician about a referral to a professional if your child is doing things that are dangerous, harmful, or disrespectful to people or property. If you see changes in your child’s behavior or physical symptoms, like headaches or trouble with eating or sleeping, get help. Your child may have an attention, behavior or disruptive disorder, and need help. Problems such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder require treatment by a health care professional.
- About Discipline—Helping Children Develop Self-Control
- The Center for Effective Parenting has good handouts on a variety of behavior topics for young children through school-age kids. The handouts are also available in Spanish.
- About behavior, including behavior at home, behavior at school, and bullying from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY).
Check out these related topics on YourChild:
- Parenting Resources offers a wealth of information through links and recommended books on developing a positive relationship with your child and improving your child’s behavior.
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Getting Involved in Your Child’s Education
- Reading and Your Child
- Sibling Rivalry: Find out how to prevent and deal with sibling bickering and fights.
- Colic/Crying: What to do if your baby won’t stop crying.
- Single Parenting
- Pediatric Hypnotherapy: Hypnosis Helping Kids discusses how kids can use self-hypnosis to help control or change some behaviors and symptoms.
Compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN. Reviewed by faculty and staff at the University of Michigan
Updated November 2012