Ask an Expert – What to Do When Your Child Misbehaves

By Lisa Schainker | September 27, 2022
Misbehaving Child

Determining how to manage a child’s misbehavior can be a parenting challenge. It is frustrating when children ignore what they are asked to do, or they do just the opposite. Consider this information that explains why commonly used strategies don’t work and provides tips on what to do instead.

Strategies that are generally ineffective:

  • Threats. Threats are often used to get children to behave; however, when parents do not follow through on what they said was going to happen, they are teaching their children that they don’t really mean what they say. Examples of threats include: “You’d better stop crying right now, or else…,” or, “I’m going to take away your phone for good if you don’t put it away right now.” Telling your child that you will do something you never intend to do isn’t helpful because the child will likely test you to call your bluff.
  • Bribes. A bribe often includes a reward given before the desired behavior occurs. For example, “If I give you a piece of candy, will you stop screaming?” This teaches children that all they have to do to get what they want is misbehave and then promise to stop. Another example might be, “I will let you have extra screen time now if you promise to do your homework later.” This teaches a child that they simply have to say they will do something in the future to get what they want right now.
  • Spanking. Physical punishment, such as spanking, is ineffective and harmful to children. In fact, research has shown that spanking is associated with more aggression and problem behavior and an increased chance of mental health problems in children. One theory about why spanking doesn’t work is it teaches children that when the threat of physical punishment exists, they should behave, but once the threat is gone, they have no reason to behave appropriately. 

Research-backed strategies that work: 

  • Consequences. Consistent, logical consequences can be a valuable tool for changing a child’s behavior. They will begin to learn that their choice led to a result (good or bad). Parents can use positive consequences or rewards to reinforce desired behaviors and negative consequences to reduce the likelihood of undesired behaviors. Positive consequences can include earning privileges, doing a fun activity, or taking away a chore. Negative consequences might include doing extra work around the house or losing privileges.
  • Time out. Time out can be effective for both younger and older children. Although a time out is usually viewed as a consequence, it is actually a strategy that helps your child emotionally “reset.” When they are experiencing strong emotions, they are often unable to listen to you, think rationally, or do what you want. Once they have had time to calm down, they are more likely to follow through with your request.
  • Consistency. Consistency is critical when it comes to correcting behavior. Imagine how confusing it would be if your boss got mad at you for doing something one day and then watched you do the same thing the next day and didn’t mention it. The same thing happens to kids when they receive mixed messages. They are likely to learn much faster when we consistently respond the same way to the same behavior. 

Finally, an important factor that influences our ability to correct our children’s behavior effectively is the quality of our relationship with them. The relationship can be improved by verbally recognizing positive behavior, letting children know you understand they are having a hard time before you correct their behavior, and making them feel like you are on their side no matter what. While you may need to correct undesired behaviors in the moment, focus on the long-term goal of building a positive relationship with your child. This will go a long way toward reducing how often you have to deal with negative behaviors in the future.

Further information with references and links can be found at:

By: Lisa Schainker, Utah State University Extension assistant professor,