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Even though it may not feel like it, most of the behaviour you think of as naughty is actually normal behaviour for your child’s age.

Even though it may not feel like it, most of the behaviour you think of as naughty is actually normal behaviour for your child’s age and stage of development. Your child does not do this deliberately or intentionally.

We tend to notice and mention negative behaviour because it is irritating. Unfortunately giving lots of attention to this behaviour may cause it to increase. Instead try to give lots of praise and attention to the behaviours you want to see more of. Alongside giving your child lots of praise, help to build a positive relationship with your child by giving them lots of love and affection, and taking time to talk, listen and play. It will also help if you develop structure and order to your day by establishing some routines.

When you see your child doing something you don’t like, take a little time to think about how to respond.

What works

  • Try to encourage everyone close to your child to deal with unwanted behaviour in the same way. This consistent approach helps your child feel secure. Your child may get confused if they are allowed to do something one day and then is told off for doing the same thing the next day. 

  • Plan ahead! Put things that could harm your child locked away (e.g. medicines, batteries, dishwasher tabs). When out and about have some small toys to distract your child with or think of some games to play like ‘I spy’. Distract your child when they are about to do something you don't like. For example, if you see that your child is about to throw something you can distract them - "Look, there's a cat in the street". 

  • Try to work out the reason for your child’s behaviour. Think about whether there are times when you see more unwanted behaviours. What triggers this behaviour?  What changes could you make to avoid this and break the cycle?

  • Special time. Unwanted difficult behaviour can be a demand for attention. Make sure you give your child plenty of attention during the day when they are playing quietly or behaving well. In addition try to set aside time every day to give your child some special time with you. 

  • Avoid put downs. Try to encourage effort instead. In this way you will build their self-esteem. 

  • Ignore the little things. Children use noises, whining, whinging and stamping to gain attention. Rather than react and give attention to these behaviours, try to give lots of praise and attention to the behaviours you want to see more of. 

  • Try distracting your child. Rather than focus on minor irritating behaviour try distracting young children. You can introduce a new activity, toy or game. Try distracting older children, by changing the topic of conversation. If you can see that they are getting frustrated with an activity, you could suggest they do something else.  

  • Don’t ignore behaviours that are dangerous or destructive. Ignoring can work well for minor irritating behaviour. However, when your child behaves in an unacceptable way (e.g. hitting someone, or putting themselves in danger), gently and firmly move your child away from the situation.

  • For children over 3 - follow through with a consequence. If your child behaves in a way that is not safe or hurts someone or something you can follow through with a consequence. A consequence is something you do after the behaviour. For example if your child throws sand - you remove them from the sandpit for a short time; if they throw a toy, the toy is taken away for 10 minutes, if they draw on the wall you take the crayon away. A consequence must be followed through consistently.

  • No means no! If you give in to pester power your child will learn they can get what they want by acting in that way. 

  • Time out can be used for behaviours that cannot be ignored, like when your child does something dangerous or hurts someone. Minor irritating behaviours like whining can be ignored. Time out doesn't work for children under 3 years of age, as they are not developmentally ready.  

What doesn’t work

  • Don’t reward behaviour you don’t like by giving it too much attention. Give your attention to positive behaviour instead.

  • Avoid too much criticism and nagging. This may make your child feel like they can never get it right and affect their self esteem. Help your child by being clear what you expect from them and model the behaviour you want to see. Remember that your child wants to please you.

  • Getting angry, yelling and smacking can turn things into a major battle. This won't help your child learn to behave. Instead, it can make them feel afraid, insecure and resentful. Instead try to keep calm when things get stressful. This will encourage your child to do the same.

  • Threatening your child with scary things like “the police will take you away” may make your child anxious and may lead to more unwanted behaviour, not less.

Read our pages on how children behave at different ages. A lot of the behaviour you think of as ‘naughty’ may be perfectly normal for your child's age and stage of development.