Taking Control of an Unruly Child

Let me first begin by excusing the title of this article. I know that for many parents or professionals who are reaching a point of desperation in the relationship or interaction with a challenging young person, the idea of taking control would have captured your eye.

However, just to be clear, I don’t believe that we are ever truly in control of other people (not even children) and nor should we be. After all part of being human is having our own free will to exert to some extent, as we please.

A better title would have been “ How to influence an unruly child and have them listen and react in a way that feels comfortable and beneficial for you both.” But that would have been an extremely long and less appealing title I suspect.

I’m sure you are by now familiar with the notion of rewarding desired behaviour and giving less attention and emotional fuel to undesired behaviour to begin to carve out more of what you want to see and less of what you don’t. There are typically three challenges with this idea.

Firstly, you need to be able to approach each new encounter with that child as “clean”. What I mean is that your attitude and interaction with them cannot be polluted by anything that has happened before. If you are, in your mind, still experiencing frustrations from their past behaviour, as much as you might try to cover that up it will leak out and they can become conscious of the slightest hint of negativity towards them. This is not going to support a better reaction or behaviour from them.

Secondly, some people believe that they have to praise the positive and ignore the negative or unwanted behaviors. This is not accurate and it may, in some cases be dangerous to ignore negative behaviour.

The key thing is the degree of energy you respond to unwanted behaviour with. If the negative behaviour is meeting a need for the child (it makes them feel significant in some way, helps them to feel connected to you perhaps) then you have to begin to shift the balance of how they get your attention so that they feel as if the unwanted behaviour no longer gives them any form of pay off or certainly a low level temporary pay off.

This isn’t something that is relevant to very young children, this principle applies to adults too. If you have someone in your live who you find yourself giving lots of negative attention to, change what you are doing. You can still acknowledge them and respond but don’t give it the same degree of energy in your response. For example, if you have a teenager who screams and slams doors when you tell her she isn’t going out with your friends, and you respond by screaming back and barging in her room after her, don’t do that anymore. Deliver the message in a more ‘business like’ fashion which will change the tone of your voice. If she screams and slams the doors, leave it. Don’t follow after her to make an additional point because it’s just fanning the flames.

Thirdly, it can be a challenge if you are caught in a cycle of unwanted behaviour to notice the positives in order to put more emphasis on them. You may need to start small. For example, praising really mediocre things that you’d ordinarily expect of them automatically. If they ask a question about some upcoming event say “Good question and thanks for reminding me of that…”. If they head straight upstairs to do their homework without talking to you, re-frame it as “I love how you’re able to just take yourself off and do your homework without me having to ask you to”. Find the smallest things to praise and as you do, not only will they begin to do more of those things, but your own ability to spot the positives in them will increase.
By Gemma Bailey

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