5 Tips For Disciplining A Difficult Child

how to discipline a difficult child

Knowing how to discipline a difficult child isn’t something parents are born with. No one teaches these skills to expectant parents, nor is it something most parents anticipate needn’t to know how to do. And yet, most parents are tasked with disciplining emotional children, and it isn’t hard to feel alone. Even the easiest kids can be difficult from time to time.

One never knows when a tantrum or fit could strike, and knowing how to handle, and discipline, them is seldom any easier. Whether your child is begging for candy in the checkout, refusing to brush their teeth, or biting their sibling, children’s misbehavior is a given.

Children push boundaries to learn them.

Our job as parents is to teach our kids where they are and how to behave within them.

But when you have an emotional child, this is often easier said than done when every boundary push can escalate into an emotional storm that is exhausting for each of you, and threatens to derail all the good work you’ve both accomplished so far. These emotional power struggles can be hard to navigate on a good day, and seemingly impossible on a bad day. Not just tantrums, misbehaviors require limits, and knowing what to do isn’t easy.

And yet this battleground is where we have the most opportunity to help our child build the skills she needs to regulate her emotions and her behavior.

Here are five key strategies to discipline and de-escalate your emotional child’s misbehavior.

  1. Take, and keep, control: Your child is out of control, but you can’t afford to be. No matter how exhausted you are, if you relinquish control, check out, give in, you show her she can use these storms to manipulate you, and this will fuel more tantrums, and make them harder to navigate, not easier. The two goals of a tantrum are consequences and de-escalation. She may not show her vulnerability to you – instead opting to demonstrate anger and defiance – but tuning into how out of control she feels can help you find the control you need to manage the situation, and stay consistent.
  1. Express empathy to share control: Tantrums are emotional storms, where your child feels out of control, and believe it or not, scared. Tuning into her feelings, and naming them for her, is powerful, both for her as she learns to articulate, rather than act out her feelings, and for you, as you work to stay as calm as possible. I know you really wanted that candy, and are frustrated you can’t have it right now. I know you are tired and don’t want to get in the shower now. Naming her experience helps her feel understood, and offers her control over experience through naming her experience. 
  1. Choose and administer appropriate consequences: Your child’s feelings may not be controllable, but her behavior has to be. When our children break important rules like hurting people or refusing certain things that are nonnegotiable (i.e. safety, hygiene, school attendance) it is our responsibility to instill consequences to deter them from repeating the behavior. Choosing appropriate consequences under pressure isn’t easy, and having some go-to consequences that work for your family can help. Know in advance what works – time out, sit-ups, dessert, screen-time privileges – and work to stick to those.
  1. If you yell, do so with love: If staying calm feels impossible, and you feel your temper and voice raising despite your best attempts to stay calm, make sure to control what you say. Name calling, labeling, or accusations are not productive, and during anger can quickly escalate to hurtful, even abusive words that can harm your child for years to come, according to science.

Aim to focus on your feelings: I care about you and your sister too much to let you hurt each other. I love you too much to let you hurt yourself by not taking care of your teeth. Your choices have really upset me and I’m angry.

Labeling your feelings helps your child understand your experience, and importantly gives you an outlet to get control as well. Communicating love to your child, even with a raised voice, will help redirect your negative emotions toward the positive which will help you both.

  1. Be consistent: Among the most powerful behavioral reinforcements is periodically being rewarded. Intermittent reinforcement (technically called “variable interval positive reinforcement”) is a powerful behavioral motivator that is tough to undo. Think slot machines, lottery, etc. The promise of a potential reward has been shown to be a powerful reinforcer, especially once it happens. Scream until you get your way is unfortunately the message we teach when we hold firm but then give in in the end. As hard as it may be to be consistent, the trick is to pick a consequence you can live with and execute.

Parenting, and disciplining, an emotional child isn’t easy. We know we need to set limits, but we don’t want to hurt our child. Staying focussed on empathy along side of limit-setting can help strike the balance you are looking for.


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Alicia H. Clark, PsyD


  1. Vivian Zyrean on July 1, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    My child seems to not respond to discipline at all, I’ve tried taking everything away.. from screens to sleepovers, but she doesn’t seem to respond to any of It.
    Now me and my husband have been divorced, and without my knowing she was mentally abused until she was eventually physically abused and we caught the signs early on. She was self harming and then had an attempt just 2 years ago when she stopped seeing her father.
    Now that everything’s blown over and she’s getting help, me and the therapists have tried every different technique to discipline her but to no reaction..
    Please help me out!
    What do you suggest?

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on July 23, 2019 at 7:44 pm

      Hi Vivian,

      So glad you are getting to the bottom of what has been going on with your child, and that the abuse is over. Hopeful you are getting the support you and your child need to continue healing from the abuse. Emotional difficulties and behavioral problems are often part of the fallout from abuse, and discipline can be particularly delicate. I’m glad you are seeing a therapist to help determine what might work best for your child. Every situation is different, and maintaining an attitude of compassion will help you keep trying new strategies until you find the ones that work.

      Wishing you all the best,

  2. Kassidy on August 26, 2019 at 12:33 am

    Hi! My brother is out of control. I feel so bad for my mom, she has to deal with his screaming and crying every. Single. Day. He has never physically hurt anyone during his tantrums but he does throw pillows. He is 7 years old and his parents got divorced a couple months ago and I’m sure it’s been tough for him. He is very disrespectful and VERY technology obsessed. He cannot do anything without a screen in front of him. Right when he wakes up he plays video games and uses his phone, he does the same thing when he gets home from school. When he is disrespectful my mom usually takes his phone away but all he does is scream, cry, and complain for the whole time he’s grounded. He never seems to learn his lesson. He is disrespectful more towards our mom than his dad. I don’t know what to do, it truly makes me sad that he doesn’t want to do anything other than use technology, he’ll throw a tantrum when he’s told to get off a device. It makes me sad to see our mom go through this, I would greatly appreciate the help.

    • liliana harris on April 10, 2020 at 1:08 am

      Sorry this is happening to your mom i would advise to be extra strict with him and take away everything from him until his attitude changes .

  3. Renee Pellum on May 19, 2020 at 9:48 am

    I really needed this. because my kids very naughty and undisciplined, thanks for sharing this.

  4. Rebecca on July 10, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Hi my child is 7 years and she is out of control she likes screaming and fighting especially with me sometimes am scared that I will do something stupid to her I can’t deal with her am trying but is hard for me she doesn’t have respect to anyone

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on July 11, 2020 at 5:32 pm

      Parenting is so hard, and especially when you have a difficult, and sensitive, child. I applaud you for being worried about overreacting and doing something stupid. If you do nothing other than resist those urges, you are making a big difference and impact in their life.

      It sounds like you may need some additional support around parenting strategies, and I hope you will continue to seek out support, and help. This is one of the bravest and smartest things you can do – admit when we need help, and find it. Additionally, we have to find ways to take care of ourselves so that we have the patience and resources we need to care for others. I hope you can find some space to do that too.