How to Deal with Destructive Children

Children break things. They draw on walls, stick credit cards through the crack in the floorboards, paint the cat with Sudocrem and shatter the vase which has been in the family for generations. These are accidents, or simple lack of understanding on the part of a child. What happens if this behaviour turns deliberate? A destructive child can be hard to deal with, even frightening, but there are some simple strategies which can help.

Attention seeking

Sometimes a child wants to be noticed. Parents can’t always give 24/7 attention; it can’t be expected of them. They have commitments to each other, the home, work, other children, family and friends. Sometimes these things clash with the child’s need for absolute attention. If the child doesn’t get what it wants it uses a bit of reverse psychology – namely doing something it knows will immediately draw the notice of the parent, often something destructive such as throwing, smashing and destroying toys, and other household items. To a child, any attention is better than none, sometimes.

Dealing with this type of destructive behaviour is quite simple. It will take time and repetition, but it will also work. Above everything, stay calm. Instant reaction is to snap, but hold that down and take a breath. Put aside whatever is taking away attention from the child (this will be for a short time only) and get down to their level. This is a trick which is useful whenever dealing with small children. Coming down to their level means an adult is less intimidating, closer to them, able to look them in the eye, and communicate quietly.

Use the same actions and words every time. Explain that their behaviour is unacceptable, and tell them why. This is important. If a child can be helped to understand why something is wrong they will have a better idea of why they should not do it. Ask for a simple apology. If one is received, continue to explain why they couldn’t have full attention but assure them that it will happen as soon as possible. Ask them to do something else, or wait quietly with until then. Then keep that promise and give them 100% attention.

If no apology is received, use time-out, following the minutes rule – One minute per year of age, 4 years, 4 minutes. Ask for the apology when the time is up and continue until one is received. Give a hug and carry on as above. Repeat this strategy every time until the attention seeking behaviour is broken.


Children get angry. In fact, they can get extremely angry, often through the frustration of not being able to express themselves fully or because they cannot understand why something is being denied them. Anger can often turn into destructive behaviour.

In this situation, the first step is always to calm the child. Come down to their level, talk calmly, reassure and continue until they are composed. If the tantrum continues, gather up the child, hold them close – this is not only reassuring but prevents them hurting themselves, others or continuing the destructive behaviour.

Once the child is calm, talk to them and understand why they are angry. For a very young child this may be difficult as they lack the communication skills to express reasons. As a parent, knowing the child is the best way, and most likely, of figuring out the problem. Pay attention, watch what the triggers are and deal with them as they are identified. Help the child realise that everyone gets angry sometimes, but that there are better ways to deal with it than destroying things.

Frustration and more

Children are easily frustrated and can lack patience. These are skills which develop with time, but their lack in early years can cause destructive behaviour. It can also be a form of spite – Mum took away my toy so I’m going to break this one. There is also the possibility that a child is simply having a hard time, for whatever reason, even the fact that it is raining and they can’t go outside. All of these reasons can lead to destructive behaviours, almost like a release. They turn the valve, let off some steam by tearing a hole in the carpet, and then feel better. Using the strategies outlined here can help with all these situations.

Other causes

Although these are the most common reasons for destructive behaviour, there can be others. If these strategies do not help and destructive behaviour continues, it is worth seeking the advice of a professional. A doctor, nurse or health adviser can often spot problems a parent doesn’t see. Destructive behaviour can be a sign of possible ADHD, or trauma the parent may not be aware of. There is no harm in getting expert advice when it comes to children. In fact, it is often the best course of action.

Dealing with a destructive child requires patience, calmness, repetition and above all, understanding. Keep calm and carry on, as the phase will pass if the parent reaches out to the child.