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Parenting kids with behavioural issues

Raising a child with behavioural problems can be rewarding but tough. We ask psychologists for strategies to help you handle the challenges. 

Natalie Parletta
March 2019

Parenting is hard work, and can be especially difficult if you have a child with behavioural problems. Topping the exhaustion of dealing with even simple daily tasks and emotional meltdowns, you may feel a sense of failure when the standard parenting advice doesn’t work for your child.

You’re not alone; 18% of children have significant emotional problems needing professional help, reports the Medical Journal of Australia. A further 5–8% experience an attention deficit disorder.

Symptoms of behavioural issues in kids include ongoing:

  • frequent temper tantrums
  • aggression
  • difficulty concentrating
  • refusal to obey rules
  • overactivity and restlessness.

While it’s normal for kids to have these behaviours from time to time, if it becomes hard to manage or it’s impacting their home, social or school life, it might be time to speak to a doctor or psychologist.

The most common behavioural disorders include oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder, reports Better Health Victoria.

There are lots of ways you can support your kids, with the right tools and understanding.

Strategies for parents

Clinical Psychologist Dr David Collins shares tips on managing difficult behaviour:

  • manage screen time to support attention development
  • give positive feedback, even for small efforts
  • keep instructions clear and simple; always check for understanding
  • create consistent, predictable routines
  • break up academic tasks with fun activities and physical exercise.

Supporting your child

Clinical Psychologist Kirrilie Smout has a program for parents of children aged 4–11 that revolves around 3 key concepts. Many of the children on the program have challenging behaviour or have been diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiant, disorder, anxiety or learning disorders. The concepts are:

  • Connect: provide a secure and loving environment. This includes healthy family relationships with two-way communication, respect and spending time together.
  • Coach: teach skills to help children thrive in different situations.
  • Take charge: create an environment with clear rules and expectations.

“Children with behavioural challenges often have more need for connection, for reinforcement and skill coaching than other kids,” she says.

Life skills for children include managing emotions, learning resilience, getting through school, and dealing with social situations.

“Often when they’re not doing well with something, it’s because there’s a skill gap,” Smout says, explaining that it’s important to teach specific techniques.

For instance, if your child gets upset about losing a game, you can help them find strategies to deal with those emotions by asking, “What can you do when you lose a game that makes you feel a tiny bit better?”

“So it’s all about being a coach,” Smout says.

Supporting parents

Dealing with behavioural issues can be difficult for parents and carers. You may feel stressed, angry and overwhelmed. Smout says it’s important for to look after yourself and seek emotional or psychological support, which in turn will help your child.

Support groups can be helpful – your doctor may be able to suggest local groups. Other avenues include online resources The Brave Program and Calm Kids Central and most states have parenting helplines and online information.

Teachers are another important resource. Smout recommends developing a partnership with your child’s teacher, and Dr Collins says it’s also vital to link teachers with health professionals such as psychologists or occupational therapists.

It’s also important to understand that some things are simply out of our control, Smout says.

Take some pressure off by actively focussing on your child’s positive achievements, she says, and on what you’re doing well as a parent.

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