Six Tips for Guiding Your Child to Better Behavior

A mother sits on outside steps as her daughter sits, slouching down, in front of her.How many times have I heard “So, do you have a manual for my kid?” We learn early on in parenting that there is no such thing. For first time parents, it is hard to know what’s common for a certain age, or what a typical reaction is when going through a stressful experience. When kids come to therapy, working with the parents can be as important as working with the child. Once parents have a grasp of developmental standards or typical reactions, they can support the child by finding new methods to manage emotions and behaviors.

One book that I find valuable in learning these new methods is, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I like the examples, along with cartoon strips and summaries, since—let’s face it—overwhelmed parents often don’t have much time to read. Parenting advice can sometimes seem like common sense, but it never hurts for us to hear it again (or for the first time). Common themes in this and other parenting books include the following:

  • The 3-Ps: Praise, paraphrase what they’re saying, and point out good behavior. Children often don’t feel understood, so it may seem silly or obvious, but active listening works.
  • Free the child from playing a negative role. Have the child see him- or herself in a positive light by introducing new abilities, singing his/her praise to others, and reminding him/her of past accomplishments.
  • Build autonomy through choices. As parents, we often want to control everything, which is often why we so easily notice resistance. Children need a sense of control early on. Make it simple, like choosing between two items. Encouraging independence in decision-making, such as how to do a project, answering questions, and problem-solving are great ways build autonomy.
  • Help the child deal with emotions. We often don’t think a meltdown or outburst is an appropriate reaction, but adults also get angry and don’t deal with things as well as we could. This is a great skill to learn early on, and then use throughout life. Start by just listening. Just being heard has a strong impact, and frequently improves that way a person feels about a situation. Acknowledge feelings with words or give these feelings a name. You can also help them verbalize what they wish for, that would make things better.
  • Pause before going directly to punishment. Express your feelings in a strong manner, but don’t attack the child. State what the rules and expectations are. Show the child how to make amends, to problem solve, and decide what needs to happen in similar future situations. I’m not naive enough to say that kids don’t need punishment, but the techniques listed above will help to keep things from getting to that meltdown place. If all else fails, the following discipline methods are effective: taking a timeout is generally the first resort after warnings—one minute for every year in age of the child. The timeout should take place where there is nothing to do (not the child’s bedroom). Set a timer and don’t talk to him/her. You may have seen those SuperNanny episodes where children are continually sent back into timeouts, again and again, for hours. Don’t just try it once and then give up. Kids are like gamblers and will pull the slot machine hoping that you won’t follow through.
  • Use behavior/chore charts. Though they take work for the parents to monitor and follow through on, there is a payoff. Focus more on positive reinforcement than what the child has done wrong. Losing privileges can work too, but not as much with younger kids or kids that seem to have everything (and wouldn’t miss what they lost).

Being a parent is the hardest and most rewarding job you will ever have, so be patient with your children and with yourself; and, if all else fails, start writing your own manual.

© Copyright 2011 by Melissa Wright. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • gareth

    February 17th, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    when kids rebel and throw tantrums,more than the act I believe what surprises and hurts parents is that the kid they love so much and everything they are doing for is actually going against them,is rebelling.and this is the reason why most parents fail to react in a calmer way.

  • Scarborough

    February 17th, 2011 at 8:24 PM

    I’m a new parent and it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one who isn’t sure if what there doing is right.

  • Bob

    February 18th, 2011 at 5:38 AM

    Rewarding kids is also a good way to follow up with some work. It really enhances the zeal and makes them do the thing. It has universal appeal-all of us work and are looking for rewards and nobody can argue the facts that rewarding helps in improving a person’s morale too.

  • Robyn

    February 18th, 2011 at 5:38 AM

    We as parents are our own best model for how we wnat our children to behave. We have to think about all of this very careful before we act out and say things that we do not mean. Children model the very behavior that they see at home and around the other people in their lives who are close to them. So the enxt time your child does something that you do not like perhaps you should look at yourself and try to remember where he or ahe may have see or heard this. Could it have come from you and your own behavior?

  • Melissa Wright

    February 18th, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    Great comments.
    It is hard to meet an emotional reaction with calmness. Wouldn’t it be nice if kids (or adults) would say I am mad and this is why. Just always know in your heart that its not personal.
    The use of rewards are wonderful. Whether its a simple great job or high five, when we do this we can do that, or a longer term goal, they all can work really well.
    Children definately model behavior. Do what I say and not what I do doesn’t generally work. Sometimes I see kids in therapy due to this modeling of unwanted behaviors.
    Stay positive, we are all human and will make mistakes, but keep trying and kids are worth the effort

  • Cheves

    February 20th, 2011 at 6:49 AM

    I honestly think that sometimes parents expect too much from their kids. They expect a three year old to be able to behave like a ten year old. There are some things that your child may not be developmentally or emotionally ready to handle. You cannot punish them for that.

  • Christopher

    February 20th, 2011 at 5:58 PM

    You need to set a good example yourself. Kids mimic what they see and hear. If you swear a lot, your kid will swear a lot as well. You’re their parent and you need to be a positive role model. I can’t believe how many parents complain about their kid’s language and go on to cuss themselves in the next sentence.

  • Nigel

    February 20th, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    A wise man once said that if your kid does something good, you should tell him it was luck so he gets a good lucky feeling.

    I’m only kidding. Praise is very important. When they make a nice picture, praise them. Even if they can’t draw at all, praise them for the effort.

  • Ailsa

    February 20th, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    I feel that children get reprimanded for things that they weren’t told they couldn’t do sometimes, which is unfair. Adults cannot expect little ones to just know something is wrong. Life’s one big adventure to kids. They must explain it to the children and be clear.

  • Pete

    February 23rd, 2011 at 10:17 AM

    Controlling every aspect of a child’s life isn’t a good idea. They’ll end up even more rebellious if you smother them. Giving them choices allows their personality to shine and makes them more confident and smart about decision making. It reduces the likelihood of them throwing tantrums because you force them into things they don’t want to do.

  • Sapphire

    February 23rd, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    You need to be careful when punishing kids, because it’s perfectly possible for your more harsh ones to be considered borderline child abuse. Being sent to bed without supper may have been common years ago, but if your kid tells their teacher you’re not feeding them nowadays, you’re in huge trouble. Of course kids exaggerate but remarks like that would be taken seriously.

  • Sandra

    February 24th, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    Meltdowns happen because kids don’t know how to control their emotions fully at that age. When they have one, just let them have their tantrum until they tire themselves out. Sometimes you just need to have a good bout of screaming! (I include kids and moms in that! LOL)

  • Mary john

    March 4th, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    Children normal behaviors depend on various natural and environmental circumstances in which a child grow and observes the way for his best possible conduct within his reach and interact amongst those who respond his gestures and body talks.

  • Annie F.

    June 23rd, 2016 at 11:07 AM

    I like your tip to paraphrase what my son is saying. Hopefully he will feel more understood if I say back to him what I think he’s communicating. If this doesn’t work, I’m thinking of putting him in behavior counseling. Thanks.

  • Amanda

    September 7th, 2017 at 1:28 PM

    That sounds like a good idea to help your child verbalize just what they want so that they don’t feel like they need to have an outburst. My son has really bad behavior both at home and at school, and I’m just about at my wit’s end. Your tips are great, but I think that I’ll also look for a behavior assistant so that my husband and I don’t have to try to do it all on our own.

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