Challenging Behavior in Young Children Starts With the Parents

By | July 24, 2015

Shouting Doesn't Help

I searched for answers to my question about the challenging behavior of my 6 year old. I knew full well that challenging behavior in young children starts with the parents. What I found was an eye-opening piece by respected author Gayle Peterson.

It is realistic to expect your son to follow appropriate house rules. It is not realistic to expect that he not be unhappy when he does face consequences for breaking the rules, whether this it be in front of others or privately with you.

You are giving him mixed messages when you set rules only to “give in” because you do not want to be the “heavy”, or perhaps you do not want the effort that setting limits requires of a parent. Either way, you need to ask yourself what you can do to change the situation.

You are the parent. he is the child. You are in charge!

What skills do you need to develop in order to deal with your own frustration at this point in your development as a mother?

The fact that you are feeling so negatively about your son runs the risk that he will internalize your belief that he is a “brat”. This will not build his self-esteem or help him delay gratification, which is at the heart of the self-discipline you want him to develop.

Instead, believing this label may cause him to develop more problem behavior that fulfills your expectations of him. Begin to see your son’s behavior as separate from his core self. He may in fact be a very loving and sensitive boy that is having difficulty following rules. Labeling him as a “brat” is a reflection of your frustration in dealing with this part of parenting that is so difficult for you. Take responsibility for what he has to learn from you, and ask yourself to go the extra mile, before you expect him to do so.

Healthy communication between you and your child means that you can accept his feelings, but have expectations for his behavior. Separating feelings from behavior is important for all family members. This means that you can accept your child’s anger and sadness when you do set limits.

And because you are the parent you know you are acting in his best interest in the long run. You can delay your immediate desire for a happy, smiling child and realize that he needs you to love him by setting limits and carrying through. Accept his sadness and his anger when you discipline him. This will communicate love. But do not shy away from your responsibilities to help him learn self control.

You may be placing your own self-esteem in your child’s hands, and then perceiving him as “bad” or “spoiled” when he acts differently than you think he should. Your own need to “make him happy” may in fact be a reflection of wanting him to behave in ways that are only positive, and do not cause you to be the “bad guy” yourself.

If you are placing your self-esteem as a mother in your child’s hands, you may be colluding to feel close to him by pleasing him, rather than accepting the boundaries of the parent-child relationship. It is your job as a parent to accept his unhappiness when he bears the consequences of breaking rules. “Giving in” to him leads to more of the same behavior you already dislike! Without setting consistent limits, your son learns to manipulate others in ways that will frustrate him in being able to make and maintain enduring relationships in the future.

First, it is important that you clearly establish what is expected of your child, including the consequences which should be appropriate to the infraction. You should not only be absolutely ready to carry out the consequence when your son does misbehave, but you should expect it to occur! He will test what you say, and it may take three or four times before he believes that you are serious at this point, and that he can trust you to mean what you say. Do not threaten him with the fact that you are ANGRY. This will only lead to spiraling emotions on your part which leave you feeling guilty later. Instead, communicate consequences and follow through on them. Your anger is not the consequence, the consequences are!

Secondly, when you do discipline your child, it is critical that you do so in as calm and neutral a manner as possible. No matter what you are feeling inside! It is OK to feel angry, but do not make an issue of your anger. This will simply lead to your feeling out of control. Simply follow through on the discussion about rules and consequences.

Do not retaliate in anger, even though you may feel an urge to do so! Develop self-control and enough emotional separation from him that you see him as the child (You can remind yourself that this accounts for his “immature” behavior). See yourself as the adult who does not indulge your feelings but accepts his need for your discipline as part of your parental role.

And finally, develop tolerance for his emotions, but do not accept him acting out behavior. Likewise, accept your own feelings, but do not act them out on him! Canceling his birthday party sounds like an idea that arises out of angry retaliation, rather than a calm, natural or appropriate consequence that has been communicated in advance of the infraction. If this is the case, do not do it! Instead, calmly reflect on the fact that you are a great mother, but that this is a particularly difficult part of parenting for you.

Realize that as much as you love your child, you are tempted to model the very kind of behavior he is showing. Giving him treats may be your way of being close to him, making up for being angry at him or solving a situation quickly by getting him to behave in the moment, without anticipating the future. Canceling his party because you feel angry and hurt by his misbehavior sounds excessive. These may be signs that you do not follow through on calm limit setting yourself, but have a tendency to resort to emotional extremes in acting out your emotions, without separating feelings from behavior.

This is what your son is doing, too. He may also be resorting to manipulating you in the moment because he cannot tell whether you mean what you say, or are just acting momentarily out of anger. If you are acting your own anger out in these ways, he quickly learns that when your guilt sets in, it is another story.

Remorse and guilt may then be acted out as well, by giving treats to make up for an inappropriate outburst, as an example. In such a situation, anger and guilt become an endless cycle. The child receives confusing messages: … “I am very angry at you and so I will punish you” and later, following drama and tears, the guilty message…. “I am sorry for being so angry with you and of course I will not punish you now because I feel differently”. In this case, the “punishment” is an extension of the feeling. And because feelings change constantly, so do the rules!

Consequences should always be independent of whatever feeling you are experiencing towards your child in the moment. Then you can be assured they are not excessively punitive or alternately too permissive. He can become confused as to what the truth is if feelings become confused with actions.

Trust will be established when your child experiences your feelings as separate from the consequences for breaking the rules. Then he knows the rules are always the same no matter what mood you are in at the moment! The result will be a calmer child, as he does not have to constantly figure out what the real limit is today. You will feel more in control. And he will have the security that comes from consistency and trust in what you say.

It is wiser to allow yourself the feelings of anger which will pass, without acting them out in the situation, but calmly delivering consequences as previously discussed and seeking satisfaction simply from the fact that you are in charge and can set limits with your child. Perhaps this will feel empowering enough to you that when your anger passes and his tears dry, you can calmly reinforce the rules and continue a loving relationship. Sometimes it helps for a Mom to be able to say out loud, “I love you and I am angry at you for not following the rules we talked about. You will have to go to your room for a time out, as we discussed.” Be clear with yourself that you love him even when you are angry and you will be less likely to feel guilty.

It is a source of security for children to rely on their parents to set and carry through on appropriate limits. Children feel loved because they feel contained by their parent’s ability to model control where they have not yet learned self-control. By experiencing your clear and matter-of-fact limit setting, your son internalizes an ability to set his own limits as a future adult and gains a capacity for self-discipline. Setting clear and consistent limits will help your son feel secure in your love, despite the fact that he is expected to learn self control!

Reflect on the way you were disciplined – or not – as a child. Sometimes, when we come from families where discipline was too extreme, we err by not setting limits for our children as an overreaction to inappropriate limits in our childhood. Or, our own experience of discipline may have been equally inconsistent and did not allow us to develop self control in dealing with the limit setting responsibilities of parenthood. If so, we will pass this lack of control onto our children if we do not develop in ourselves what is missing.


Often, the missing link is realizing that you can love your child even as you are angry. And that feelings are separate from action. Do not try to control your child’s feelings. Instead, accept that they are sad and angry at you for setting limits, but you still love them even though you, too may feel angry at their behavior. Books that may help in developing an attitude of respect and love, while setting limits include Nancy Samalin’s “Loving Your Child is not Enough” or Gregory Bodenhamer’s “Back in Control”.

And remember, you are not alone! All of us mothers continue to grow and develop throughout life. There is no such thing as a “perfect parent”. Your own desire for help and ability to reach out to learn from others when things are not working well, is a sign of strength. Seeking help when you need it is a wonderful legacy for your children.

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a diplomat with the National Association of Social Work. Dr. Peterson is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and Making Healthy Families.

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