Angry baby and tired mother in a room

"It’s about setting manageable goals, aiming for small improvements and cutting themselves some slack when things go wrong."

The situations are all-too familiar. The teenager who refuses to get out of bed. The middle-school daughter who rages when it’s time to shut off her phone. The 6-year-old who screams when she’s refused a new toy, and the pre-teen who punches the wall when his parents won’t allow video games until his homework is done.

These kids are holding their parents hostage. Today’s moms and dads face a constant onslaught of demands, from home and work responsibilities to school projects and extracurricular schedules. 

Many simply don’t have the energy to battle their children. They give in to their kids’ demands – and make few demands of their own – in favor of momentary peace. 

This is especially true for parents of children who have difficult temperaments. Not surprisingly, they often walk on eggshells or turn a blind eye to bad behavior to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, this can rob them of the joys of parenthood and instead consumed them with feelings of failure and guilt. 

How can parents – including those with moody and oppositional kids – course-correct to help their children grow into healthy, happy adults? These evidence-based parenting strategies can take the edge off challenging behaviors and restore happiness at home.

Start small: Parents often try to tackle big issues all at once. This won’t work. Instead, I advise parents to take baby steps and address one issue at a time. If a child is frequently disrespectful, parents may set a simple, clearly defined goal for their child to use only kind and quiet words from 4-6 p.m. 

Rewards: Of course, a child or teenager won’t get on board if there’s no perceived prize. The reward should be attractive enough to compel an improvement in your child’s behavior, whether it be a night out with friends, a new toy or game or a fun evening with Mom or Dad. 

Praise: Parents will find success by focusing on positive behaviors and ignoring negative behaviors, within reason. Many children act out because they want attention – even negative attention. Parents can meet these needs for attention by heaping praise on them when they make good choices. As the saying goes, “catch them being good.”

Consequences: Parents should expect their child’s behavior to get worse before it gets better. Kids have learned that if they fight hard enough or cry loudly enough, their mom or dad will give in. Parents should anticipate such occurrences and discuss with their children appropriate consequences, like the loss of a privilege or the addition of an extra chore. Though easier said than done, parents who respond consistently will see improvements over time.

Time in: Instead of a timeout for bad behavior, parents can increase connection through regular time-ins with their children. This time-in – like a visit to the bowling alley or a movie night at home – must not be contingent on good behavior. Time-ins are separate from other behavioral goals and are intended to strengthen the parent-child relationship.

The majority of these parenting strategies were first put forth by Alan Kazdin, PhD, a noted professor and researcher of child behavior. All of the interventions have proven effective in my own work with families. 

Parents who are concerned their child’s behavior goes beyond willfulness or teenage angst should seek advice from their pediatrician. The doctor may suggest cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychologist or counselor.

Most importantly, moms and dads should expect to stumble. It’s about setting manageable goals, aiming for small improvements and cutting themselves some slack when things go wrong. 

- Dr. Arie Zakaryan is with  Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s