How to Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving

Three Methods:Preventing Tantrums with PreschoolersTeaching Children and Teens to Follow DirectionsShaping the Behavior of Children and Teens

Children and teenagers enjoy a sense of autonomy and may sometimes test limits in an effort to experience a sense of personal power. Although this is developmentally appropriate, it is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children how to behave in socially appropriate ways. This may seem like an arduous task, whether you are the parent of a rebellious toddler, a free spirited preteen, or a teenager who is trying to evolve into her own person. However, there are several strategies that you can use to encourage your child to behave appropriately, both at home and in public.

Method 1
Preventing Tantrums with Preschoolers

  1. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 1
    Identify your child’s triggers.[1] If you know what is causing your child’s emotional melt-downs then you already have a critical piece of information that you can use. For instance, if your child struggles every time you take a trip to the grocery store then you can safely assume that there’s something about those trips that is triggering the tantrum. Trying to figure out the triggers may at first be a bit of trial and error, but if you pay close attention eventually you will see a pattern emerging. Keep in mind that if you know what her triggers are in advance then you can focus on preventing the tantrum from occurring in the first place.
    • Try logging your child’s tantrums in a journal to get an idea of the triggers. Keep track of the time of day, who was present, where you were, and what happened before and after the tantrum. Eventually a pattern will emerge that will help you get a better understanding of the factors surrounding the tantrum.
    • Keep in mind that some children are more prone to tantrums than others. Children who are moody, hyperactive, or struggle with change or transitions may demonstrate tantrums more often than other children.
    • Fatigue, hunger, being forced to share a favorite toy, long car rides, trips to particular stores, or any other situation that your child finds difficult can trigger a tantrum.
  2. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 2
    Modify difficult situations. Once you know what might be causing her emotional melt downs, try to modify the activity so that it is not as overwhelming for your child.[2] Preventing a tantrum is much easier than trying to control a wailing three year old in the middle of Macy’s. Here are somethings that you could try:
    • Bring activities and snacks to occupy your child’s attention. Allow your child to have some control over which activities or snacks to bring.
    • Try to keep errands and trips to stores as short as possible, preferably under 30 minutes for toddlers. You may want to bring a prepared shopping list to help you get through the store quicker. Alternatively, you could bring an older sibling to help with the younger child. The older child can entertain the younger sibling while simultaneously experiencing a sense of pride for being able to help.
    • Make sure that your child is well-rested and that she is not hungry before going on errands. Schedule trips around nap time and meals.
    • When at home, be sure to put items that are off limits out of eye sight. For example, don’t leave potato chips lying on the counter.
  3. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 3
    Communicate with your child. Tell her in advance what you are planning to do and try to stick to this plan as much as possible. Communication is important even when interacting with a young child. Do not underestimate your toddler’s ability to understand what you are saying; she probably comprehends more than you may think.[3]
    • Use simple and direct language when talking to a young child. Also, try to keep the communication short. For example, you could say to your preschooler, “We are going to the bank and then we have to do a little grocery shopping. After that we will have lunch and go to the park. Then it will be nap time.”
    • Be sure to give your child a ten minute warning before changing activities. This is important even for older children. Children often respond better to transition when they know that the transition is coming. So, for instance, you could say “Susie, in ten minutes we will be leaving the park.” You may want to remind her again at the five minute mark.
  4. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 4
    Use distraction. Young children have a short attention span and are easy to redirect.[4] When you notice that a tantrum may be on the way, try distracting her with another activity. For example, if you know that she is about to start wailing in the middle of the grocery store, try picking up her favorite stuffed animal and saying “Here is Mr. Piggy. Let me hear you say oink!”

Method 2
Teaching Children and Teens to Follow Directions

  1. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 5
    Describe the behavior that you would like to see happen. It’s very important that your child or teenager understands what your expectations are as well as why you are asking her to do it. Also, asking children to give input about why it’s important to follow directions is important so that they feel included. Here are some things that you could say:[5]
    • “Vanessa, I think that it’s important to follow directions so that everyone can stay safe. Why do you think it’s important to follow directions?” You could also ask older children and teens, "Why do you think it's important for you to do this?"
    • “When I ask you to do something I want you to look at me.”
    • “Then I want you to say "Okay" so that I know that you heard me.”
    • “Start immediately and finish the task that I asked you to do.”
    • Keep in mind that the instructions may be modified based upon the age of the child or teen. For example, you might want to also practice conflict resolution with older children and teens. You could add:
      • "If you do not agree with me or would like to negotiate then you should say, "Okay" so that I know that you heard me."
      • "Then you should say in a calm speaking voice, "Mom, I have a suggestion. Can you hear me out?"
  2. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 6
    Demonstrate what that behavior looks like for your child. Switch roles with the child so that you are acting as the child and she is the mother or father. Say “Give me something to do” and then allow her to give you directions to follow. Model the desired behavior for your child by looking at her, saying okay, and immediately beginning and completing the task.[6] If you are practicing with an older child or teen be sure to model appropriate negotiation.
    • There can be limits on this the demonstration. For example, the child may say “Go clean my room,” which of course you would not do. You could say to her, “Cleaning your room is not my responsibility. Let’s try practicing with a different set of instructions. We could try things like putting the glass in the sink or putting away the cell phone.”
    • The demonstrations should be age appropriate. What you demonstrate with your preschooler will be different from what you demonstrate with a Freshman in high school.
  3. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 7
    Use role-plays to practice the desired behavior. After you have demonstrated the desired response for your child, it’s time for her to practice. Look at your child and say, “It’s your turn. Please bring me the remote control from the coffee table.” Or you could say to an older child, "Okay. Let's practice. Please put away your cell phone for the rest of the night." Then let your child practice following those directions.
    • You can use role play for children and teens of all ages. In fact, role play is often used with adults to teach new behavior. It is a very effective way to teach children and teens a new skill.
    • It takes practice to master a new skill. If she doesn’t get it right immediately, use gentle reminders and correction to reinforce the behavior. Eventually she will remember on her own. A good reminder might be to say, “Remember, you’re supposed to look at me and say "okay" so that I know that you heard me.”[7] You could also ask an older child, "What can you say when you want to negotiate?"
  4. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 8
    Praise your child when she follows directions. When it is time to actually put the skills to use, be sure to praise your child when she responds appropriately to what you asked her to do[8] Also be sure to praise older children when they disagree in an appropriate manner. You could say things like, “God job Vanessa for clearing the table” or “Thank you for sharing your ideas and frustrations in a calm tone.” Continue to use gentle reminders as your child masters these skills.
  5. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 9
    Avoid power struggles. Your child may try to test the new boundaries that are being implemented. Be sure that you allow your child the opportunity to ask questions if she does not understand a task and to present alternative options if she wants to negotiate; however, be sure to avoid getting into unnecessary arguments. If your decision stands and she becomes argumentative, you could say something like, “I would be glad to discuss this with you, Vanessa, after your room is clean.”

Method 3
Shaping the Behavior of Children and Teens

  1. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 10
    Reward positive behavior. Your child is not born already knowing what to do so it’s up to you to train and mold her behavior. Therefore, it’s essential for you to identify what behaviors you want to see your child or teen exhibit and then reward those behaviors. Research shows that rewarding positive behavior is actually more effective than punishing negative behavior.[9]
    • Use praise to reward your child when she is behaving appropriately. Let her know that you are proud of her when she gets it right. In general, children and teens tend to respond well to praise.
    • Save larger rewards for bigger achievements and milestones. This way your child will associate good behavior with an internal sense of pride rather than an external reward.
  2. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 11
    Get your child’s attention. When giving your child instructions, be sure that you have her attention first. Sometimes parents accuse children of not listening when in fact they were so preoccupied with other external activities or internal emotions that they did not clearly hear the instruction.[10] This is true for children and teenagers.
    • Get your child’s attention by calling her name. Wait until she is looking at you before you give the instruction. For example, you could say, “Sharon” and then wait until she looks at you. When she looks at you then say, “It is time to leave the store now” or "Please take off your head phones while at the kitchen table."
    • If possible, give your child the opportunity to finish doing what she is doing prior to transitioning to another activity. This is especially important for younger children but older children respond better to this approach, as well.
  3. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 12
    Establish rules. Make sure that you and any co-parents in the home are in agreement with the rules so that children are unable to split or divide caretakers. You should also include your children and teenagers in the rule making process. It’s important that children feel like they are a part of family decisions. Calling a family meeting is a great way to develop the rules as a unit.
    • Be sure to establish “off limits” behavior.[11] Examples of off-limits behavior might include things like saying “I hate you,” hitting others, name calling, cursing, cheating, walking out of a room during discussions, or playing derogatory music. You choose the off-limits behavior that are appropriate for your household.
    • Don’t be afraid to be firm about the important issues. For example, if your middle school aged child needs to be home by 8pm don’t allow her to argue her way into a 10pm curfew.
    • Use Do’s rather than Don’ts when developing rules. For example, it is better to say “Call me when you arrive to your friend’s house” instead of “Don’t forget to call me when you get to your friend's house.” Or you could say, "Be home by midnight" rather than saying, "Don't be late coming home tonight."
  4. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 13
    Explain the rules and the consequences of any rule infractions. It is important that you clearly explain what the rules are and how violations will be enforced before a violation actually occurs.[12] Use clear concise language that is easily understood by your child and teen. This is vital so that behavioral expectations are clearly understood.
    • Try making a list of activities or privileges that your child enjoys and would miss if she lost. Withdrawal of these privileges could be appropriate consequences. This is especially helpful with teens.
    • Make sure that the rules are concrete and specific so that your child does not misinterpret what is expected. For example, it’s better to say, “Wear your white sneakers with the blue stripes to go outside and play” instead of “Wear old shoes to go outside and play.” Your idea of old shoes may be the sneakers she got at the beginning of the summer whereas her idea of old shoes may be the dress shoes that she wore last week to visit Grandma.
    • With a teen you could say "Make sure that all of your chores are complete and your homework is done before you go to Megan's house" instead of "Make sure that you do everything that you need to do before you leave for Megan's house."
    • All consequences should be things that can be easily implemented so that you avoid making empty threats. Empty threats will weaken your influence and your kids will learn to not take you or your rules as seriously.
  5. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 14
    Use reminders when it is appropriate. Under some circumstances, gentle reminders are the way to go.[13] For example, if your preschooler is running in the house, then it’s okay to prompt her to stop running. Or if your preteen hasn't started her chores yet, you can remind her that the chores still need to be completed.
    • For egregious rule violations, a reminder is not necessary. For example, if your teenager is two hours late coming home from a party then no reminder is necessary. The consequence should be immediately applied.
    • An example of a gentle reminder is “Remember Giana, we walk in the house” or “We talk to each other respectfully, even when we disagree.” Avoid using judgmental or belittling language such as, “You don’t ever listen!”
    • Giving children a warning is also appropriate for less serious infractions. For example, if your children or teenagers are bickering at the table, you could say, “This is your warning about bickering at the table. If it continues then ____ will happen.” Only ONE warning should be given. If the behaviors continue, then the consequence should be applied.
  6. Image titled Keep Your Kids from Misbehaving Step 15
    Enforce the rules. Children and teenagers will always try to test the rules so don’t take it personally when it happens. It’s developmentally appropriate as they try to experience a sense of autonomy. However, children benefit from consistency and stability. That is why it’s important to be consistent with enforcing rules as much as possible.[14] If you only enforce rules sporadically then it can confuse your child or teenager and cause her to test limits even more.
    • When the rule infraction occurs, calmly remind your child or teenager of the consequence and follow through with it. For example, you could say “Please bring me the PlayStation” or “I’m sorry but you may not go to the party tonight.”
    • It is okay to explain why the consequence is being implemented, however children are pretty smart and probably already know what they did wrong. Be sure to avoid arguments with your child or teenager after you have already clearly articulated why the consequence is occurring. Instead, you can respond by simply saying “I understand,” “I know,” "That is the final decision," or “What did I say?”


  • Timeouts should be used sparingly. It is better to use consequences that are specifically related to the behavioral infraction. For instance, if Jessica is throwing the ball in the house, a related consequence would be to put the ball away for the rest of the day.
  • Always be consistent in your parenting. Children and teenagers need limits and feel safer when boundaries are established.
  • Teenagers are older children who are trying to navigate the world with additional autonomy. However, they continue to need consistent boundaries and discipline as well.


  • Spanking as discipline is not recommended by The American Academy of Pediatrics.[15] In fact, there is some evidence that suggests spanking promotes even more negative behavior and hinders brain development.[16]

Article Info

Categories: Behavioral Issues