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Tips for Discouraging Challenging Behavior

by Dr. Susan Canizares | February 7, 2018 | Child Development

It can be hard to tell the difference between age-appropriate behaviors, and those behaviors that may signal a deeper problem. Age-appropriate behaviors, even if they are challenging, are behaviors that help children learn and progress in their social development. It is normal and necessary for children to test limits in order to learn about relationships and how the world works. Understanding how children grow and develop will help you effectively respond to, and prevent, challenging behaviors. Let’s explore two examples of challenging behavior.


Biting is an age-appropriate behavior that begins in the infant-toddler years and may last until early preschool. There are many reasons why children bite. Most children do not bite to intentionally hurt another person.

What are some typical reasons why children bite?

  • To feel powerful
  • To get attention
  • To explore their environment
  • Feelings of fear or anxiety
  • To relieve teething pain
  • Lack of self-control
  • Feelings of frustration or excitement
  • Inability to communicate strong emotions/needs

How can I discourage biting?

You want to discourage this behavior by saying, “No, we don’t bite!” Explain that biting hurts the other person. Acknowledge their feelings and encourage the use of appropriate words and actions. For example:

  • If your child bites her sibling because he is playing with her toy, say, “I see that you are angry because he has your toy. Next time, say, ‘I’m mad. That’s my toy.’”
  • If your child feels powerless, give her appropriate opportunities to make choices. “Would you like to play with your blocks in your room or would you like to take them outside?”


Defiance is an age-appropriate behavior that can cause deep frustration for many parents. Defiance can begin in the toddler years and probably will manifest throughout childhood.

What are some typical reasons why children are defiant?

  • To feel powerful and independent
  • To get attention
  • Feelings of fear or anxiety
  • Inability to communicate strong emotions/needs

In general, children are defiant because they are experimenting with independence and their sense of self. This experimentation is vital in children’s social-emotional development.

How can I discourage defiance?

Give your child the freedom and space to assert their independence. However, know that this is not always possible, and may result in a meltdown or tantrum. Explain to your child that you are very proud of their motivation and that they want to do things for themselves, but sometimes it is important for the parent to complete a task. For example, your child may be in charge of getting dressed and putting on his coat, but you will buckle them in to their car seat. Explain that this is for their own safety.

Explain why defiant or disrespectful behavior is unacceptable and be consistent. Do not engage in arguments with your child. By engaging, you give the power to your child, and he will continue to use this tactic to solve his problems. Your child is testing to see if you will give in. Explain that you have made your decision and it will not change with continued arguing.

It is important to understand that most challenging behaviors are completely normal and are a sign that your child is progressing through childhood as expected. Young children are trying to understand the world around them. By allowing children the freedom to experiment with these behaviors and expectations, we are giving them the opportunity to gain self-confidence in their own abilities to navigate the world they live in.