How to Stop Bad Behavior Before it Starts

Coping with a child's bad behavior, perhaps more than any other aspect of parenting, can cause stress, family disfunction, and a general loss of harmony in your home.  Over time, negative behavior cycles can become ingrained in a family's way of interacting with each other
1.  Be a Benevolent Dictator
In today's times it is tempting to think of our family as a small Democracy, giving equal weight to the wants and needs of every member.  Families schedule meetings to discuss rules.  Negotiation is a skill learned even before tying shoes.  Rules apply only if children choose to obey them.  Giving children lots of choices seems to be of paramount importance.  Parents who operate these types of Democracies think that they are showing their children love and respect.  In fact, what these parents are showing their children is that they don't have the fortitude to do what is right.

This approach belies the fact that we parents usually have decades more life experience than our children, we have had more education, and we are more mature (hopefully).  In short, we should be the ones in charge.  Contrary to what children might say, they in fact, want us to be in charge.  They know better than anyone what their limitations are, and if they are given too much responsibility, it scares them.  Imagine how you would feel if you were suddenly put in charge of a small country in a foreign land.  You might feel powerful, but I dare say, you wouldn't feel secure.  It's like being the captain of a sailboat and not knowing how to sail.  Eventually you would run aground.

Research has shown that in order to raise well-adjusted kids, parents need to be authoritative.  Authoritative parents were described as people whose motto is, "I love and respect you, but since I am the parent, you have to do what I say regardless of whether you agree with me."  Taking this type of approach with your child ensures that they know they are loved, and that they will be saved from making bad choices because they have a parent looking out for them.  Setting limits for your kids makes the world more manageable for them.  They feel safer knowing what the boundaries are, and in knowing that they have your help to stay within them. 

2.  Consistency is Key
Choose a small number of rules that are absolute and stick to them!  These rules should be non-negotiable and carry with them clear and immediate consequences if they are broken.  In my family, rules about safety are set in stone.  If you ride your bike without a helmet, you lose bike privileges for a week.  No exceptions.  This way I know my child is always going to wear his helmet, and I save myself the hassle of arguing with him each day after school about whether he can ride his bike without it.

A psychologist I know stated that the surest way to have kids who misbehave is to be inconsistent.  By having limits that are fluid and that change depending on circumstances, kids spend most of their time with you testing those limits. They know that sooner or later, they'll wear you out, and they'll get what they want.  So, if you want to be worn out day after day, then the secret is to be wishy-washy about rules.  If you don't want to battle day after day with your kids, then set good rules and stick to them!

3.  Know Your Child
Every child has a unique style which includes their own set of triggers for bad behavior.  For my son, transitions always cause him to become unglued.  A temper tantrum always ensued at the end of play dates, the beginning of a school day, or the call to the dinner table.  So, I learned early on that to avoid that type of misbehavior, I needed to be savvy about transitions.  I give plenty of warning before a transition, and I usually sweeten the deal to make it easier.  For example, I play his favorite music in the car on the way to school so that he focuses on looking forward to his songs rather than his nerves about having to leave the house and head to class.

Your child might have similar issues with transitions, or she may act up when tired or hungry.  Your child might feel uncomfortable in crowds, be afraid of loud noises, or become easily overwhelmed in stores.  By knowing your child's triggers for bad behavior, you'll know what to avoid.  For those things you can't avoid, you'll at least be able to develop helpful strategies for coping with problems.

4.  Know Yourself
In addition to being in tune with your child's style, you need to be aware of what your particular needs are.  It will always lead to trouble if you expect lots of peace and quiet after work, but your kids need your help with homework and a ride to soccer.  If you are tense and irritable, it will most certainly translate to misbehavior in your kids.  Busy schedules rarely enable parents to have a peaceful dinner hour, but perhaps you can insist on twenty minutes to unwind in your room before you join the fray downstairs.  My mother made a rule that we couldn't ask anything of her until she had changed into her jeans.  That was our signal that she had decompressed after work and was ready to engage in the family hubbub.

5.  Pay Attention
Children often misbehave simply to get their parents' attention.  Though it confounds adults, children would rather be yelled at than be ignored.  Perhaps it is Darwinian-in the wild, to be ignored by a parent meant that you weren't safe.  Whatever its origin, this aspect of child-rearing can be especially trying.  Negative cycles can so easily begin by a child learning that acting up is the surest way to get a parent's attention.  The only way to avoid this is to lavish love and attention on your child when they are behaving well.  Enjoy their company and play games with them.  Praise them with words and gestures often.  Reward your child with special activities with you-not with toys and treats.  If you sense that your children are acting up more than they should, then that is a sign that you need to stop waiting for your children to misbehave before you give them your attention.  With all the love and attention from you that they need, there won't be many reasons to misbehave!

Katie Basson is a parent, teacher, and creator of The BITs Kit Better Behavior Kit for Kids?.  Katie teaches seminars on behavior modification techniques, and assists parents through challenging behavioral and educational issues.  She serves on the Board of Directors of the YWCA and is an educational advisor to Zoesis, Inc., a children's software company.  Katie's expert advice has been sought for articles in The Boston Globe and Parents Magazine.  Sign up for her biweekly Parenting Solutions newsletter at

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