How to Handle Out-of-Control Kids

Young kids fighting
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Many parents feel like their kids are out of control at one time or another. But usually, that feeling is fairly fleeting. For some parents, however, out-of-control kids have become the norm. Their children refuse to listen, break the rules, and couldn't care less about consequences.

If you're feeling like your kids are out of control, take steps to regain your power. Maintaining your authority is important to your child's well-being—and it's important for your own emotional health too.

Establish Rules and Structure

Believe it or not, kids like rules and limits. Kids feel safe when they trust that their parents are good leaders who can set and enforce rules. If you struggle to get your kids to listen, these strategies can help.

Make Household Rules Clear

Reduce chaos by creating a clear written list of rules. Focus on basic rules like "Use kind words," and "Ask before borrowing items." Rules can be more easily enforced once they're written down and discussed as a family.

Create Structure

Get the family on a routine by introducing more structure into your child's day. Create time for homework, chores, dinner, family activities, and play. Then, try to stick to the schedule as much as possible on weekdays.

Assign Chores

Whether your children are 4 or 14, it's important to assign regular age-appropriate chores. Get your children used to pitching in so they can practice being responsible members of the family.

Use Positive Language

Focus on what your kids can do, rather than what they can't. So instead of saying, "No TV until you've cleaned your room," say, "You can watch TV as soon as your room is clean." Offer positive choices that will give your child a little bit of control.

Give Effective Instructions

The way you give directions matters. Be firm and direct and only give one instruction at a time. Use a calm voice and make sure you have your child's attention before you speak.

When children don't trust that their parents can maintain order, they experience a lot of distress. And that distress can lead to even more behavior problems.

Provide Consequences for Misbehavior

Establish clear consequences for breaking the rules. It's important to be consistent with consequences. When your children know each rule violation will result in an immediate consequence, they'll be less likely to misbehave. Carefully consider which of these consequences are most likely to be effective for each child.

  • Time-out: Time-out has traditionally been used to address out-of-control behaviors. However, it can often feel like punishment and lead to further oppositional behaviors. A more effective solution is a "calm down corner" or "time in." It is important to teach your child the skills they need to be more in control of themselves. Otherwise, they will return to the old behaviors when they are dysregulated.
  • Loss of privileges: This could be electronics, a favorite toy, or an activity, but don't take those privileges away for too long. Your child may give up or may act worse if you take away too many privileges or you remove them for days or weeks at a time.
  • Restitution: If your child's misbehavior affects someone else, restitution may be in order. Have them do a chore for someone they hurt or loan their favorite toy to the victim.
  • Logical consequences: Give your child an opportunity to take responsibility for their behavior. If they color on the walls, they can wash it off. If they break something, they can pay to fix it.

Don’t be discouraged if your child's behavior seems to get a little worse before it gets better. When you start giving consequences, an out-of-control child will push back. Once they see you are serious about following through with consequences, their behavior will likely calm down.

Give Incentives

If your child isn't motivated by consequences, they may need some extra incentives to stay on track. Use positive reinforcement to motivate them to follow the rules.

Offer Praise

Catch your child being good. Say things like, "I appreciate that you put your dish in the sink," or "Thank you for playing so quietly while I was on the phone." Positive attention can go a long way toward motivating kids to keep up the good work.

Reward Good Behavior

Whether you create a sticker chart that targets one specific behavior or you make a behavior chart that keeps track of several behaviors throughout the week, tangible rewards can lead to behavior change. Keep in mind there are many free and low-cost rewards that work as good motivators. One idea is to go to your local dollar store and load up on items for your child to choose from.

Establish a Token Economy System

Show your child that privileges, like playing video games or going to the park, must be earned. Establish a token economy system that allows your child to cash in their tokens for privileges.

Seek Professional Help

If your discipline strategies aren't working, seek professional help. Start by talking to your child's pediatrician about your concerns. They can refer you to appropriate service professionals in your community. A professional may be able to provide you and your children with interventions, skills, and support that will help you regain control of the household. Parenting coaches and parenting support groups can also be valuable resources.

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