Are there times when your child seems to willfully defy you? Do you receive frequent notes or phone calls from school about those same behaviors? Out of frustration, do you find yourself raising your voice or saying things you later regret?

Understanding your child’s behavior

Behavior is a way of communicating with others. It can be aimed at getting something, such as your attention or a snack. You may have experienced this when you’re talking on the phone and your child just has to speak to you. Behavior may also be designed to help him escape doing something that’s really hard or would keep him from having fun. You may have noticed this when you ask him to do his chores, but he’d rather play computer games.

As a parent, you may think you understand what your child’s behavior is telling you. But even though you know him well, there will be times when the message isn’t clear.

Strategies for managing frustrating behavior

  1. Following directions

    If your child doesn’t follow directions, it’s easy to believe he’s being stubborn or ignoring you on purpose. But his behavior may be covering up problems remembering or understanding directions. Perhaps you’re talking too much — giving him more than he can handle verbally.

    Next time see if these strategies help him:

    • Get his attention and eye contact before giving directions.

    • Show him what you want him to do.

    • Make a picture chart or list to serve as a reminder. Ask him to explain directions or show you what he’s supposed to do before he gets started.

    • Reduce the amount of talking (lecturing) you do to him.

  2. Tackling homework

    If your child doesn’t start homework until the last minute, you may think he’s being lazy or defiant. But maybe he doesn’t know how to get started. Perhaps he has problems with the concept of time or can’t decide when his work is good enough. Some kids think the “due date” is the day they’re supposed to “do” the project.

    These ideas may help to make homework time a little less frustrating:

    • Have him set a goal for quality and amount to do on an assignment before he begins.

    • Get him started on his homework to make sure he understands what’s expected.

    • Set a timer for a certain amount of time to help him get a sense of how long things take.

    • Teach him to use a daily, weekly, or monthly planner so he can plan assignments and their due dates.

    • Help him break long term assignments into smaller parts so he has less to do at deadline time.

  3. Sitting still

    If your child just can’t seem to sit still to get anything done, it’s easy to believe he’s just being difficult. But he may physically need to move more than his brothers or sisters because that’s who he is. Here are some ways to help:

    • Make sure the chair and desk heights are right for him — feet flat on the floor and writing arm supported by the desk surface — when he’s doing homework.

    • Be sure all necessary supplies are handy for him so he doesn’t have to jump up and down to get things he needs.

    • Make sure he knows what he’s supposed to do and when he’s supposed to do it.

    • Build in opportunities to move — get a drink of water between activities or show you the project when it’s finished.

  4. Working on his own

    If he never seems to get anything done unless you’re sitting right next to him, it’s easy to believe he wants all your attention. But maybe he’s unsure of himself and doesn’t want to make a mistake. Or he might need a little extra help keeping his attention focused. These may build confidence and increase independence:

    • Ask him to tell you what he thinks will be easy and what will be hard before starting to work.

    • Do the first sentence or problem together to give him an example to look at.

    • Watch him do the next part of the assignment to make sure he really understands what to do.

    • Check his work at regular intervals so he can’t get too far off track or become distracted.

  5. Talking together

    Depending on what else is going on in your life, you may feel you can’t cope with your child’s frustrating behaviors another moment. But that’s when you most need to remain calm and avoid power struggles. Here are some tips for communicating:

    • Set aside plenty of time to talk, and listen to him when he tells his side of the story.

    • Ask him “What’s going on?” rather than “Why are you acting that way?”

    • Mention the reward he’ll get when he finishes rather than what will happen to him if he doesn’t.

    • Write down two or three ideas you both agree would help him do better next time and put them in a place you can refer to easily.

Try to keep feelings separate from problem-solving. If tempers get heated, agree to stop for awhile, but set another time to continue. By involving your child in this process, you’ll be teaching him skills necessary for his future success.

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Updated: March 7, 2021