Difficult child throwing a tantrum

How to Babysit a Difficult Child

(4 Steps to Success)

Babysitting obedient, calm children can be an absolute dream job. When they’re not so obedient and calm, you might start to really not enjoy your job.

But before you have a nervous breakdown and quit, read through this article for a few proven tips that will keep you in control and the kids happy. Learning how to deal with difficult children is really a worthwhile skill to learn, and it might open up a few extra well-paying jobs for you that others aren’t willing to take.

To be clear, this is not an article that’s intended for taking care of children that are difficult because they’re not feeling well. If that’s the information that you’re after, then read my article: How to babysit a sick child for help with that.

The Challenge of Difficult Children

There are a lot of different names for them that people use. Some call them spirited children. Some call them strong-willed. Some call them demons. I’d really recommend you avoid using that last term.

Either way, these are the kids that tend to not listen. They throw tantrums. They have passionately strong emotions. They’re contrary and relentless. It’ll feel like a constant power struggle when you’re caring for them, and you might find yourself losing that fight much more often than you’d like.

There are actually lots of approaches that can help to handle these children. In this article, we’ll go over the common, universal threads in all these methods that will keep you in control and the kids happy.

Introducing the four steps to success:

Step 1: Maintain Structure & Routine

Kids love structure. When they’re completely not used to it, it might seem that they don’t. When a kid is exposed to a well-structured routine, they thrive and their behavior is noticeably better.

Why It’s Hard

Lots of kids simply aren’t used to structure. They might be more accustomed to having complete freedom to do what they want when they want to do it.

The result is an overtired, overindulged, bratty little kid that doesn’t think he needs to listen to anyone.

Maintaining structure also takes a lot of effort on your part! Making a plan and sticking to it means thinking ahead and planning. That might seem exhausting, but do you know what’s even more exhausting? A child with bad behavior.

One of the major challenges with this is that, since many children aren’t used to structure at home, it could be on you to start it up. At first, it might seem like a battle of wills, but if you properly execute it, it’s actually not that hard.

Don’t dismiss any kid as simply being “bad”. Some are more intense than others, but even the wildest of personalities can be calmed and redirected positively. Regardless of the child, it’ll be up to you to maintain structure in a way that the child can benefit from.

How to Apply It

The main aspect of successfully establishing structure is that you need to give the kids notice of any activities or changes. For example, you might want to write out a schedule of planned activities on a whiteboard or post it on the fridge.

If the kids can’t read, maybe draw out pictures instead. Draw a playground, then a TV, then a game, then lunch, etc. so that they’ll know the order of events. This will help the kids to avoid frustration.

Why is that?

If a kid doesn’t know what’s going on, they might feel like you’re just telling them what to do on a whim. It presents a “because I said so” type of authority instead of keeping them in the loop.

More than that, they’ll be mentally prepared for a change. If a kid is in the middle of ferocious playing and having the time of his life, there’s going to be a guaranteed meltdown when you tell him to stop and that it’s time for something else. If the next activity isn’t preplanned, then they’ll likely argue about what they want to do.

Here are a few ways that you can incorporate structure into your childcare:

  • Give five-minute warnings when you’re about to change activities.
  • Incorporate “cool-down” activities; don’t have a high-energy activity (like tag) immediately followed by a very calm activity (like nap time). Have a calmer activity (like drawing) in between to help the child adjust.
  • Go over the schedule with the child at the beginning of the day so that they know what’s in store.
  • Post a list of activities in a visible place, and remind them of the schedule several times during the day.
  • Avoid letting the children determine the schedule during the day. Instead, ask them near the end of the day for ideas of what they would like to do next time.

While structure is very important, there are also a few occasions where you’ll have to throw the plan out the window. For example, if a child is starting to feel sick, going out to the park might not be a good idea. Instead, maybe a calmer activity would be more appropriate, like a puzzle, making cookies, etc.

Step 2: Maintain Authority

Kids love to test the boundaries, and spirited children have developed this into an art form. If you can’t maintain authority, they’ll walk all over you.

Why It’s Hard

Children constantly look for opportunities to be in charge. The problem with this is that children are not adults. They don’t know what’s best for them, so they’ll generally end up making decisions that make them feel sick, exhausted and cranky.

If you’re not able to maintain authority, the child will be much more likely to throw tantrums and do whatever it takes to “win” a disagreement or get their way.

How to Apply It

The key to maintaining your authority is consistency. This doesn’t mean that you have to firmly decline every request the kid makes, but it needs to be clear that the decision is ultimately yours. If you say no, the answer is no.

If a child is having behavioral issues, using the counting method works wonders. This is when you count to three, and if the behavior isn’t better by the time you reach 3, discipline/consequences happen. It only takes a few times for the kids to clue in if you’re doing it correctly.

Failing to Assert Authority

Here’s an example of a common scenario in which caregivers go wrong with the counting system:

Babysitter: “it’s time for bed. Please brush your teeth.”

Child: “No. I want to watch a show. I don’t want to go to bed.”

Babysitter: “I gave you a five-minute warning, it’s time to brush your teeth.”

Child: (ignores babysitter)

Babysitter: “One.”

Child: (still ignores babysitter)

Babysitter: “You have to brush your teeth. It’s time. Two.”

Child: (continues defiantly ignoring the sitter)

Babysitter: “If I say three, you know that you’re going to have a time out.” (this is where the authority derails)

Child: “I’m not brushing my teeth.”

Babysitter: “Two and a half.” (You basically have no authority at this point. The kid knows he’s in control.)

Babysitter: “Two and three quarters.” (You might as well stop talking and go away at this point. You’ve lost.)

Babysitter: “You need to brush your teeth. If you don’t get ready for bed, you’ll have a hard time getting up for school tomorrow.” (You’re pleading. It’s obvious who has the real authority.)

Successfully Asserting Authority

Here’s a better way to go about the counting method:

Babysitter: “it’s time for bed. Please brush your teeth.”

Child: “No. I want to watch a show. I don’t want to go to bed.”

Babysitter: “I gave you a five-minute warning, it’s time to brush your teeth.”

Child: (ignores babysitter)

Babysitter: “I’m going to count to three. If you’re not going to brush your teeth by the time I say three, you’re getting a time out.”

Child: (still ignoring babysitter)

Babysitter: “One. Two.”

Child: (gets up and brushes teeth)

Don’t count excessively slowly. Usually, two seconds between counts is ideal. And definitely, don’t hesitate before saying three.

Don’t expect this to work like a charm right from the start. Especially for spirited kids, it might take a few timeouts for them to really understand how this system works.

Why Counting Works

The reason that firm counting works is that it clearly shows that you’re the one in control. By not stalling or letting them dismiss you, they’ll quickly realize that there’s nothing that they can do to avoid the consequences of not listening.

By allowing them to stall or even completely ignore you, they’re in control. On the other hand, giving them a short amount of time to comply and promptly administering discipline, you’re completely establishing yourself as the one in authority.

Notes on discipline: Keep in mind that you are not the child’s parent. Discipline is a topic that you should discuss with the parents before you ever watch their children. They will tell you what works for each child, and how to administer it. Don’t discipline children without the parent’s consent.

If the parents don’t want you to discipline the children, you still have options. For example, you could have a notepad where you write down their misdemeanors so that you can report them to their parents. This generally only works if the parents will consistently discipline the children once they’re home.

If they don’t, you might want to reconsider working for this family. It could be very difficult to establish any kind of authority with the children.

When Counting Doesn’t Work

There is one instance in particular where counting (and subsequent discipline) is unlikely to work at all.

When a child is overtired, they might not have enough control over their emotions and bodies to comply. This is generally when you see easy meltdowns and even the smallest things can set them off.

Children that are under 5 years old usually need naps. Without naps, they become overtired, and their bodies get flooded with stress hormones. This makes self-control nearly impossible.

Even older children need quiet times to be able to calm down and recover a bit. If their whole day consists of high-energy activities, they’ll have a really hard time with maintaining good behavior.

If you want some tips and guidance on how to get a kid to bed, read through this article: How to get kids to bed when babysitting. It has a lot of proven advice on how to establish a routine, a cool-down period, and how to get even stubborn children ready to fall asleep.

Step 3: Maintain a Fun Atmosphere

Keeping kids cooped up or letting them watch TV all day, is a recipe for disaster. Kids have a ton of energy that needs to be spent. Otherwise, they’ll be like a thoroughly shaken bottle of Coke; ready to explode at the first opportunity.

But even the toughest of kids are a joy to be around when they’re genuinely having fun. It’s definitely worthwhile to make sure that you’re maintaining a fun atmosphere when you’re babysitting.

Why It’s Hard

You need to apply yourself to this, it takes energy to keep kids engaged! You might also run into issues like kids not being in the mood for something, or maybe they didn’t get a great night’s sleep and they’re feeling cranky.

Ultimately, babysitting is a job that requires effort. If you’re sitting on the couch and texting your friends, you’re not doing a very good job. Your attention needs to be on the kids, and you have to engage them!

There are some occasions where this is particularly challenging, though. For example, you might also have to clean the home while you’re watching the kids. Or maybe you have to do dishes after a meal. These are times when you need to be on the ball to keep the kids happy.

How to Apply It

It’s always a good idea to have a few things packed in your babysitting bag. These are the things that you can pull out to engage with the kids when it seems like things are getting off track.

Planning is also key. Maintaining a schedule and keeping a fun atmosphere go hand in hand. If you plan fun activities, the kids will look forward to the next thing instead of thinking about stopping what they’re currently having fun with. This fun planning can help you keep your momentum from one activity to the next.

Here are some ideas for fun activities to plan to keep even difficult children engaged:

  • Take them to the park.
  • Play easy outdoor games in the yard (tag, hide and seek, Simon says or soccer).
  • Painting.
  • Puzzles.
  • Crafts (macaroni necklace, melted crayon-shaving butterflies).
  • Have a contest (paper airplane distance flying, card stacking challenge).
  • Face painting (check out this guide)
  • Dress ups

If you want a ton of different ideas on how to keep loads of energy channeled positively, see our over 200+ things to do while babysitting.

Step 4: Maintain a Positive Attitude

Your attitude towards the kids and your job is going to have a major effect on how well the sitting goes. Kids will pick up on a negative attitude very quickly, and they’ll most likely mirror it.

On the other hand, a positive attitude is contagious! If you stay upbeat and encouraging, you’re much more likely to have happy, willing kids.

Why It’s Hard

Not all kids are pleasant. If you’re dealing with a difficult child, this can be really frustrating!

It can be hard to control your own feelings to the point of being able to calmly handle a tantrum, but this is absolutely critical, especially with challenging children.

How to Apply It

If you’re really struggling to like a strong-willed child, here’s an exercise that can help you to focus on their good qualities instead of the negatives.

Write out a list of all the qualities that you’d use to describe the child. If you’ve got a negative view of the kid, then it might be a long list of negative qualities. Maybe it will look something like this:

  • Whiny
  • Wild
  • Demanding
  • Argumentative
  • Stubborn

Now rethink these negative labels. How could these core qualities be seen in a positive way? Let’s add the positive qualities beside the first set of labels:

  • Whiny becomes “analytical”
  • Wild becomes “high energy”
  • Demanding becomes “holds high standards”
  • Argumentative becomes “assertive”
  • Stubborn becomes “strongly committed to goals”

At first, this might seem like a stretch. But the more you use these positive labels with the child, the more your attitude towards them will change. The kid will pick up on this, too.

If you’re using negative labels when you’re talking to them (like “stop being so whiny”), they’ll think that you view them negatively and that you don’t like them. And really, this could be the truth.

But if you use these more positive labels, it’ll change your relationship with them. They won’t feel judged or disliked, and you’ll have an easier time being close to them.

Particularly Challenging Situations and Tips on How to Deal with Them

Regardless of how well you apply these suggestions, there are some occasions where all bets are off. Here are a few of these tough situations and what you can do to avoid tantrums, meltdowns, and outright rebellion.


Knowing that the day has come to an end and that the fun is over can be a horrible concept for a young child to process. Getting kids to bed can be a nightmare if they’re the type that would rather fight to the point of physical collapse instead of submitting to sleepy feelings.

A successful bedtime really comes down to maintaining a good routine, keeping the kids in the loop as to what’s going to be happening, and placing the focus on relaxation instead of the fact that they should be sleeping.

For very young children, like 3 and under, there are some extra challenges. Their bodies produce stress hormones when they’re overtired. This means that they suddenly become hyperactive to the point of not being able to control their bodies and stay still, no matter how hard they try.

Your goal is to prevent this from happening. The bedtime routine needs to begin before the child becomes overtired. This will allow their bodies to feel relaxed, and sleep will come naturally instead of by force, ferocious battle, and final collapse.

For a detailed guide on getting kids to bed like a champ, you should really take a close look at this article: How to get kids to bed while babysitting.

The Playground

When kids play intensely and are really wound up, it can be hard for them to calm down. They’re not like adults, who can quickly stop what they’re doing and move on to the next thing.

Think of a kid’s energy like a freight train. It doesn’t stop on a dime. It can actually take several minutes to slow down.

So when you’re at the playground, it’s all about giving them every opportunity to slow down to move on to the next thing, especially when it’s time to leave.

Five-minute warnings are an absolute must. But if the child is especially spirited and strong-willed, you might need to take it a step further. Here’s an idea on how to handle it:

  • Announce the five-minute notice that you’ll be leaving the playground. You’ll likely notice that they’ll be very disappointed, but a meltdown at this point is unlikely. For those odd times that there is a meltdown this early, just remind them that there are still five minutes left and that they still have time to play.
  • Give them a three-minute warning. At this point, remind them of what you’re going to be doing next. This will shift their focus from what they’re currently doing to what they’re going to do.
  • In the last minute, make sure that you’re playing with them. Try to do a little bit of a count-down. For example, if you’re pushing them on the swing, tell them that there are ten pushes left. Have them count down with you.

If you prepare them this way, they’ll likely be disappointed to leave the playground, but a complete meltdown is much less likely. Overall, that’s a definite win!

TV Time

This can be really tricky because you need to have good timing. It’s reasonably easy to finish TV time at the end of a show, and nearly impossible to cut it off in the middle.

If you have a deadline for when they need to turn the screen off, then time the end of the show with that. Make it completely clear that there will be no more shows, and remind them of what’s going to come next.

If the length of the show doesn’t correspond with the time that the screen needs to be off, try starting the show halfway through, or equal to however much time you need to shave off. You could also do this midway through the show.

If you’re watching Netflix or something else that will automatically move on to the next show, make sure that you’re ready to turn the screen off right away. If the next show starts, they’ll have a much harder time getting away from the TV.

You VS the Parents

This is possibly one of the most difficult situations if you’re caring for a challenging child. Kids love to pit adults against each other, and they’re masters of manipulation.

If the parents don’t back you up, there is one thing that is guaranteed to happen: if you say something that they don’t agree with, they’ll instantly run to the parents and try to undermine you.

For example, if you say they can’t have a cookie, the kid will run to mom and ask her if he can have a cookie. He’ll leave out the fact that he asked you and you already said no. If the mom says that he can have a cookie, then he’s undermined you.

It’s worthwhile to have a good talk with the parents about this. If you’re going to manage these kids, you and the parents need to be on the same page. There are generally two approaches that can work:

  • The parents leave you in charge. If the child asks them for something, the first thing they ask is “what did your babysitter say?” This will save everyone a lot of frustration. This is the ideal situation for you.
  • Alternatively, this could also work: If the parents want to be the final authority, you’ll need to ask them for basically everything. So if the kid wants a cookie, tell him to ask his mom. Don’t let him pit you against each other. This isn’t the ideal solution since you’ll have a harder time establishing authority, but it still might work.

Ultimately, even the most difficult children can be managed. It can definitely take a lot more effort, but if you can master these skills, then this can help you to become an even more qualified babysitter.

If you're finding success with a difficult child don't stop there, learn how to nurture them to encourage and motivate them to be the best they can be.


Written by:

 Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor

Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.

Published: 13 February 2019

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