Samantha Corralejo is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. Her research topics include parent training, time-out, and parenting interventions for Latinx families. She has applied experience as a behavioral therapist and parent trainer in a variety of settings.
Why do they do that?
Ever wonder why your child is acting up? Most parents have seen a range of undesired behaviors from their children like whining, tantrums, hitting, and… more tantrums. Often your child’s motivation is clear, like the infamous grocery store meltdown because you said “no” to the cookies. What if I told you that understanding why your child is misbehaving is the key to helping to change it? I’ll review a few of the common reasons children act out and the tried-and-true ways to help change your child’s behavior for the better. These methods have been used by families all over the world and are backed by research.
Attention, especially from a parent, is one of the most valuable resources for a child. Children often seek attention from parents – and sometimes in not very appropriate ways. For example, your child may tantrum to get your attention – especially if you are busy with other things. For the child, any attention, even more “negative” forms of attention like scolding, can be rewarding. Before I tell you the key to decreasing inappropriate forms of attention-seeking behavior, let me say that your child should be receiving plenty of “free” attention as part of an enriching environment (see Amy Lund’s great suggestions on difficult conversations that has lots of overlap with recommendations for quality time with your children). The answer to the question of how to decrease these problem behaviors is simple – avoid giving your child attention when your child is requesting it in a way that is developmentally inappropriate! And, make sure to give your child lots of attention for appropriate behaviors.
We all have been places that we would rather not be. The same is true for children. Many children have learned that if they misbehave “loud” enough, they’ll get to leave. Common situations in which this happens are in the grocery store, at church, and during homework. Make sure to set your child up for success by rewarding appropriate behaviors frequently with praise and small rewards like snacks and stickers. Also, plan for needed breaks ahead of time and teach your child how to ask for a break in an appropriate way. When your child does act out in an attempt to escape a situation, make sure that behavior is not an effective strategy by not allowing the child to escape (“get out of”) the situation or task.
Sometimes children act out because they want a certain item (e.g., cookies at the grocery store, a toy you have taken away) or want access to a certain activity (e.g., more television time). Your child may act out due to the lack of skills related to waiting, sharing, asking for items appropriately, or coping with a no answer. On the other hand, acting out may get the child exactly what the child wants or something just as good like a different treat or lots of attention. Distracting your child and offering alternative choices before the child begins to act up are two of your best allies in these situations. You probably already guessed that the best response to acting out for material items is to ignore the inappropriate behavior and to not give in regardless of how much the child cries, whines, etc. Do make sure that as soon as your child starts to engage in appropriate behaviors, you attend to those behaviors.
I have talked at length about responses to problem behaviors and I have not even mentioned time-out. That is because time-out is a technique that should be used strategically. Time-out is most effective when it is used as a consequence for specific behaviors for durations of 1-5 minutes. Make sure the time-out area is void of excitement; the whole premise of time-out is based on the idea that the child misses out on a fun environment for a short period of time as a consequence for an inappropriate behavior. Common behaviors for which a child might be sent to time-out include aggression and non-compliance. Once your child has completed a time-out, make sure to look for the next positive behavior that you can reward or attend to.