Any parent who’s been through the ‘terrible twos’ knows the importance of positive behaviour. If you’ve watched your sweet babe-in-arms metamorphose into a defiant toddler whose favourite word is “no”, or your delightful primary school student into a broody, monosyllabic teen, you’ll know that providing guidance and setting limits is crucial to navigating these transitions.

But it can be hard to know where to draw those boundary lines. To complicate things further, parenting experts recommend an array of sometimes contradictory strategies for cultivating positive behaviour in children.

Then there’s the role of schools, who have comprehensive guidelines to help give students the best chance of learning to positively manage their behaviour and react to that of others.

This article will explore some of the key elements of fostering positive behaviour in children and teenagers.

Why do children test the limits?

While some children push limits more than others, doing so is an expected part of growing up. After all, you want your child to become an independent young adult who makes their own choices and knows they must live with the consequences.

Testing limits is a child’s way of asserting their authority, sometimes expressed as “I’m the boss of me!” Children feel secure when they have boundaries, and will test them for consistency and the reliability of consequences for breaking them.

In a Christian context, we understand that everyone is born with a sin nature, and the inclinations of our hearts are towards independence and rebellion (Ps 51:5; Rom 5: 12; Rom 8:7-8).

Sometimes, children’s behaviour is expressing a want or indicating that their needs aren’t being met. The Victorian Government point out that many factors influence a child’s behaviour, including their home and school environment, consistency of care, relationships with family and educators, cultural expectations, their level of emotional development and temperament, and the presence of a disability that may impact their social and emotional wellbeing.

Children who feel valued and who experience respectful and caring relationships usually learn to behave in respectful and caring ways with others. The important word here is “learn” – using strategies that foster positive behaviour helps children learn to manage their emotions and interact successfully in social situations.

Setting realistic rules and expectations for teens

Clearly, the behavioural expectations for teenagers are different to those for younger children. As Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net.au note, good behaviour in teenagers starts with positive communication and a warm relationship.

They recommend setting clear family rules about behaviour, involving all family members in making them wherever possible. They advise framing the rules positively, by saying “We speak to each other with respect”, for example, rather than saying “Don’t be disrespectful”.

Their helpful list of 20 strategies for fostering positive behaviour in teens includes taking the time to listen actively to what your child is saying, encouraging self-reflection about their behaviour, choosing your battles and seeing the funny side of situations.

It’s important to have realistic expectations, because teenagers and their brains are still “under construction”. The teenage years are fraught with physical, social and emotional changes, compounded by issues such as excessive social media use, pressure to perform at school and bullying.

Teenagers are working out who they are, and testing limits is part of the process.

Determining appropriate discipline when rules are broken

When rules get broken, follow up calmly, firmly and consistently, by using a fair and brief consequence. Negotiate with your teen to decide on appropriate boundaries and the consequences for overstepping them. Ideally, the consequence should be linked to the rule. For example, if your teen isn’t home by an agreed time one night, they’ll need to stay home on the weekend.

When it comes to disciplining teens, it should be about guiding them towards appropriate behaviour rather than punishment. Balance rules and consequences with warmth and positivity, aiming for six positive comments for every negative one.

Teenagers are developing the skills needed to become young adults. Setting limits helps them to learn independencesolve problems and take responsibility for their behaviour and its outcomes.

Families have different standards and rules for behaviour. Talking with other parents who have children around the same age – or your child’s school – can help you determine whether yours are reasonable.

For younger children, it’s important to have clear rules to guide things such as manners, behaviour, safety and treating each other respectfully. These will change as your children get older.

Pre-schoolers, for example, will need simple rules and frequent reminders. At around age 8-10, you can probably start relying on children to follow rules in most situations.

When children inadvertently break rules, you could remind them and give them another chance. Otherwise, use the consequences you have decided upon as a family.

Coping with squabbling siblings

In any family with more than one child, there’s bound to be quarrels. As raisingchildren.net.au describes, the most important thing to do when younger siblings fight is stop them before someone gets hurt, then help them find more constructive resolution strategies.

Here’s some of their suggestions for managing sibling spats:

  • Stop the fight before crying starts – by separating your children until they calm down
  • Stay calm (counting to 10 before reacting can help) – save your energy for encouraging positive behaviour
  • Talk about it later – once emotions have cooled down enough to discuss the issue
  • If you’re driving, always pull over rather than taking your attention off the road to settle disputes
  • Treat everyone fairly, which won’t necessarily mean treating everyone the same way
  • Avoid negative comparisons, such as “You’re older so you should know better”
  • Identify the fight’s cause – to help you work out a solution
  • Have a plan for dealing with disagreements; use your family rules to guide you
  • Involve the children in resolving their problem eg ask them what they think the issue is, what they want to happen, and then brainstorm possible solutions
  • Seek help if your children are frequently very aggressive or nasty towards each other.

Teenage siblings also tend to fight, just over different things. Here’s some suggestions from raisingchildren.net.au for handling them:

  • Avoid stepping in unless you must – learning to resolve arguments is a crucial life skill
  • Model problem-solving by helping them work out what they’re fighting about, what each person wants, and encouraging them to find a solution
  • Avoid taking sides and be sure to treat siblings equally eg giving equal access to the game console
  • Encourage everyone to stay calm; take a break if necessary
  • Track fight resolution to make sure one sibling isn’t dominating the other
  • Step in if children are being verbally or physically violent towards each other
  • Try not to compare siblings or label your children
  • Foster positive family relationships by spending time together and maintaining open communication
  • Seek help if your children are regularly fighting in aggressive, physical or menacing ways.

Successful behavioural management strategies

Raisingchildren.net.au also have numerous recommendations for managing behaviour. Here’s a list, compiled from the website.

  • When setting family rules, be specific about the behaviour you expect, choose the most important things to make rules about and keep the list short, especially for younger children.
  • Review your rules from time to time to make sure they’re still working. Adjust them as your children get older or if your family situation changes.
  • When talking to your child about their behaviour, get down to their level. This helps you to focus and tune into what your child is thinking or feeling.
  • Pick your battles – before getting involved, question whether it really matters. Keeping instructions and negative feedback to a minimum means fewer opportunities for conflict.
  • Create an environment for good behaviour – by making sure you keep breakable items out of reach, for example, and ensuring your child has safe things to play with.
  • Keep your word – when you follow through on promises, your child grows to trust and respect you. They discover you won’t let them down when you’ve promised something good, nor will you back down from a consequence.
  • Help your child to feel important – by giving them some chores or things to do for the family.
  • Give children responsibilities and consequences – as they get older, children can take more responsibility for their own behaviour and experience the natural consequences of that behaviour. Other situations might call for consequences that you have agreed upon.

For schools, the way they guide behaviour comes under strict regulations. You can find out more about the Positive Behaviour for Learning approach on sites from the Queensland, New South Wales, Victorian and Australian Capital Territory Governments.

The Authorative Parent

Leading by example - the crucial role parents play

Your children learn by watching what you do, so model the behaviours you’d like to see in them, such as good manners, respectful conversations and following the family rules.

Even teenagers watch their parents, and they have a sensitive radar for inconsistencies. Being a positive role model is an excellent way to shape your teen’s behaviour.

You can also role model how to handle negotiations and disagreements. Watching and listening to how their parents manage differences of opinion guides children learning to navigate difficult conversations.

Rewarding good behaviour correctly

Another excellent strategy for encouraging positive behaviour is to catch your child being ‘good’. In young children, try using descriptive praise to explain what they’re doing well. For example, say, “It’s great to see you sharing your toys with your brother. I love to see you playing so well together.”

Although it mightn’t seem that way, even teenagers still crave your approval. Noticing and commenting on their responsible choices and positive behaviours encourages more of the same. Just remember to save your praise for in private, rather than embarrassing them around their friends.

Parenting styles which positively influence a child’s behaviour

When it comes to parenting, there’s not many topics more controversial than how best to manage children’s behaviour. Should you go with an authoritarian style, with strict discipline and harsh penalties for transgressions? Is it better to be permissive, or even a ‘helicopter parent’, hovering expectantly to intervene at the first sign of trouble?

Research has identified four main parenting styles, and how they influence children’s behaviour. They are:

1. Authoritarian

Children are expected to unquestioningly follow their parents’ strict rules, with punishment if they don’t. Authoritarian parents tend to have high expectations but aren’t very responsive to their children.

Authoritarian parenting generally leads to children who are obedient and proficient, but who rank lower for happiness, social competence, and self-esteem.

2. Permissive

Permissive parents make few demands and rarely discipline their children because they have relatively low expectations for maturity and self-control. They tend to be nurturing and communicative with their children, sometimes positioning themselves as a friend more than a parent.

This parenting style often results in children who rank lower for happiness and self-regulation. They are more likely to have issues with authority and perform poorly in school.

3. Uninvolved

This parenting style is characterized by few demands, little communication and a lack of responsiveness. These parents might supply their child’s basic physical needs but are otherwise detached, providing minimal guidance or support. In extreme cases, children may be neglected.

Children raised this way have the poorest overall outcomes. They tend to lack self-esteem and self-control and are less competent than their peers.

4. Authoritative

Like authoritarian parents, they establish guidelines their children are expected to follow, but this parenting style is more democratic. Authoritative parents listen to their children, and balance high expectations with warmth and support. When expectations aren’t met, their disciplinary methods are more supportive than punishing.

Authoritative parenting styles tend to result in children who are happy, capable, and successful.

It seems that this parenting style is the most successful because children are more likely to see their parents as fair and reasonable, making them more inclined to comply with their requests. Because authoritative parents explain their rules, children tend to internalise them and develop their own sense of right and wrong.

It probably isn’t surprising that this approach works best. After all, our Father gives us rules to follow, but always in the context of a loving relationship proven in the glorious grace of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.

As Christians, God expects us to train and discipline our children (eg Prov 13;24; Deut 6:6-9), but always with a balance of grace and truth and for their blessing (Eph 6:1-4).