Disruptive behavior problems:
10 Evidence-based tips for handling aggression, defiance, and acting out

© 2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Psychologists call them "externalizing" behaviors -- acts of disruption, aggression, defiance, or anti-social intent.

Just about every parent has to cope with them at some point, particularly during the toddler years. Young children are still developing the ability to regulate their emotions and impulses, and need to learn what is expected of them.

Research suggests that more than two-thirds of American preschoolers experience temper tantrums (Wakshlag et al 2014).

But some kids seem particularly prone to externalizing behavior. How do tackle their disruptive behavior problems? 

There isn't any single answer. Kids misbehave for different reasons, and may respond differently to the same social input. But research suggests a number of general principles we can use to check aggression and foster self control. Here are some evidence-based tips.

1. Tune into the big picture: Kids need positive relationships to stay connected and improve.

In some families, keeping the peace is a relatively simple job. The kids are mostly cooperative, which makes it easy for caregivers to stay upbeat and cheerfully involved. The steady diet of positive family interactions makes kids feel secure and connected, and more receptive to learning good social skills.

It's harder when kids show disruptive, defiant, or aggressive tendencies. Like other children, these kids need positive encouragement to stay connected. But their misbehavior provokes us, makes us irritable, angry, frustrated, or despairing. In a sense, these kids are their own worst enemies, because they're stuck with behavior patterns make people react negatively. Parents are often pushed into counterproductive patterns themselves -- becoming too punitive in some cases, or too disengaged in others.

What's the remedy? Clinical psychologists like Timothy Cavell advise hassled parents to choose their battles. If your child has externalizing behavior problems, you can't expect to police every aspect of his behavior. Instead, think in terms of a disciplinary "quota system."

Enforce the strictest limits on aggressive, anti-social behavior -- acts that cause damage, hurt feelings, or physical injury. Kids need the clear message that this behavior is unacceptable.  Studies suggest that kids who dabble in aggression of any kind -- including non-physical aggression -- tend to escalate if they aren't checked.

Address other types of misbehavior next, but only if you can do so without tipping the balance. You want to make sure that most of your communication seems supportive -- not rejecting, punitive, or forbidding. By focusing on the overall emotional tone of the relationship -- instead of the details of the latest, small transgression -- you are more likely to remain a positive influence, and steer your child's development over the long-term.  

2. Help kids develop socio-emotional skills, and steer kids away from situations that overtax their current abilities.

It takes years for kids to develop a mature understanding of emotions. They are works in progress -- still collecting data about how people think and behave; still trying to figure out their own feelings. And when it comes to showing patience, following directions, juggling competing demands, remembering plans, and controlling their impulses, they are at a distinct disadvantage: Their brains are still developing these abilities.

What happens when we forget this -- or inadvertently overestimate a child's developmental limitations? Imposing age-inappropriate standards, like expecting a 3-year-old to sit quietly during a long meal at a restaurant, isn't just a recipe for conflict. If kids are regularly subjected to such unrealistic expectations, they can  lose ground in the bigger developmental process.

As noted above, children need a generally positive atmosphere to stay connected, motivated, and attentive. To learn good citizenship, they need to experience the social rewards of following directions and regulating their own emotions. When we put them in situations that outstrip their abilities, they miss these opportunities, and learn the wrong lessons: that they can't meet our standards; that we're unfair or arbitrary; that our insistence on cooperation means "I win, you lose."

So it's important to tune into your child's current skill set, and avoid situations that demand too much. Giving kids tasks they can actually handle -- tasks that are comfortably within their zone of development, or just a bit challenging -- will teach them about social success, and give them opportunities to grow. Researchers and therapists recommend these developmentally sensitive tactics:

  • State your expectations clearly and calmly, and put the emphasis on positive choices rather than prohibitions. Don't badger kids with a lot of interference-- studies suggest that such bossy micro-management interferes with the development of self-control (Clincy and Mills-Koonce 2013; Eisenberg et al 2015). But if kids start going off track, provide them with friendly reminders of what their supposed to be doing. They may lack the working memory capacity and attention skills to stay focused.
  • Talk with kids about how emotions work. What makes people angry or sad? How do can we soothe these feelings, or prevent them from erupting in the first place? Kids who grow up discussing these topics tend to have better outcomes, and classroom interventions designed to enhance children's socio-emotional understanding report behavior improvements.
  • Don't try to impose a fast, adult pace on kids who can't keep up. Kids have slower reaction times and take longer to transition from one activity to the next. Allow more time for kids to put plans into action, and before you make them switch activities, give them a few minutes of warning.
  • Identify and eliminate hot button triggers. For example, instead of pressuring your preschooler to share his favorite toy with a visiting friend, put it away before the visit begins. Let the kids play with something that is less emotionally "loaded."
  • Reward kids with encouraging, positive feedback when they get things right. It's a powerful way to shape behavior. But be mindful of what types of praise work, and what types backfire.
  • Remove distractions and unnecessary temptations. It's hard to do your homework when you've got a video game console in your sights.

For information about your child's developmental abilities, see these articles about early childhood cognition, social skills, working memory, attention problems, empathy, and self-control.

3. Don't underestimate the impact of sleep.

It's no secret that sleep affects mood, but poor sleep does more than make us cranky. It impairs our ability to read facial expressions -- a recipe for miscommunication and conflict (Soffer-Dudek et al 2011). And research reveals persistent links between sleep trouble and externalizing behavior.

In one experiment, adolescents assigned to a schedule of restricted sleep showed greater "oppositional behavior," like anger, arguing, and spitefulness (Baum et al 2014). In another study, young children showing early tendencies to resist authority seemed especially sensitive to the effects of sleep loss: They were more likely than other poor sleepers to develop externalizing behavior problems over time (Goodnight et al 2007).

Sleep is also linked with disruptive behavior problems in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. In a recent study, researchers found that kids with sleep problems were more aggressive, irritable, and distracted (Mazurek and Sohl 2016).

And there is evidence that poor sleep gives rise to hyperactivity and attention deficits.

Preschoolers with sleep problems are more likely to develop these symptoms (Touchette et al 2007), and kids diagnosed with ADHD can experience substantial deterioration when they don't sleep enough. In one study, a group of ADHD children were assigned to a regimen that reduced their regular, nightly sleep times by one hour. After six days, kids went from being mildly symptomatic to suffering from clinically significant impairment in attention skills (Gruber et al 2011).

Moreover, studies suggest we can improve symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity by treating a child's sleep problems. For instance, researchers conducting a randomized, controlled trial found that improving sleep in ADHD patients resulted in better classroom behavior and fewer externalizing behavior problems (Hiscock et al 2015). For some kids, improved sleep might eradicate symptoms altogether (Hvolby 2015).

For information about troubleshooting sleep problems, see this article.

4. Look after yourself.

It's hard to stay calm and collected when your child is throwing a tantrum, and your own experience of stress makes everything worse -- including your child's behavior. Studies show that kids are more likely to improve when their parents adjust their own expectations, get support, and reduce their own stress levels. For more information, see this article about parenting kids with aggressive behavior problems, and these tips for relieving stress.

5. Foster positive sibling relationships.

We know that parental abuse and peer aggression is bad for kids. Aggressors escalate over time. Victims are at high risk for developing emotional disorders, like anxiety or depression. And for some, victimization triggers externalizing behavior problems. Bullied children become bullies themselves.

But what about aggression between siblings? If your brother hits or bullies you, is that somehow a benign experience -- part of the natural process of growing up?

Modern studies answer this question with a resounding "no." When researchers track child outcomes, they see that sibling aggression has the same negative effects as other forms of aggression (Buist et al 2013; Tucker 2013). Anti-social behavior between siblings fans the flames of externalizing behavior, even after researchers take into account shared genetics (Natsuaki et al 2009). And when kids fight each other, parenting quality suffers. Stressed-out caregivers are more likely to use harsh tactics, make arbitrary and unfair decisions, or become less involved in their children's affairs (Feinberg et al 2012).

So kindness and cooperation should begin at home. Sibling relationships improve when we teach and enforce principles of fair play (Feinberg et al 2013).

By showing siblings how to negotiate their own comprises, and intervening when such negotiations break down, we can create an environment that supports the development of self-control. By teaching older kids about the developmental limitations of their younger siblings -- and rewarding them for acting with kindness and responsibility -- we can defuse jealousy.

6. Teach kids to revise their negative assumptions

Some people tend to read hostility in the intentions of others, even when it isn't true.  This leads them to behave antagonistically, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. They provoke people who might otherwise have regarded them in a neutral or friendly light. 

So it's important to help kids take a more flexible, relaxed, and optimistic stance. Young children benefit when we point out alternative explanations for apparently negatively behavior. She's not angry at you, she's just having a bad day. He didn't mean to hurt you, he was just play-fighting.  Older kids may benefit from lessons about the malleable nature of personality. People aren't wired to be "good" or "bad." They are responsive to the environment, capable of change, and influenced by circumstances.

When researchers taught adolescents about this flexibility, kids didn't just become more forgiving of human behavior. They also became less likely to perceive hostility in everyday, ambiguous acts. Kids considering a hypothetical situation -- like having someone bump into them in a crowded hallway -- were more likely to see it as accidental. And they were half as likely to say they would react with retaliatory aggression (Yaeger et al 2013).

A similar study found that kids trained in the malleability of personality responded differently to hypothetical scenarios of bullying. Compared to students in a control group, they described themselves as less likely to seek revenge (Yeager et al 2011).

7. Show kids how to defuse their negative emotions by remembering the supportive people in their lives.

You've heard about telling angry children to take a deep breath and count to ten. That's good advice. But research suggests another promising tactic: We can teach kids to defuse their negative emotions with the power of thought -- and love.

In experiments where volunteers were reminded of trusting social relationships -- by being shown "feel good" images of people being kind and supportive -- something happened in their brains: The threat-response system was temporarily deactivated, making them less reactive to angry faces (Norman et al 2014).

In other studies, researchers found that asking people to visualize their loved ones -- or remember a time when they felt supported -- was enough to change their social reactions. Subjects felt less aggressive, and more compassionate towards others (Mikulincer et al 2001; Mukulincer et al 2005a; Saleem etal 2015). Even a few subliminal reminders -- like the words "love" and "hug" flashing for a few milliseconds before your eyes -- can produce this effect  (Mikulincer et al 2005b).

To date, nobody has tested the phenomenon in children. But once kids are old enough to discuss and conjure up happy memories, they may be to ready to practice this technique. And long before that, we can help lay the groundwork by being responsive to their emotional needs.

8. Train kids to recognize - and reject - mechanisms of moral disengagement.

We often think of anti-social behavior as a symptom diminished empathy. But many acts of aggression are committed by people with good empathic abilities and social skills. They've got the psychological tools to avoid harming others, but they don't use them. Instead, they've convinced themselves that they're behavior isn't wrong (Gini et al 2014).

Albert Bandura has identified a number of mechanisms by which people take themselves off the hook. For instance, people may sanction torture because they believe it will provide the authorities with crucial information. The end justifies the means.  They might absolve themselves of any personal responsibility. I was just following orders. They may underestimate or trivialize the amount of harm their actions cause. It's not a big deal. And they may blame the victim, or dehumanize the people who suffer. They brought this on themselves. They aren't like us. They don't feel things the way we do.

These might sound like grown-up rationalizations. But studies show that school children are prone to them as well, particularly those who engage in bullying and peer aggression. So there's reason to think we can help children by teaching them to recognize moral disengagement in action -- giving them compelling examples, and encouraging them to analyze the questionable justifications they see around them (Bustamente and Chaux 2014).

There is also evidence that tip #6 -- think about trusting social relationships -- can help. When Dolly Chugh and her colleagues (2014) asked volunteers to reflect on supportive loved ones, they found the experience acted as a buffer against moral disengagement. Unlike members of a control group, the security-primed volunteers became resistant to self-serving moral justifications.

9. Use disciplinary tactics that teach problem-solving.

Studies suggest that harsh punishment can lead kids to develop progressively worse behavior problems. Certain types of criticism can make kids think they are innately inferior or bad, and therefore helpless to change. Kids who get spanked regularly (more than once per month) tend to become more aggressive over time.  And shame tactics can breed resentment and anger, not remorse.

So what's a parent to do? Ignoring aggression is a bad idea. As noted above, research suggests that parents who indulge aggression, or give in to tantrums, are more likely to see their children's behavior deteriorate over time. But there is another route: We can focus on teaching kids concrete lessons -- about how to control their impulses, solve problems, negotiate conflicts, and make amends.

For instance, when researchers compared different disciplinary tactics, the most effective wasn't spanking, or scolding, or telling a child to sit in a corner. The most effective tactics were those that combined non-physical sanctions with reasoning -- explaining the rules and their purpose; talking with kids about how to avoid trouble (Larzelere and Kuhn 2005).

And there's good reason to think that teaching children practical social skills -- like how to strike a compromise, or repair the damage after a conflict -- may help kids avoid aggression and gain peer acceptance. Experiments show that 6- and 7-year-olds are a lot more forgiving when their transgressors apologize and attempt to make things right. If you've knocked over another child's tower of blocks, helping to rebuild it might make a big difference (Drell and Jaswal 2015).

10. Seek professional advice if something worries you - or if your child presents special challenges

Reasoning with your child might seem like a pipe-dream if she's particularly defiant. It might seem impossible if he's got attention problems or emotional difficulties. If your child has got you stymied -- or something worries you -- get professional advice.

Certain behaviors are red flags -- indicators that your child is at risk for an emotional or behavior disorder (Wakshlag et al 2014). For example, if your child has settled into a pattern of very frequent, lengthy, or intense temper tantrums -- or seems to lose his temper "out of the blue" -- it's a good idea to consult with your pediatrician. Researchers also urge parents to seek medical advice if observe children engaging in dangerous behavior.

But that doesn't mean you have to wait for these specific signs to get help.

As noted above, kids may develop disruptive behavior problems for a variety of reasons. Some kids might have trouble reading the motives and emotions of other people. Some kids might have trouble understanding their own emotions. Some kids might have learning or language delays. Children might suffer from hyperactivity, impulsiveness, attention deficits, working memory limitations, too much stress, or too little sleep. Whatever your child's particular issues, it's likely that a child behavior specialist can help you better understand what's going on -- and find ways to improve the situation.

So ask your pediatrician or local school for information about local diagnostic and counseling services, and don't let the matter drop if these services fail to meet your needs. You might have to try more than one approach before you find the best fit.

References: Disruptive behavior problems

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Image of boys in silhouette by John D. / flickr

Image of mother and son playing with dough by Chris Parfitt / flickr

Image of father and son in park by Jeffrey / flickr

Image of sleepy girl by Donnie Ray Jones / flickr

Closeup of sister and brother by Natashi Jay / flickr

Black and white image of mother and daughter by Emma Freeman portraits / flickr

Content last modified 2/2016




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