Health & Fitness

Keeping Kids Fit: Understanding child behavior problems and parent training

When your child consistently misbehaves, it can be hard for you to know what to do. It can be extremely frustrating if you feel like you have tried everything but nothing seems to correct the behavior. While many children go through stages like the “terrible 2s” or the “ferocious 3s,” sometimes these behaviors are not phases. Ask yourself the following questions to decide if your child’s behavior is just a phase:

▪ Have there been any changes in my child’s life that might affect behavior, such as being bullied, academic problems, a new baby, divorce, separation, a death in the family, a parent’s increased work hours, travel or illness?

▪ How long has my child’s behavior been a problem?

▪ How does my child’s behavior compare to other children his or her age?

▪ Are other adults, like teachers and adult friends or family, who interact with my child suggesting that he or she might have some behavior problems?

▪ How much are these behavior problems interfering with my child’s and/or my life?

After you have answered these questions, it is important for you to decide whether your concerns about your child warrant further screening. It is important to address these problems as early as possible because children with untreated behavior issues are at increased risk for future conduct and academic problems.

Another way to think about child behavior problems is in terms of how we may be contributing to them as parents. We know that children will work hard to earn their parent’s positive and even negative attention. So, when your child is engaged in misbehavior that is designed to get your attention, such as talking back to you, and you respond by arguing with your child, you may unknowingly be giving him the attention he seeks. This may increase the likelihood that your child talks back to you in the future because he has gained your attention this way.

Likewise, parents can also be reinforced by gaining their children’s attention and response by yelling. When you give your child a command, such as asking him to pick up his toys, if he does not do it, you may tell him again and even yell at him to do it. At this point, he may finally pick up his toys, and you start to learn that your child only listens to you when you yell. When these types of interactions happen regularly, it can negatively affect the quality of the parent-child relationship.

There are evidence-based parent training programs available to enhance parent-child relationships and teach parents how to manage child behavior problems in the most effective way. Parents often ask why they must change their own behaviors in order for their child’s behavior to improve. The reality is that helping you tailor your parenting skills to your child’s specific needs is the best way to improve your child’s behavior problems, because you are the most important ingredient in your child’s success.

One highly effective parent training program is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), available at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. PCIT is backed by a large body of research as a treatment for improving the behavior of young children ages 2 to 7. PCIT emphasizes improving the quality of your relationship with your child through positive attention to the things your child does that you like. It provides live therapist coaching for parents using a “bug-in-the-ear” device through which the therapist coaches parents to become experts in using skills of positive attention to manage their child’s behavior during the session.

PCIT shifts the focus of parental attention from children’s negative behaviors to their positive behaviors, and puts both parents and children in a much better place to address issues such as how well children listen. When a parent learns PCIT skills to help manage the behavior of one child, the improvements are likely to last for many years and have been shown to improve the behavior of other young children in the parent’s care.

If you are interested in learning more about PCIT, call (305) 243-0234 for a phone screening. PCIT is funded by a grant from the Children’s Trust, and is offered free of charge to all families who fit the screening criteria. PCIT is offered as a weekly, one-hour appointment at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth and our satellite locations. It takes about four to six months to complete. If you think your family may benefit from a less intense program, you can also call the Switchboard of Miami at 211 for a parenting program near you.

Jason Jent, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and director of PCIT, and Allison Weinstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and associate director of PCIT at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit