“My kid is always on their best behavior,” said no parent ever.
All kids misbehave sometimes. That’s part of how they learn to become a functional part of society. However, our job as parents is to ensure that problematic behaviors do not become behavioral patterns. If they do, it can cause struggles in everyday communication and functioning.
Finding the right approach to raising kids is most likely the biggest challenge in parenthood. We want them to become well-mannered and polite, while equipping them with skills to cope with difficult emotions. It is a road of constant learning and adaptation.
While there’s no “one-size-fits-all” recipe for raising healthy, resilient, and responsible kids, there are useful suggestions you can use on this road.
In this article, you will find ideas on how to provide guidance, support, and structure that will help your child improve their behavior.
Table of Contents
- 1. Prioritize Sleep
- 2. Control Screen Time
- 3. Get Physically Active
- 4. Choose Healthy Food
- 5. Spend Quality Time Together
- 6. Reinforce Positive Behaviors
- 7. Set Clear And Consistent Boundaries
- 8. Keep Your Promises
- 9. Give Them Responsibilities
- 10. Hold Space For Sharing
- 11. Communicate Structure
- 12. Provide Outlets For Creativity
- 13. Teach Emotional Regulation Skills
- 14. Give Them Space To Find A Solution
- 15. Take Care Of You
1. Prioritize Sleep
Both kids and adults tend to be cranky after not getting enough sleep. Well-rested kids are less likely to act out. Check the guidelines on how much sleep is required, based on your child’s age. If you are still unsure, consult with your child’s doctor.
If they have a disrupted or irregular sleeping pattern, create a plan to help your children gain a steady sleeping schedule. Take small steps each day, such as pushing bedtime to ten minutes earlier each night, improving sleep hygiene, or introducing bedtime rituals to wind down before sleep. This is important for their mental health.
2. Control Screen Time
Set a limit on how much time your child spends in front of the screens. The American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) provides guidelines on managing screen time that you can use as a reference.
Some parents may notice that other activities can cause over-stimulation in their children. Knowing your child and how they react to different stimuli can help you understand how their body and mind works.
The goal is to prevent over-stimulation that can negatively affect their focus, mood, and sleep. Instead of counting how many hours they have spent looking at a screen, you may find it more beneficial to monitor their stimulating activities, and reduce these entertainments near bedtime.
3. Get Physically Active
Physical activity has plenty of benefits both for the body (improves cardiovascular activity, builds stronger bones and muscles, controls weight, etc.) and the mind (helps release endorphins, positively affects the mood, improves focus, helps in coping with anxiety, etc.).
One way to engage kids is through organized sports. However, do not assume that your child needs to be athletic to be physically active. Anything goes – walking, running, jumping, climbing, dancing, bear crawls, etc.
Each child has a different energy level, but on average, toddlers and preschoolers should have at least one hour of active physical movement a day.
4. Choose Healthy Food
There is a link between processed or “junk” food and bad behavior. Studies have proven this connection, time and time again. Eating “clean” food can help your children reach a nutritional balance, which in turn reduces aggressive behavior.
Here you can find a visual guide from Harvard to help educate and encourage children to eat healthily. Notice the small changes you can start with right away. For example, you can replace processed sugars with fruit or muesli bars, or instead of fruit juices make smoothies.
Check out our article about the 5 foods that are affecting your child’s mood.
5. Spend Quality Time Together
Humans are social creatures and although adults understand social restrictions, children do not. A lack of social interaction is an easy way to ignite aggressive or disruptive behaviors in your child.
This means you need to be fully present when you interact with your children, to ensure they feel seen and heard when you socialize together.
A lot of working parents feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids. However, even if you spend one hour a day actively engaging with your kids, you can positively affect their behavior.
You can put rituals in place – something that you do together every day, or on certain days in a week.
Maybe it is the bedtime or morning rituals you have together, a walk in the park, playing catch, putting puzzles together, building a treehouse, or whatever you feel your child would be interested in.
Creating a time when your child knows you will be available, can help them understand boundaries and regulate their expectations.
6. Reinforce Positive Behaviors
Be sure to acknowledge and praise their efforts. Even if the results don’t quite reach the goal, praise the intention.
For example, “I appreciate how you have attempted to clean your room.” Or, “thank you for helping me out with folding the laundry.” Provide positive feedback verbally or with positive body language – high fives, thumbs up, hugs, etc. A special handshake can create a sense of comradery as well as praise.
If you reinforce positive behavior and give it positive attention, your child is more likely to repeat it.
7. Set Clear And Consistent Boundaries
It is not enough to set ground rules, you need to be consistent in following them.
The rules should be simple and easy to remember. The more you repeat them, the more they will stick. You can write them down or provide visual cues as a reminder.
Empty threats do not work (“If you don’t put your toys away, I will throw them out.”). Unless you intend to follow through with the consequence, don’t bring it up.
8. Keep Your Promises
Children are very serious about the promises you give. If you set an expectation of doing something, make sure you follow through. This is how kids develop a sense of trust and confidence in you.
Sometimes unforeseen circumstances can cause you to break a promise. If that happens, make sure you address it. Don’t expect your kid to understand the social intricacies of your workplace, or that your boss needed you to work late. All they will notice is that you weren’t there, even though you said you would be.
Acknowledge the emotions they have around this broken promise, and work through the challenge with them.
9. Give Them Responsibilities
Involve them in your daily chores, such as folding laundry, cleaning, setting the table, or putting things away.
It is not about the size of their contribution, but the contribution itself. It is about sharing responsibility and showing initiative to be helpful.
Handing responsibilities is less about instilling discipline, and more about involvement, a sense of belonging, and accomplishment in doing something good for everyone at home.
10. Hold Space For Sharing
It takes time for kids to learn how to verbally express themselves.
This could mean that they take a while to understand their feelings, and a while longer to speak up about them.
You may need to wait for them to digest their emotions. Or even listen to endless stories that could be summed up in two sentences, as they wrap their head around the situation.
Either way, provide a safe space for them to share and listen attentively.
The chances are, you won’t always have the patience and energy needed to help your child understand themselves, but you should always listen to your children and give them space.
If you pay attention, you might find that your child misbehaves and acts out in an attempt to express distress they can’t otherwise communicate. Teaching them how to talk about their feelings and emotions should lead to better cooperation and better behavior.
11. Communicate Structure
Imagine you are a child, being taken from one place to another. On some days, that may seem fine. On others, you may be desperate to “recharge” at home.
To help manage the structure of your day, tell your children the plan. This will give them a sense of predictability for the day.
Give your child a simple visual schedule that you can go through with them. For example, “right after breakfast, you are going to kindergarten and I am leaving for work. You will have lunch and right after it, daddy is picking you up. We will see each other at home.”
Predictability and structure will help reduce anxiety about the unknown.
12. Provide Outlets For Creativity
Children express themselves creatively. Provide them with materials to play with and avoid too much structure.
Give them a set of coloring pencils and a blank sheet of paper. Let them make anything they want out of Playdough or Legos. Sometimes, the quiet time of unstructured play helps their nervous system regain calm.
13. Teach Emotional Regulation Skills
A lot of your child’s difficult behaviors can stem from their struggle to cope with negative emotions. Teach your child how to recognize and cope with challenging emotions, such as anger, sadness, or anxiety.
Learning how to express themselves, ask for support, or self-soothe can be immensely helpful in preventing meltdowns and temper tantrums. You can find our suggestions on how to do that in our list of calming activities for kids with anxiety.
14. Give Them Space To Find A Solution
Educating kids on how to be resilient is another way to teach self-soothing. Instead of rushing to their aid and fixing the problem for them, guide them toward the solution.
Look for reasons behind your child’s specific behaviors and address them. If the problem is a lack of entertainment, remind them where their toy box is. Maybe suggest some fun activities they have done recently, and ask what they want to do.
Give them the space to find the solution themselves. This can help them make decisions instead of crying for you to do it for them.
Give your children the tools (tip #13) to cope with impatience and distress. Stay present and observant, but do not get involved in clearing the path for them.
15. Take Care Of You
Your child’s self-regulation depends on yours.
Sometimes, parents label behaviors as “difficult” because they are impatient, not because the child is acting up. With a lack of support and self-care, even the smallest issue can feel like a mountain of stress.
If you are struggling, reach out for support.
It is normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed when it comes to parenting. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has stayed with us for generations. The reason we have hung onto it, is because it’s true. One person cannot take on the full weight of child-rearing.
If you are stressed and overworked, your child will absorb that stress too. Children’s moods are often a reflection of our own lack of emotional regulation.
Taking care of yourself will give you the strength to take care of your child.
It can be overwhelming for both you and your child to implement all the suggested changes at once. For this reason, choose up to three of the above positive strategies and test them out. To help you reach your goals, write down your aims to achieve each month.
Track your child’s behavior and look for changes to see which strategies have the best effect. It takes some time for a behavior change to reach consistency. Remember to celebrate the small victories and take care of yourself along the way.
If you have a hard time finding the right strategy for your child, consult a child psychologist.