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How to Change Your Children's Behavior

Denise speaks from her own experience. She has had many trials and difficulties in her own life and seeks to help others through theirs.

Children look to us as a model for their behavior. When they are young, they mirror our behavior, and as they get older, they magnify it.

Children look to us as a model for their behavior. When they are young, they mirror our behavior, and as they get older, they magnify it.

Children are very impressionable. They react to what is around them. They do what they see others do, and learn quickly. As parents, we make a difference in the behavior of our children by what we do. Teaching is on-going, day in and day out.

Positive parenting techniques include telling, showing, explaining, encouraging, and modeling. There will be times, however, when our children do things we do not like. The automatic reaction is to get upset and yell or hit. Unfortunately, this only instills fear in our children.

Changing our children's behavior is like shaping with modeling clay. It takes time and patience. We have to do it over and over again until the shape is desirable. Sometimes, all that is required is a little tweek here or there, and the shape forms to what we want. Other times, we have to knead and roll, shape and re-shape.

Children are people, just like us. They need food, clothing, and shelter, but they also need love, a sense of belonging, and to know that they are valued as individuals. When their needs are met, their behavior will reflect positivity and they will respond to our efforts to teach them.

Children have different characteristics at different ages (see chart below). Taking these into consideration, here are ways to change your child's behavior through what you do. Each technique is explained in the dialogue that follows the chart.

Age GroupCommon CharacteristicsWhat to Do

0-2 years

Curiosity, dependence

Distraction, praise, talk firmly, if-then, acting as-if

3-7 years

Desire to learn, autonomy, skill development

Time out, praise, encouragment, if-then, rewards, acting as-if

8-12 years

Power, question authority, develop lifestyle, learn life skills

Choice/Consequences, learn to earn, acting as-if, encouragement, reflective listening

13-16 years

Develop identity, question life, peer attachment, gender roles

Choice/consequences, study/research, acting as-if, encouragement, reflective listening

17-20 years

Life goals, independence, lasting relationships, share talents, spirituality

Study/research, projection into future, acting as-if


Move the child to another place or have their attention focused on something different to stop misbehavior.


  • When a child reaches for an electrical cord, move the child to a different location.
  • Give the child a toy in exchange for a pair of scissors he or she is holding.
  • Show the child a picture to look at as a distraction when they are crying over trivia.

Age for Use:

With crawlers and toddlers, ages 0-2, harshness in the voice will hurt their feelings, and unkind actions prompt crying. It is best to gently pick them up, give them an extra hug to take their focus off what they were doing, and get their attention on something else, talking kindly during the process.


Praise is the use of words to point out good behavior and its natural consequences.


  • “I see you are sitting with your feet on the floor. Now the chair won't tip."
  • “Hey, you picked up the papers and put them away. The room is clean.”
  • “You put those food scraps in the garbage, That keeps the cat off the table."

Age for Use:

Praise works best with young children ages 1-7, and needs to be given honestly and genuinely. Simply point out the good behavior and its positive result. As you do so, the child will see the natural consequences of their actions and grow in their understanding of how things work. As you "catch the child doing good," more good will come from them. They will be validated as a person, and have a sense of personal worth.

Talk Firmly

Using a matter-of-fact voice, give a directive.


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  • “Tommy was playing with that toy. Give it back to him."
  • “Get down from the table. We do not climb on the furniture.”
  • “Shut the door please!”
  • “Give the knife to me. Thank you!”

Age for Use:

This type of discipline is best used when the child ages 1-3 years is doing something that may be dangerous or requires that they stop immediately. Children do not always realize that what they are doing may be detrimental to themselves or others. It is at times like this that the adult needs to let them know that the behavior needs to stop by using an emphatic approach that the child knows they mean business.

Acting 'As If'

Act “as if” the desired behavior is already being exhibited.

Examples for Young Children:

  • The parent is ready to leave and the child is lagging behind instead of following the parent. The parent walks to the door and says, "I am leaving," and proceeds to walk out the door as if the child is following.
  • It is time to put the toys away and the child does not want to do so. The parent begins picking up the toys and sings a jingle such as "This is the way we pick up the toys," acting as if the child is picking up the toys with them.
  • The family is at the table eating. Everyone is through cleaning up their plate except the child. The plates are gathered and removed from the table, including the child's, and dessert is given to everyone except the child.

Examples for Older Children:

  • A teenager considers him or herself shy, however, when in a family group, the parent talks to the child as if they will make a valuable contribution to the group.
  • Speaking in terms of "when" rather then "if," namely, "When you graduate...," "When you get your own car...," "When you have your own apartment...."
  • Although a child may act as if they do not want to come on a family outing, talk to them and involve them in preparation as if they were coming.

Children from toddler age on up respond well to this technique. It is non-invasive and lets the child know that they are the one who needs to change, that the parent will not try to persuade them, rather, life will go on, with or without their cooperation.

Giving children positive consequences for positive action increases the likelihood that they will repeat that action again in the near future.

Giving children positive consequences for positive action increases the likelihood that they will repeat that action again in the near future.

....If - Then or Choices and Consequences

The concept of “If you do this then I will do that.”

Examples for Younger Children:

  • “Once you eat the food on your plate, you can have a second helping of punch."
  • "When you have finished your homework, you can play with a friend."
  • "Help me clear the dishes from the table, then we can play outside on the swing together."

Examples for Older Children:

  • "Getting up on time for school each day during the week will enable you to have two hours of free time with your friends on Friday evening."
  • "In order to use the car for your date on Saturday, you will need to wash it and clean the floors and seats inside."
  • "It is possible to find clothing that is modest that will not make you hot. In fact, when we find it, I will be happy to pay for it."

Children begin to understand the connection between choices and consequences at about age five. They make concious choices based on what happens after those choices are made. Not all choices have natural consequences that are readily evident; therefore, as parents, we have to invent consequences that are either pleasant or unpleasant enough that the child will make the choice we want them to make. It is necessary; however, to accept the child's choice and allow them to experience the negative or positive consequences.

Time Out

Remove the child from the situation and place him or her in an area of low reinforcement until he or she indicates readiness to choose the proper behavior. Time out can be a chair in a corner or a small room nearby. The child determines when he or she is ready to come out and behave appropriately.


  • "Since you hit your sister, you need to sit in this chair in the corner until you are ready to be kind to her."
  • "Stand right here by the door until you are ready to help me set the table."
  • "We do not grab toys away from other children. Stand with face to the wall until you are ready to play nicely with the others."

Age to Use:

Time out is most appropriate when used with children ages 3-7 years. They are able to understand language enough to realize that what they did was not acceptable and that they need to choose better behavior. Time out allows them to re-group their own feelings and choose to behave more appropriately. Follow their change in behavior with generous praise.


Let the child know through words and a gentle touch that he or she is capable of doing the requested task.


  • “I know you can do it.”
  • “You have courage, you are brave.”
  • “I believe in you.”

Age for Use:

Encouragement is appropriate for any age, including teenagers and adults. These types of messages strengthen the person's feelings of self-worth and plant the seeds for future positive self-talk. The words that are said in a moment of encouragement will have positive affects for many years to come.

Children will listen and show respect for others if that is what they have been taught by the adults in their lives.

Children will listen and show respect for others if that is what they have been taught by the adults in their lives.

Rewards or Learning to Earn

Give the child an incentive for performing the desired behavior.

Examples for Young Children:

  • Smiling faces drawn on a chart.
  • Stickers placed in a special book, on a chart, or on a favorite object.
  • Colorful pencils, markers, crayons, paper, or other art supplies.
  • Special containers for their belongings.

Examples for Older Children:

  • Points or tokens to spend for time with friends, on the TV or computer, or at a desirable physical activity such as swimming or skating.
  • Specific chores (such as washing the car, cleaning the refrigerator, mowing the lawn, or raking leaves) with monetary value that the child can do to earn things that they want to purchase.
  • Goal charts where the child works for higher grades, better physical health, or practicing an instrument in exchange for ice skating or horse riding lessons.

Find out what the child is willing to work for, and make a plan whereby it can be gained based upon the proper behavior.

Reflective Listening

Adults need to listen and allow children to ask questions. Reflect back to the child what you hear they are saying and how you think they feel. Oftentimes, they will identify their own issues and solve them, and then change their own behavior.


  • A child says that they are ill and don't want to go to school. The parent says, "You don't feel well." The child then says where they hurt or what is happening, the parent summarizes the information without making judgement. The child eventually divulges that they are being bullied at school.
  • The child comes in the house crying. The parent gives the child a hug, and listens to their story of what happened. The parent reflects back the child's feelings, and notes the hope that they don't treat others like they have been treated. The child calms down and is able to move on.

Age to Use:

Reflective listening works well as a preventative tool with children ages 6 and up. The time the parent spends listening and reflecting with the child helps the child to choose for themselves what has been previously taught. It allows them to reason through their own issue and make a positive choice for the future.

Study and Research or Projection into the Future

Youth have a great need to know for themselves. Adults who encourage youth to study and learn, question and search, give them tools for the future.


  • The child wants a new bicycle. The parent does not have the money to pay. Together, they comparison shop, and find a great deal. They use brainstorming activities to find ways to obtain the money. The child is allowed to experience the exhileration of having earned an important goal, and the parent is spared the grief of not being able to afford something nice for their child.
  • The teen wants to start a new exercise program. The parent encourages the gathering of information to determine the expected time frame, expense, and commitment involved. The teen is allowed to decide if they are willing to put forward the resources necessary, and the parent guides the decision making process before giving assistance.

Age to Use:

Youth ages 8 and older are able to use goal setting behaviors. The older the child, the longer range the goal can be, with an 8 year old thinking a week to a month ahead, and an older teen, a year to five years ahead. The more planning and preparation involved, the easier to make a time-line that can be followed for accomplishment.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Denise W Anderson


Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on January 06, 2014:

You are right, gijanis786, children change as they grow, and as parents, we have to adjust what we do to help them choose good behaviors. Incentives are a great way to help children see the benefits of good behavior. Since most children do not see or understand the intrinsic rewards for doing good, we have to help them out by giving them reasons. As we do so, we can also point out the benefits. One example of this is, "Wow, your room is so clean! You know where everything is and can find things easily!"

gajanis from Pakistan on January 05, 2014:

Very informative hub......children tends to change their behavior with the change of age groups and it is sometime very challenging for the parents to deal with these behaviors in proper ways. and I do agree with it also that offering incentives will encourage the children most. Thanks.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on August 21, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, TheMomSquad. It is good to know that others have found these techniques helpful with their children, especially those with disabilities. I, too, have a daughter with ED, and the people at the school say that they can tell we use these techniques in our home, as she responded well to the classroom environment that uses them at the school. Best wishes to you!

TheMomSquad from Virginia on August 21, 2012:

Great hub! I use most, if not all, with my children. It especiallys helps my son who has an ED. Consistency is key too. My son's explosive behaviors have been curbed with consistent, firm, but loving rules and using positive reinforcement.

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