Helping Our Children Overcome Bad Behaviors

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999

A Behavior Exists because it Gets the Child What S/He Wants!

When trying to extinguish a bad behavior, first realize what the child is getting ut of it.  Try to find an acceptable way to help the child get what s/he wants.  For example:  A child is acting-out to get attention.  The child goes into Time-Out (See Time-Out below).  After the child has gained control of himself/herself then sit the child down for story time.  The child has attention, but is not rewarded for his/her acting-out.

When a tool (a behavior) is not working, the child tries even harder to make it work.  Finally, he gives up, if you’re consistent in not giving in The child hates to loose a good tool and will periodically try it again to see if it has gotten its power back.

The worst thing a parent can do, in any situation, is to give in intermittently.   Intermittent reinforcement guarantees that the bad behavior will  NEVER  be extinguished. 

This is particularly so when dealing with tantrums of any kind, especially when they are physically violent or vandalize property.  Intermittent reinforcement tells the child that if he tries long enough, he will eventually get what he wants. 

As always, be careful that the child is not ill or hurt in some way, before you ignore his bad behaviors.  If you have to check on him, make your visit brief and bluntly state your expectation of him and leave immediately.  Your visits should be the exception not the rule.  Another words for emergencies only, as any attention will be recognized by the child is reinforcement for his bad behavior.

It is a sound practice that you have adopted in taking your child to be checked by your physician, to make sure he does not have a physical reason for his behavior.  It is better to be safe than sorry, in this instance.  If there is any question in your mind that he may be ill or in pain for some reason, then take him again.  Then you have a better idea of whether this is a tantrum or not.

Some Children Act Out because of Poor Self-Esteem

Those that bully tend to do so because there is something wrong with their ability to cope.  This can be because of several factors in their lives.  These factors could be:

Get an physical, mental, & psychological test done to isolate the problem or combinations or problems.

Know What is a Good Reinforcer for Your Child

The key is to know what are the positive reinforces that the child really wants and then withholding the ones that will not harm the child in doing so. Some of these may be...


Money: Privileges:

Gaining Back Privileges or Possessions

Once a child has lost a privilege or possessions there should be a way to gain it back by doing right what lost it in the first place.  For example. if a child refuses to clean up his/her toys and or clothing, they are confiscated and locked away.  When the child cleans up what s/he has left, then s/he has three minutes to pick what s/he wants back from the confiscated goods.  If the child refuses to clean up his or her things again, the process begins again.

Incentive Activities

Activities awarded for being behaviorally appropriate most of the time. These are to occur sometime about every 7 to 12 days. They take place with no notice tot he children. You plan these when most of the children can attend due their good over-all behavior. Also arrange it to happen at a time that will fit their schedule.

Those that do not qualify for the incentive can be left with a sitter or if old enough they can be left home alone with an additional chore to keep them busy.

These activities can be anything that the children would appreciate. See:

Activities to Keep Children from Being Bored and Out of Trouble

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Having a Routine for the Day

Children need and love structure to their day.  They know what is next and look forward to their favorite times of the day, such as coloring time, story time, and time with father or mother.  Without structure the child is left to his or her own devices.  This usually means trouble, especially if they know their environment well.  A child's job as a child is to discover and learn.  You may wonder why the child given free-time, to do as they please, always seems to end up into something s/he  should not be into.  This is because they have searched their allowed environment and become bored with it it offers, because there is no new learning.  So the child searches for new and exciting things to discover.  This usually includes the places s/he ought not go or be into, such as mother's make-up, the wondrous chemicals and sprays under the kitchen sink, scissors and haircutting and so on.

Place a poster board in a prominent family area with the times laid out for each activity of the day, from getting up to going to bed.  Try to follow the schedule as much as possible.  Ask the child, what is next on the schedule?  Since there is structure, the child has little time to get in to mischief.  S/He has time to learn, one-on-one time with parents.  Lunch happens before s/he become too hungry.  Naps occur before s/he become to frustrated and ornery.   Outings to the playground occur like clock-work, to allow the child work his/her muscles and to run off pent up energy.  In short you and your child will much more happier; your child is not constantly in trouble and s/he is learning and developing mentally and physically.


The Use of Food as a Reinforcer

Some parents use food as a negative and/or positive reinforcer. The use of junk food, candy, cookies or other sweets are exactly what most people want, from infancy to and including adulthood. This is not physically, emotionally, or psychologically a good thing. Eating food that has little or no nourishment is a health hazard. It causes poor eating patterns, poor coping patterns, obesity, and food addiction. It can also cause depression, diabetes, and other diseases.

The use of positive reinforcement...

Token Economy

Click here--> Token Economy - A Way to Modify Bad Behavior


This usually works best for children of the age of 3 to 7. Any younger than three and you have a difficult time making them understand to stay in one place and to analyze their behavior while in Time-Out. Therefore, it is an exercise in futility. Any older than seven and they don't get much out of it. They know they can out wait any time period you give and would prefer it to other modes of negative reinforcement. Also they know what you want to hear so they just merely wait out the time while preparing the spill you will want to hear. Since it is no big deal they can indulge in their bad behavior and take the slap on the wrist with no problem.

To implement Time-Out properly see...


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Loss of Activities

Parents must be careful what activities they withhold as negative reinforcement for their children. Some parents will not allow their children to participate in church activities that take place during the duration of the grounding. This can be detrimental to the child. The loss of wholesome teachings and being with good friends at Church on Sunday, Young Men's or Young Women's Activities, Girl's Camp and/or loosing out on beneficial opportunities to advance in scouting either in Scouting activities or campouts are all major detriments and the loss of good tools to reach our children. Each of these programs for our youth emphasize the importance of loving God, gaining a testimony, possess good values, and make good decisions. These programs not only emphasize the need for these things, but help the youth acquire them. Many people do not know that Girl's Camp and Scouting are not just teaching outdoor cooking and camping. That is just the sugarcoating for teaching the core concepts of the gospel. Be careful that you do not eliminate one of your front line defenses in your zeal to stop bad behavior!


Bad behavior must be negatively reinforced every time. As good behaviors occur consistently, the reinforcers do not have to be awarded every time, but can be awarded intermittently. Do not let too many good behaviors go unrewarded or the good behavior can be extinguished. Remember even a positive word of praise or a hug in the case of younger children, is positive reinforcement.

Another key in making either negative or positive reinforcement work is pairing the behavior with the reinforcement immediately following the behavior. If time passes before the reinforcement follow then it looses its potency to reinforce the behavior.

Intensified Behavior

Before a behavior is extinguished it intensifies. When a person finds a behavior that works for him/her, s/he keeps it and uses it again and again. A behavior that gets someone what they want is a good tool whether it is considered a bad behavior or not. People hate to loose good tools. When a behavior doesn't get a person what s/he wants s/he tries even harder to make it work. Finally, when s/he has tried everything s/he can think of to make it work and it does not, s/he will finally abandon the behavior as a worthless tool.

Often a person will remember the lost tool and try it intermittently to see it will work for them again. So do not be distressed to see an old bad behavior resurface once and awhile. Just be sure it is immediately reinforced negatively.

For Best Behavior from Children

Parents should jointly decide upon rules and consequences (negative reinforcers) for rules that are broken. See...

Allowing Rewards and Consequences for Children's Behavior

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Taking Control of Your Family

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The Single Parent Taking Control of the Family

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Children Need Attention

Many parents make the mistake of taking a breather when a child's behavior is good, because they are so tired fighting the bad. The parents should redouble their efforts to emphasize the good behavior. Then there would be so much bad. Children need attention. If all they can get is attention from bad behavior then they will do bad behavior to get attention.

Quality Time

Parents need to spend one-on-one time with their children at least once a day as they get past the age of seven. Before then the parent needs to spend more time with them.

Know Your Child

Parents should know what their child has done during the day, what s/he thinks about his/her world and his/her friends. It is important to be a good friend to your child, to play, do activities, work, and to make good memories with them. Opportunities should be made to do this as a family and one-on-one with each child with each parent. Ex: Girl's Night Out, Boy's Night Out, Time with Dad, etc.

Positive Reinforcement

To start: Positively reinforce all behavior, immediately, that hits in the ball park of the behavior that is ultimately wanted. For instance you want the child to treat his/her siblings kindly.

  1. Example of behavior at the edge of the ball park: The child smiles at his/her sibling.
  2. Example of behavior moving closer to wanted behavior: The child talks nicely to his/her siblings.
  3. Example of a closer behavior: The child can sit in close proximity with his/her sibling and play nicely by himself/herself without causing being mean to his/her sibling.
  4. Example of a behavior on target: The child can interact/play nicely, share, or be helpful to his/her sibling.

Shaping Behavior

At first, use positive reinforcement for actions that exhibit #1 behaviors listed above. Another words, reinforce anything that even comes close to that type of behavior. As the child learns that s/he is rewarded for kinder behavior towards his/her sibling then look for behaviors that are closer to the # 2 behavior and then # 3 and then #4. If you are reinforcing #1 type behaviors and a #2, 3, or 4 behavior happens lavish on the positive reinforcers.

Positive Reinforcers

Use positive reinforcements that are important to that child.


Money: Privileges: Praise

Double Reinforcement

  1. At night while putting them to bed be sure to tell them that you appreciated the positive behavior they did that day.
  2. When the behavior occurs when the other parent is away and s/he comes home and is in the same room as the child, you can say how the child's behavior really helped or how proud you are of them.
  3. Praise can also be done at the dinner table. Do not over do praise or the child will not believe you.

Negative Reinforcement

Do not pick up on every little negative/bad behavior the child engages in. Instead try to reinforce the positive behaviors the child does. Negative reinforcement or consequences should be used for breaking official family rules.

Example: The child is whiny today, but can still play in the same vicinity as his/her sibling without causing a disruption. Instead of telling the child that his/her whining is annoying and to stop it. Focus the child's attention on what s/he is doing well, not what s/he is not. The whining will usually stop unless the child is ill. Focusing on the whining will usually intensify the whining.


If the child is engaging in behavior that you know that will cause him/her to brake a rule, quickly redirect the child's attention onto something else so that the child has more positive reinforcements that day than negative ones. In this way the child can look upon his/her experience that day and see that it was a good one.

Often parents tell the child to, "Stop that!" What they don't tell the child is what they should do. Redirect the child's behavior. Help the child to know what s/he should do. Be specific!

A Child's Self Esteem

Never belittle your child. This tears down his/her self-esteem and cause more problems in the future because they will not have the self confidence to try to achieve.

Instead of throwing hurtful words at your child when a bad behavior happens, use negative reinforcers immediately without any fuss. Children equate their performance to their self esteem. If a parent is always ragging on a child for his/her poor performance/behavior then s/he thinks s/he is not adequate and s/he belittle himself/herself and consequently become incapable of anything but poor performance.

The opposite is also true. If a child lives with positive reinforcement through a parents prudent use or redirection and the abundance to true praise and judicious use of positive reinforcement, then they believe they can accomplish anything and try to do so.

Another words, emphasize the positive and redirect possible bad behavior to eliminate as much as possible the negative. Use negative reinforcement or consequences as rules are broken. In this way most bad behaviors can be eliminated over time.

Remember you love the child but hate the behavior. Never call the child a behavior. Ex: "Your a liar." This is labeling the child and labels stick like glue. The child believes the label and continues on with the behavior because the parent said the child is the label. The label then prophesies the behavior to come. Instead, separate the deed from the child by saying, "You are lying." or "Don't tell lies."

Good Sibling Relationships

We have lightly touched on the how to gain a better sibling relationship by use of positive reinforcement, shaping, redirection, and negative reinforcement. before

The use of Family Home Evening on the subject to focus the children's attention on how to be kinder to each other. Often lessons tell why we shouldn't do something, but they never actually tell how to do what we are supposed to do. Make sure all your lessons tell both.

Teaching Your Children

Set aside a special, weekly, family time to teach your children basic concepts you would like them to understand and values you want them to have. At one of these Family Times discuss the following:

The reason why there is a need for good sibling relationships is that you want to be a happy family. Little things can ruin the relationship between individuals in the family. See...

Sibling/Family Abuse Continuum

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A Happy Family

To be a happy family everyone must do their part. Ask the children what they can do to make better relationships better relationships between siblings and between them and you. Write these all down.

  1. Take the list and post it on the refrigerator or family bulletin board or somewhere it will be seen often.
  2. Make a family goal to do those behaviors during the week.
  3. Throughout the week, help the children think of ways to be kind to siblings and suggest ways for them to accomplish it. Ex: Your sister is having a hard time changing the tire on her bike. Your really good at that why don't you see if she can use some help.
  4. When voices begin to get loud and angry, break up the conflict before a fight breaks out by redirecting the children into better activities, perhaps separately for a while, to cool hot tempers. Separately inquire what the problem was and see if each child, separately, can solve the problem with your help before they get back together.
  5. Use positive reinforcements such as praise when problems are solved or kinder actions are taking place towards each other. Use shaping!
  6. Remember to use a positive recap of the child's behavior often, either at bedtime, dinnertime, and/or in conversation with the other parent/adult friend which will be hear or over heard by the child.
Also hold Family Council weekly or sooner if needed to discuss and/or eliminate family problems. See...

Family Council

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Eliminating Lying

  1. Make a rule and a consequence for lying.
  2. Stop the child mid-sentence if you recognize that s/he is beginning to tell a lie and ask if s/he would like to reconsider what s/he is saying. (Redirection) If the truth is then told then use positive reinforcement. Ex: I'm glad you decided to tell me the truth (Hug).
  3. If the child lies then immediately administer the punishment by saying, "I'm sorry you chose to tell a lie, now ______________ will happen (the consequence). Explain that you still love him/her and hope that instead of lying that s/he will be honest and talk it over with you. That you are there for them and love them.
  4. Continue to apply the consequence each time the bad behavior occurs. This may result in a list of things the child is not able to do.

Time is Different to Children and Teens

The consequences for bad behavior usually necessitates the loss of something over a certain period of time. Some parents levy time periods that seem like life sentences to youths. Even a week is a very long time for teens.

How the Lord Suggests We Change Behaviors

The Lord suggests that we use persuasion, gentleness, meekness, and by love unfeigned; kindness, and pure knowledge (good information on child rearing), which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile. (Don't give false praise).

Reprove with sharpness (give negative reinforcement or consequences), when moved upon by the Spirit or when you realize a rule has been broken, and then show an increase of love toward the child or else s/he will deem you to be his/her enemy.

S/He will come to know that by your attentiveness to his/her behaviors whether they be good or bad, you are showing your love him/her and will be there for them and that your faithful to the end.

It is with our long-suffering (patience) and exercising our partnership with the Lord by asking Him to give us insight to help our children eliminate their bad behaviors, and to inspire our children to strive to overcome them that will help our children and become a capable strong adults.

I wish you well in this endeavor!

Best wishes,

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Annette Nay Homepage

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