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Top Tips for Parents: How to Manage Challenging Behaviour

Whether it's tantrums, defiance or not listening to instructions, managing oppositional or challenging behaviours can be exhausting as a parent or carer. In this article we will explore some parenting strategies to manage challenging behaviour, written by a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in parenting approaches.

Challenging or bad behaviour children

All behaviour has a meaning, and serves a function for a young person to get their needs met. It can be seen as a form of communication. This may be gaining or reducing attention from others, seeking attachment and closeness, accessing further time on their computer, or the behaviour may communicate distress or anxiety. The first step in managing behaviour is to understand the communication and unmet need that underlies the behaviour.

For some children, there are important further considerations. For example, behaviour in autistic children may serve the function of sensory stimulation or support the avoidance of sensory overwhelm and changes to routine. For children with learning disabilities this may be to access certain objects in their environment. Similarly, if your child experiences anxiety or depression the function of the behaviour may need careful thought. It is important when reading this article to consider the individual needs of your child.

Tip #1 - ABC Chart for Monitoring Challenging Behaviour

The ABC chart is a tool to monitor and develop a deeper understanding of why behaviours occur and what keeps them going.



What happened before?


Describe the behaviour - what happened?


What happened after? How did others respond?

Monday 5pm: Joe was playing on his computer game roblox

Dad asked Joe to stop playing to set the table for dinner

Joe refused. Dad repeated instruction. Joe shouted and called Dad names.

Dad shouted back at Joe, which continued in an argument. Mum set the table.

'A' stands for antecedents: what happens immediately before the behavioural outburst. This may include being asked to stop or start a task, being told 'no', loud noises or sensory input, or absence of attention. There may be more distant antecedents, such as being hangry (hunger-anger), tired or routine disruption throughout the day.

'B' refers to the behaviour itself and is a description of what actually happened during the outburst or what the behaviour 'looked' like. 

'C' refers to the consequences of the behaviour. What happened immediately after the behaviour and how did other people respond? What was the final outcome for the young person and what did the behaviour achieve? Consequences often serve the function of maintaining the behaviour or reducing the behaviour - depending on whether they are positive or negative!

Behaviour can be thought of as having one of four functions: SEAT (Psychologist love an acronym!):

  • Sensory – it feels good!

  • Escape – from a particular environment, situation or task.

  • Attention – from others (adults or peers).

  • Tangible – access to a specific thing, such as a toy or more time on a game or ipad.

We can all recognise the cycle of Joe in the above example, which is part of being a parent! When we look at Joe's parents responses, the result was an increase in attention from Dad (even negative attention is attention!) and ultimately him spending more time playing his game. In addition, although Mum may have set the table to avoid the arguments, or because she didn't want other siblings waiting to eat; the action meant that Joe evaded a task he likely doesn't enjoy! The unwanted behaviour (refusal to follow instructions) has been unintentionally positively reinforced.

Once collected, the ABC Chart can identify patterns of behaviour and can lead to information on the best behavioural intervention. This can be applied at home or in school.

Positive reinforcement and consequences for bad behaviour

As well as the behaviours that you don't want to see, it's important to think of the behaviours you do want to see. For example, for Joe, you want to look out and notice the times he does end his game on the first request.

It can be helpful to think of modifying behaviour with two hands:

  • One hand is positively reinforcing the behaviours you do want to see

  • One hand is reducing the reinforcement of unwanted behaviour: Consequences!

Tip #2 - Praise

It can be helpful to ask yourself the below question:

Does your child get more of your attention and focus for behaving badly or well?

Unwanted behaviours naturally attract more of our focus as a parent. However, positive praise of certain behaviour increases the likelihood of that behaviour occurring. Praise can be a verbal compliment, high five or a hug and serves to promote connectedness in your relationship and their sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

"Actively looking for opportunities to praise my child changed my mindset as a parent - I was much more positive and hopeful"

Tip #3 - One to One Time

With one to one time or 'special time' we are looking to increase attention away from unwanted behaviour. It is a chance for you to focus on your child’s wanted behaviours, and an opportunity to focus on your relationship. It is important that this is a protected time, which occurs no matter what (even if you have had a really difficult day with lots of challenging behaviour). This means that it should not be conditional on behaviour during the day. The length of time and frequency may vary depending on your child's age and your family life. This could be 10 minutes each day.

It is a chance for you to:

  • Praise positive behaviours

  • Be enthusiastic! Narrating what your child is doing is a great way to show your child that you are enjoying spending time with them

  • Demonstrate active listening: reflect on your child's feelings and words

There are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The time should be child-led, this is not a time for teaching

  • Avoid any interruptions where possible (phones down!)

  • Ignore misbehaviours. For example if your child begins throw their toys, you may turn your body away slightly and continue playing with another toy.

Tip #4 Rewards

Creating a reward chart can be a fun and effective way to encourage wanted behaviours. Whether you have a chart on the wall or a jar of marbles, reward systems are a visual reminder of a child's accomplishments.

1. Set Clear Goals: What specific behaviours do you want to encourage? These could include chores, completing homework, being kind to a sibling, responding to parent instructions, or any other positive behaviours you want to reinforce.

2. Choose Rewards: Decide on the rewards that your child can earn for successfully achieving their goals. Rewards can be small, like stickers, or larger, such as extra playtime, a trip to the cinema, or a small toy. It's important to tailor the rewards to your child's interests and age - perhaps they can join in with setting the rewards. It's important that goals are positively focused on what you do want to see, otherwise you risk focusing more attention on the unwanted behaviours.

3. Create the Chart: You can either purchase a pre-made reward chart or it can become a creative family activity. It encourages ownership over the chart. Decorate it with your child's favourite stickers, or drawings. Sometimes parents worry about sibling rivalry. If this is relevant to you, you may have a joint family reward chart or marble jar. With families we have worked with, this has led to sibling bonding, as each sibling is motivated to notice and reward positive behaviour in the other! Below is a real life example:

Sibling 1: *takes sibling 2's plate to the sink after dinner*

Sibling 2: Thank you for taking my plate, I think that deserves a marble

Sibling 1: Thank you for appreciating what I did, I think that deserves a marble!

...and so on!

Tip #5 Effective Instructions

This may sound simple, but noticing the language we use when giving instructions can make a big difference, especially if your child is neurodiverse. Here are some common errors that we all use:

"Lets..." This inadvertently invites the child to do or not to do a task.

" Lets go and wash our hands before dinner" Vs "Please wash your hands"


" Would you please stop taking your brothers toys?'" Vs "Stop taking your brothers toys"

Lists: Think of the last time your manager at work gave you a list of tasks in one go - did you feel motivated to get going? Did you forget the third thing they asked for?

Instead, try to:

  • Chunk instructions, one at a time!

  • Think about your body language, tone of voice and use of eye contact to ensure that the instruction is heard and understood.

  • Use prompts: This can be especially helpful for young people that may find transitions difficult. You may say '5 minutes until the TV is turned off', or even use a visual timer or alarm.

  • Check in if your child understands the instructions

Tip #6 - Consequences: Active Ignoring

Just as behaviours can be made to occur more often by the consequences that follow them, behaviours can also be lessened in strength or frequency by ignoring them. This strategy can be used for the Little No's - minor behavioural difficulties.

  • Avoid eye contact

  • Turn your body away from the child

  • Ignore immediately (as soon as the child starts to display the behaviour)

  • Try to keep a neutral expression on your face. Take a couple of deep breaths if needed!

  • Praise – As soon as the child stops the behaviour

  • Do NOT get drawn in to arguing or talking - if you do, you may be inadvertently reinforcing the behaviours with attention

You are not ignoring the child, you are ignoring the unwanted behaviour

Tip #7 - Consequences: The Big No's

It is important to establish clear and consistent boundaries, and explain the consequences of their actions in a way that your child can understand.

  • You may wish to spend some time thinking about the family rules, and the Big No's: for example 'we don't hit others' and having a visual reminder on the wall.

  • Imagine if you introduced a consequence of no screen time if your child did not follow an instruction. They will likely be frustrated and angry at the sudden introduction of consequences, which can lead to an escalation of behaviour. This is why it can be helpful to discuss consequences with your child before introducing them.

Consequences: A Word of Warning!

1. The Escalation before the Extinction

When you introduce active ignoring and consequences for the first time, it can lead to a short-term increase in challenging behaviour. Research has shown that behaviour is modified overtime, not overnight!

Let us take Kate as an example, a child who often whinges and whines when they are told no. Kate's parents have said to her that it's time to go home from the park... Kate asks for ten more minutes... and began whinging and bartering for more time. The first time you ignore the whining, Kate is likely to increase her efforts... cue shouting and screaming. Kate's parents might begin to feel embarrassed at the tantrum that they can see emerging. What happens if Kate's parents cave at this point and let her stay to keep the peace? Kate has learnt that when whining stops working, screaming will work! It is important to ride out this initial escalation in behaviour. Consistency is key.

Trust the process!

2. Realistic Consequences

I haven't met a parent who hasn't given a consequence in frustration! We are all tempted to threaten to cancel birthday parties or Christmas. But remember, if you do give an unrealistic consequence that you don't follow through with, what has your child learnt? This is not to say that if a threat to cancel Christmas comes out then you should follow through! Instead think carefully and agree consequences before you are frustrated.

Tip #8 - Fill-Up Your Own Jug!

Being a parent is hard and no child is born with a manual on how to parent them best. Children learn by observing those around them, and particularly their parents. By looking after yourself, you are showing up the best you can, whilst modelling to your child the importance of self-care and emotional regulation! This can allow you to demonstrate conflict resolution skills and effective communication, ensuring that your child has the best template as they grow up.

Remember you can't pour from an empty jug! So take that time to see your friends, play the guitar or go to a gym class. Whatever helps you fill up your jug, will ultimately place you in a stronger position to implement these strategies.

self-care for parents

The strategies outlined here may be enough to evoke positive change in your family life, however if the difficulties persist, you may benefit from professional support in managing challenging behaviour. This may be particularly important if your child has additional difficulties like learning disabilities, autism (ASD), ADHD or mental health difficulties. At The Lotus Psychology Practice we are able to offer specialist assessment and parenting interventions, as recommended in NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines.


  • Webster-Stratton, C. (2003). The incredible years. Toronto, Ontario.

  • Barkley, R. A., & Benton, C. M. (2013). Your defiant child: Eight steps to better behavior. Guilford Press.

  • Online course: Triple P has courses online for parenting 0-12 year olds and older teens. This program is used in the NHS and has good evidence base.

  • Positive Behavioural Support Resources. The PBS Academy has developed a new website to disseminate the PBS Competence Framework and new resources -

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