Children are rarely irrational; their behavior almost always has a purpose or at least a reason. However, when children misbehave, parents often do not recognize what it is their child is trying to accomplish. They also may not understand or agree with their child's reasoning, particularly when the child is under stress. Sometimes in anger or frustration a parent will yell at their child, "What were you thinking?" Rarely do parents expect a reasoned answer to that question, yet the answer can often be revealing and enlightening. Changing a child's behavior requires understanding why it occurs, and that takes time, effort, and good communication.
It is often helpful to remember what circumstances existed just before your child's unacceptable behavior occurred. Where were you and your child? What were each of you doing? Who else was present? What was said, by whom and in what tone of voice? What would have been an acceptable response or action by your child? Talking about these questions with your child can be a way to begin understanding better how your child views things. With that new knowledge, it may be easier to help your child behave in ways that you appreciate.
Often a child has one specific behavior pattern that parents find especially troubling and difficult to handle. Sometimes a parent's initial interventions may not have been successful, and occasionally they may even have made things worse.
What can parents do? Consider, for example, a child who regularly bullies a younger sibling. This child needs to be told calmly that bullying is not permitted but that disagreements and arguing are normal and acceptable. Explain and even demonstrate appropriate, alternative behavior (arguing, sharing, taking turns). She then needs to understand that if she is again aggressive toward her brother or sister, she will be given a warning and then will lose a privilege (TV viewing for a day; not having a friend over to visit). If the behavior recurs, carry out the consequence or punishment that has been promised.
Punishment and consequences need to be appropriate to the behavior and the child's age and abilities and of course should not be excessive. Punishments (as well as rewards) need to occur soon after the behavior in order to reduce the problem in the future. Thus, a child's punishment should be to lose a privilege that day or the next, not the next month. Effective disciplining and rewarding require that the parents be in agreement or at least not interfere with or undermine each other's priorities or efforts.
For some behavior, parents can implement a behavior modification program. This approach involves modifying both the child's and the parent's behavior. It works by discouraging negative behavior, encouraging and supporting positive behavior, and setting appropriate expectations for meeting goals and time guidelines. Even if you plan to carry out a behavior modification program on your own, you might find it helpful to consult a pediatrician or another behavioral expert for advice and support.