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Dr. Rakesh Ranjan – Unruly Children

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Unruly Children: How to Manage Them

We have all heard the terms ‘terrible twos’, ‘tween terror’ and ‘teen mean’, etc. And the struggles of parents to deal with a certain unruly child are all too familiar to most of us.

What is an unruly child?

A child who does not conform to family/societal rules, does not respect authority and exhibits out of control behavior should be considered unruly. Many parents and families have a tendency to write unruly behavior off by making statements like ‘kids will be kids’ and ‘he/she is just being a teenager’. However unruly behavior by children of all ages should be taken seriously for the sake of their safety and future, safety of others and overall functioning of society.

Why some children are unruly?

Unruly behavior could result from a variety of factors. Most common causes are poor parenting, negative home environment, neglect, etc. Poor self-esteem and genetic factors also play a role. Children, by nature, test boundaries, but the above-listed predisposing factors tend to exaggerate that tendency; thus leading to unruly behavior. It is important to realize that habitually unruly behavior could also be a manifestation of an untreated psychiatric condition such as conduct disorder, mood disorder, or anxiety disorder, etc.

Consequences of unruly behavior in childhood

There is good evidence that many children who remain incorrigibly unruly during childhood tend to engage in criminal acts as adults. This underscores the need for parents, families, schools and society to carefully curb unruly behavior.

So, how should parents best manage an unruly child?

The foremost issue for parents to realize is that disciplining should be started very early in childhood. The difference between the right and the wrong; between the acceptable and the unacceptable can be communicated by parents to children at a very early age, both through verbal and non-verbal cues. It is a balancing act to show love and caring, and also to be firm and in control when it comes to managing any child. Setting up the household rules, determining the consequences for breaking rules and ensuring the safety of child/others are at the heart of proper disciplining. It is important to remember that the goal of disciplining is to teach and not to punish. With that in mind, I suggest the following ‘what to do’ and ‘what not to do’ lists.

What to do?

It would be wise to pay attention to the following principles when disciplining a child: • Set up rules clearly: expectations and consequences should be communicated to children very clearly. You should make sure your child understands both. Consequences should be realistic and proportional to the degree of bad behavior. • Be consistent: Bad behavior should be met with spelled out consequences every time bad behavior occurs, even if doing so is inconvenient for parents. • Command respect: Parents should not need to demand respect. They need to convey an aura of being in charge and in control; thereby commanding respect. • Listen and explain: It is important that the child feels he/she is being heard even if you, as parents, disagree with him/her. It is also very important to explain the reasons behind family rules and consequences for bad behavior. • Be creative: Sometimes finding a creative compromise between the child’s and parents’ wishes may be the best approach. • Be willing to apologize: Parents make mistakes too and if you do, apologizing to your child is very appropriate. • Show respect: Showing due respect to children not only conveys caring, but also teaches them good manners • Praise: It is very important to provide praise, especially for specific behavior, when in order.

What not to do

• Don’t be a buddy: Parents need to be the best guides not the best friends. Keeping this clear-cut boundary helps you establish yourselves as the authority figures. • Do not use the ‘angry’ word: When communicating with the child regarding need for change in behavior, emphasize your concerns not anger. • Do not threaten: It is especially important not to make any unrealistic threats you cannot carry out. • Do not start power struggle: Children will try to get you into a power struggle. Do not fall for it. Be clear, calm, direct and firm. Do not argue. Follow through with consequences. • Do not be derogatory: Do not call your child a name or act like you are giving up on him/her. Do not attempt to humiliate.

What about spanking?

There is no evidence that spanking has a positive effect on behavior. On the other hand, spanking could physically harm children, make them fearful of parents (which is not constructive) and teach them that violence is acceptable.

What if nothing works?

It is time to take your child to a mental health specialist. It is crucial to seek professional help earlier than later. Also, if you, as parents find yourself getting angry often, losing control, feeling depressed or getting physical with children, it is time for you to seek professional help for yourself.

 *The purpose of this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychiatric issue. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan is a practicing psychiatrist and a researcher. He is a recipient of several research awards and has authored several peerreviewed journal articles and book chapters on psychiatric illnesses and their treatments. He is a national speaker for several organizations and serves on the medical advisory board for the NAMI of Greater Cleveland. If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms that would lead you to believe that there could be a mental imbalance, please email your questions to Dr. Ranjan at Each Wednesday, Dr. Ranjan will address some of these questions in this column. All contact info will be kept confidential.

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Unknown member
Mar 02, 2022

If a parent comes to you with concerns about an unruly child, do you automatically believe that the parent is not culpable in the child's difficulties? You say in the article spanking is ineffective, negative and dangerous, I would assume you agree that even more severe forms of punishment are included. I would also assume that you agree that abuse in all forms would be an ineffective form of parenting. So, how do you determine whether a parent is causing the unruliness or whether a child has problems independent of parental influence?

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