Child Therapy for Behavior Issues

Child Therapy for Behavior Issues

When kids struggle to communicate their negative emotions verbally, they often resort to acting out or arguing to demonstrate how they’re feeling. They might throw a tantrum, yell, or scream to communicate their anger instead of being able to explain the source of their frustration.

Parents who think they’ve made a reasonable request might not know how to react when their children respond in anger.

For example, imagine you’re cooking dinner and you hear your kids arguing in the next room. You feel frustrated because you’re thinking about all of the times you’ve lectured them to get along.

You may place the blame on your children for acting this way; after all, you’ve told them over and over how they should act. A more helpful focus would be to consider whether your expectations are as clear as they should be, and how consistent you’re being with communication and follow-through.

No matter what struggles you might be having in communication or consistency, you can always adjust your approach in order to see benefits.

Part one of this series discussed reflective listening as a tool to make children feel heard. Reflective learning helps the speaker feel that they’re understood and can connect a child to his or her emotions, as well as coach them to comply with your instructions. In this article, we’ll discuss therapeutic limit-setting.

Therapeutic Tips for Parents

As a therapist, some of my unchanging standards are unconditional positive regard, a belief that the client has the inner ability to change, and empathy.

Ensure that you are approaching your child with unconditional positive regard by not allowing their behavior to lead you to judgment or condemnation of who your child is as a person. This will create an environment of safety and security that allows your child to feel protected.

It’s important to remind yourself that your child is the only one who possesses the ability to change his or her behavior.

This means you’re not responsible to make your child learn or understand; you can only do the best you can to communicate while encouraging your child to grow in confidence that he or she is able to overcome difficulties.

Empathy involves valuing your child’s emotions and experiencing and honoring them as an individual, as well as honoring your own individuality. This makes your child feel known and seen as a worthwhile person.

How to Set Limits for Your Children

Using these standards as a foundation, we can apply the following model to set limits for our children’s behavior. This model is based on Garry Landreth’s teaching on how to set limits in child-centered play therapy. It’s called the ACT model of limit setting.

The ACT model is comprised of three components: acknowledge your child’s feelings, communicate the limit, and target the alternatives.

Step One: Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings

We introduced this topic in our discussion on reflective listening. Acknowledging a child’s feelings means you verbally reflect what you think their current thoughts and emotions are. Pay attention to facial expressions, body language, and both verbal and nonverbal cues.

Acknowledging your child’s feelings makes them feel understood and helps them connect emotions with how they’re acting.

Example: “I know you are feeling very angry with me right now. So angry you want to hit me.”

Step Two: Communicate the Limit

You set a boundary that does not allow your child’s behavior outside of certain limits. This won’t stop a child from feeling upset or angry. Instead, they’re used to stop hurtful, destructive, or disrespectful behavior.

“… but you may not hit me.”

Step Three: Target Alternatives

Once you’ve set a limit on a certain behavior, tell your child how you expect them to behave instead. Let them know how they can express their emotions in a safe and responsible way.

“You may choose to hit your pillow or you may choose to hit a beanbag.”

Limit-setting isn’t just a way to give your child options, even though choices are a part of the model. We use choices in order to acknowledge that children have the ability to control their own behavior.

This helps to teach them the difference between impulse and action, and it is an empowering way to give them the tools to learn self-control.

This model is helpful for parents as well. You no longer feel like you have to control your child’s every move, or that your authority is dependent on whether your child feels like listening to you.

Instead, you’re placing the responsibility for obedience on your child, while focusing on your own responsibility to set expectations and follow through with appropriate consequences when those expectations are not met.

Consequences can be used as Step 4 of the ACT model. A child who has chosen to hit their parent instead of using an acceptable way of expressing their emotions should experience a consequence for their behavior:

“When you chose to hit me, you chose to lose all of your TV time this week.”

Speaking this way might not come naturally in the beginning, but it eventually becomes intuitive and helps both you and your child know what to expect.

This tool is something that is used daily in child therapy settings, and it is highly beneficial. It gives children structure and consistency and teaches them emotional self-regulation, allowing them to grow and flourish.

“Reconciled,” courtesy of Eye for Ebony,, CC0 License; “Girl,” courtesy of Patrick Fore,, CC0 License; “Pout,” courtesy of martakoton,, CC0 Public Domain License; “Parenting,” courtesy of marcisim,, CC0 Public Domain License


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