Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The 3 Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior

by James Lehman, MSW
Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill  The 3 Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior

When you have a child who acts out and is disrespectful or disruptive, it’s easy to compare him to the so-called “good kids” who never seem to get into trouble or give their parents grief. Many people feel hopeless about the possibility of ever teaching their child to “magically” become the kind of well-behaved member of the family they envisioned before they had him.

It’s actually the learning process associated with consequences that changes the behavior.

The truth is that good behavior isn’t magic—you can’t just wave a wand and turn your child into who you want him to be. Rather, good behavior is a skill that can be learned, just like carpentry, teaching or nursing. I believe three of the most important skills for children to learn as a foundation for good behavior are: how to read social situations, how to manage emotions, and how to solve problems appropriately. If your child can learn to master these three tasks with your help, he will be well on his way to functioning successfully as an adult.

Related: How to teach your child the skill of good behavior.

Skill #1: Reading Social Situations
The ability to read social situations is important because it helps your child avoid trouble and teaches him how to get along with others. If he can walk into a classroom, lunchroom, playground or a dance, read what’s going on there, and then decide how he's going to interact in that environment in an appropriate way, he's already halfway there. So if your child sees a bunch of kids who usually tease and bully others, the skill of reading social situations will help him stay away from that group, rather than gravitate toward it.

Parents can help their kids develop these skills by getting them to read the looks on people's faces at the mall or a restaurant, for example. If your child can learn to see who looks angry, frustrated or bored, two things will happen: the first is that he will be able to identify how people might be feeling. Secondly, he'll learn that he should try to identify other people's emotions. Both are integral in learning how to read social situations.

Related: Calm parenting in any situation.

Skill #2: Managing Emotions:
It’s critical for your child to learn how to manage his emotions appropriately as he matures. Managing your emotions means that it’s not OK to punch a hole in the wall because you’re angry; it’s not OK to curse at your dad because he took your iPod away. Children need to learn that just because they feel bad or angry, it does not give them the right to hurt others.

    Ask the Right Questions
    If your child calls his little sister a nasty name, it’s your job to first sit down and ask, “What did you see going on that you thought you needed to do that?” Not, “How did you feel?” but “What was going on?” You’ll find that usually this type of behavior is generally self-centered. Perhaps your child’s little sister is getting more attention or she’s watching a show and he wants the TV, or she’s playing with the video games and he wants to play them. When your child does not know how to deal with that situation and he becomes nasty or abusive, it’s time for you to step in and put a stop to it. And I think you should very clearly state, “Just because you’re angry, it doesn’t give you the right to call your sister a nasty name.” That’s an important, direct way of teaching the skill of managing emotions.
    What Giving Consequences Does (and Doesn’t) Accomplish

    I believe that consequences are part of accountability. In other words, your child should know that if the inappropriate behavior happens again, he will be held accountable. Saying that, I don’t think people change simply because they’re punished or are given consequences. Although parents often focus on them, consequences alone are not enough. Rather, it’s the learning process associated with the consequences that changes a child’s behavior. So it’s the part of your child’s thinking process that says, “Next time I’m upset, if I call Sarah a name, I'm going to be punished. Instead, I can just go to my room and cool down.”

    Here's the truth: you can punish kids until the cows come home, but it’s not going to change their behavior. That’s because the problem is actually not the behavior—the problem lies in the way kids think. This faulty thinking then gets externalized into how they behave. If you punish them for the behavior and neglect to challenge the way they think about the problem—or discuss what their options are for dealing with that problem effectively in the future—then really, what are you doing? You’re punishing your child, but he hasn’t learned anything and he’s not going to do anything differently. In fact, he’s probably just going to do it again when you’re not looking.

    Related: How to give consequences that really work.

    “What Will You Do Differently Next Time?”
    I think it’s very important that you talk to your child about what he can do differently the next time he feels angry or frustrated. This tool is something I developed as part of The Total Transformation Program, and it’s an important way to focus on changing your child’s behavior. When you use this technique, it encourages your child to come up with other things he or she might do instead of using ineffective behavior. By the way, when you have this talk with your child, it should be a pretty businesslike conversation—it’s not all smiley and touchy feely; it shouldn’t be abusive or negative, either. Stick to the facts and ask, “What can you do differently next time?”

Skill #3: Teach Problem Solving Skills

    There’s No Such Thing as “Good Kids” and “Bad Kids”

    I believe that the kids who are labeled “good” are children who know how to solve their problems and manage their behavior and social life, and the kids who are labeled “bad” are kids who don’t know how to solve those problems. A child is often labeled “the bad kid” when he’s developed ineffective actions to solve the problems that other kids solve appropriately. So this child may turn to responses that are disrespectful, destructive, abusive, and physically violent. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as good kids or bad kids, there are simply kids who have learned effective ways of solving life’s problems, and kids who have not.

    As they develop, children have to continually adjust their problem-solving skills and learn new ones. For instance, for a three year old, being told “no” is the biggest problem in her life. She stomps her feet, she throws a tantrum. Eventually, she has to learn to deal with that problem and manage the feelings associated with it. And so those tasks continue for five-year-olds who have to deal with the first day of school and for nine-year-olds who have to change in gym. They continue for 12- and 13-year-olds when they’re at middle school, which is a much more chaotic environment than they have ever faced before.

    Related: How to teach kids problem-solving skills.

I've devoted much of my career to dealing with kids who behaved inappropriately, all the way from kids who were withdrawn and depressed to kids who were aggressive and acted out physically. I believe a very key element in helping children change their behavior is for parents to learn techniques where they help their child identify the problem they’re facing. Together, you look at how to solve problems and come up with other solutions. So talk to your child about the problem at hand and how to solve it—not just about the emotion your child is feeling.

In the end, there is no magic solution to good behavior. The secret is really in teaching kids how to solve problems; good behavior is simply one of the fruits on that problem-solving tree. Your goal as a parent is to give your child the tools to learn good behavior. It’s never too late to get these tools, but know this: if your child can’t read a situation in the ninth grade and doesn’t know how to respond, reacts by getting aggressive, and then gets into trouble, how do you think they are going to handle it when they’re an adult and their boss tells them something they don’t want to hear? That’s why it’s important for you as parent not to “wish away” the bad behavior and to start teaching your child the skills he needs to change his behavior for good.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


I am tired and exhausted of dealing with my son. I have 2 (twins). One boy is agreeable and cooperative most of the time, the other challenges me and pushes my buttons. He IS a good kid, but negotiates everything. He wants to be social all the time, says he cares about homework, commitments etc, but when push comes to shove, the grades fall, doesn't want to finish the commitment, can't get him to get up in the morning, he'll get up when he's ready, then has to run for the bus. Maybe get up 5 mins earlier? I have several issues with him, but just at the point that I don't know what to do anymore without becoming a raving maniac. He's 14 now, and very independent, wants to go everywhere on his bike, or skateboard. He's a scout, a martial artist,goes to church, active with his dad and has mutual interests with him. He won't go to bed at the appointed time, and then won't get up in the am. Says he doesn't have homework, but I hear he sometimes does it on the bus or just before class. I am at a loss as to how to deal anymore. I want us to be a happy family and it is just not happening. I have some issues with the other boy, but not as intense.

Comment By : Debbie

I think these ideas are clear and concise. I wish I would have known them when my sons were young. I will use these ideas with my grandchildren and pass them along to my grown sons. Thanks so much!

Comment By : Grandma Penny

I think this is very helpful, however I don't think you should ignore the emotions your child is feeling when he/she acts out. in order to have a two way discussion the child needs to feel understood on an emotional level. But addressing the behavior first and better ways of reacting is most important!

Comment By : jenmom3

Of the three foundational skills mentioned in this article, it would be helpful to see expanded content on skill #1 - reading social situations. There have been a number of books written on the subject of Emotional Intelligence, covering similar ideas.

Comment By : sbrubinson

very good article.... I enjoy your information in your emails... I copy them and send them to my son. OUr 11 year old grandson has problems .I just wish that we could afford to purchase the program. Our grandson lives in CA and I am so fearful that his behavior will cause him to get in trouble, join a gang or worse yet be killed

Comment By : wandacantrell

I found this article very informative. I have two daughters with ADHD and the idea that a given situation was overwelming to either of them being the cause of bad behavior had not really entered my mind. I will definately work on these three skills with both of my girls.

Comment By : ChristinaP

Thank you again for a wonderful article. It gives me hope and reminds me what I need to do with a very troubled almost 16-year-old girl. We have 7 children, and she is the youngest. We had very significant issues with our almost 22-year-old daughter who was diagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder and still can't make really good decisions. It seems like my 3 boys have heads on their shoulders and make good decisions (except for my almost 18-year-old son who is suffering from real depression - he still makes good decisions, but the depression is affecting him significantly). My daughters have all struggled with depression and anxiety. Well, I digress... I need to get back to studying the Total Transformation Program. Thank you for the reminder.

Comment By : Betsy

This is a great article, but it assumes that the child is going to understand the question, "What did you see going on that you thought you needed to do that?". What about kids who aren't able to make the connection? Kids who are verbal,they are reading & writing & such, but have limited capacity for that kind of thought? When they ask for something to eat, you start making it, but they scream and throw things until the plate is in front of them - even though they can see you working on it and can verbalize back that they understand that the food is coming within minutes. How does one teach a kid like that these skills?

Comment By : Mel

Tnank you so much for this article. I am having a really hard time with my 9 year old son who is a sweet little boy until he gets to school. He is really having a hard time with social situations and managing his emotions. Because of past abuse, he can be very guarded and he would much rather play by himself than to interact with his classmates. He is new to this school, very smart and at the tope of his class academically but it is hard for him to fit in and he has now become a behavior problem. I was really beginning to think that something was wrong with him. This article gives me hope and some tangible techniques to try. Hopefully, his behavior will improve and I can stop gaining grey hairs.

Comment By : trying and trying

This can work for you teachers out there too and not just dealing with kids who are disruptive or disrespectful. If you have students who are lazy and don't do their homework and always respond with "I didn't get that one" when you call on them to go over a homework question, or with kids who come unprepared for class, it can get extremely frustrating. I'm now going to try asking them: "What was going on to make you come unprepared or leave your homework incomplete?" "What can you do differently the next time you feel like neglecting your homework?" "I have much higher expectations for you than that." This may not work miracles but I'll give it a try just to keep a positive and motivating tone in my high school class.

Comment By : High School Teacher

Debbie: I was there 4 years ago with my son. Good kid, just poor choices. We got in his business - went to the school, started getting daily reports on his tardies, homework, status, everything. He was held responsible for everything in his schooling. Late to class, homework not turned in, poor test score meant grounded to his room - no video - until he showed improvement in that area. Usually another area would fall as he worked on the one area, it was circular, but the spiral moved him forward. He had a 3.3 last semester (much improved), and is much more responsible. He didn't get up on time one day last week. Was over an hour late for school. I called the school and told attendance he is responsible for getting up on time and he blew it. They said "good for you". He still makes mistakes, just not as many or as often. I am proud of him again...

Comment By : mamabear

My grandchildren are 5 and 6. I have custody. I never recognized that young children learning to read people's faces was that important. It REALLY is! I will help them learn this by "playing a game".

Comment By : debbear

I enjoy the comments regarding the articles as parents ask some questions that I (at this time) have not thought about. I am a mother of 13 (5 grown bio-children & 8 adopted out of the foster care system. It would really benefit me to see is your response/answer to the specific questions raised within the comments section.

Comment By : Momma Gina

Dear Momma Gina: Thank you for your question. While we unfortunately cannot answer every question that comes in to Empowering Parents, our staff does jump in and address concerns from time to time. (For example, if we notice that one question is posed by many different readers, we try our best to make sure to address it.) We encourage parents to discuss their experiences and offer advice to each other as well. Thanks for reading Empowering Parents, and take care.

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

* Dear Debbie: Sounds like you have your hands full with two active 14-year-olds! One of the ways to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed is to work on one thing at a time. It also helps the kids to not feel overwhelmed if we ask them to work on one goal at a time. It sounds like he makes it on the bus —- barely, but he makes it, so for now why not focus on the homework issue. Talk it over with his Dad and decide on a time for homework during the day that occurs before he has privileges for the day. Pick a specific time for him to start to do his homework, not a time to be finished. It won’t work if he does homework the last thing at night, because you will not be able to withhold or award privileges then. After he completes his study time, he can enjoy his privileges that day. Don’t get involved in asking him if he has homework. He is likely to tell you he does not. Until he develops good study habits and has the good grades to show for it, require that he study during homework time. He can review or read ahead if he prefers. Remember, don’t do all this on your own. Get his Dad to join you when you have a talk with your son. Even though your son wants to continue to negotiate, you don’t have to participate in that. Here’s where you use James Lehman’s ‘Disconnect’ technique. Just say, “This is the structure your Dad and I want you to follow,” then disconnect from any further "negotiations" that your son presents. If he objects to this system, let him know that it’s temporary, that when his grades improve he can take charge of his study time again. However, if his grades fall again, he will need to go back to the structured homework system. Once this new homework system is going well, tell him that you have noticed what a good job he’s been doing and that now you would like to work on bedtime going more smoothly. Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Mel: Sometimes we have to tell them what we "see" happening. “What I see is that you are getting very frustrated waiting for dinner but you’re not managing those feelings well. You have to find a way to calm yourself down when you get that frustrated.” Try to help your child find out what skill works for them, such as slowing down their breathing and taking deeper breaths, or waiting in their room listening to music till supper is ready. You can say, “Maybe you could try to take a few deep breaths to calm down.”

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have 15 year old twin daughters. One twin is just hating everything her dad does and says. Just with his mere present she get irritated with him. She calls him weird all the time and annoying. The problem is that my husband like to provocate as well but most of the time it is teasing and she wants no part of it. So then when he gets really mad and yells at her to stop calling him weird she only says but its true and he is now threating her to send her away. This problem keeps going and going. I just want to have a happy life with my kids. The other twins is not as bad. The other thing is that she does not want her dad to participate in anything related to school. She is very embarssed by him. She does not do any school activities nor sports because she does not want her dad hanging around school. She says again he does weird things like talking to people he does not know and touring the school. Again he has provocate many of these incidents so of course she rather do nothing than have him around. He is a huge problem I have we even go to family counselling but we are still far from resolving his. He has been 1 1/2 years in counseling and no avail. HELP me what suggestions do you have?

Comment By : LM

It took me years to really get the 'disconnect' thing. In addition to that, figuring out that we (the parents) were not responsible for our kids choices took awhile as well. Teaching them (and changing our behaviors FIRST, to do so)to be problem solvers, has had one of the biggest and most positive impacts on our family. Some words and responses we use, (ALWAYS WITH LOVE) to help us with both disconnecting and problem solving are: "How's that working for you?", "Ohh No.", "Probably so." "I know.", "What are you going to do about that?", "Bummer.", 'I don't know.".... What we are doing is leading it back to the child to think. What we have discovered is that when we respond with empathy and compassion instead of frustration and annoyance at their mistakes or problems (mind you they are children...not little adults)and because we have an expectation that they are also smart, capable individuals who can use their brain for more than 'doing what they are told to do', they step up marvelously!! We expect them to make mistakes and fail...and we expect them to solve their issue. WOW! They no longer go thru the day playing "twister' for life with us calling out were to put their hand or foot... where they have no choice but to put it there, or mess up and be punished. This process allows kids to feel the consequences of the problem without the relationship pain and trust-breaking issues that result from 'punishment' put on them by parents. There is no more is great! Yes...they make mistakes...yes they struggle with problem solving, and yes we are there to 'help' when it is asked for and wanted...not because we think they need it, or we can do it faster, better or more right. Again, they figure it out (sometimes in amazing ways we never thought of)...and they ask for help with a solution when we give them the chance. Some additional behavior changes we have seen are improved communication, trustworthiness, teamwork, humbleness, proper humility, less selfishness, and recognition of their freedom...this has given them power in our relationships...power and freedom to love and have choice. I feared it would give power and did just the opposite! TRULY AMAZING!! Good luck and thanks for the reminders.

Comment By : heartofamom

This article makes so much sense, I have one child 6yr. with ADHD and ADD. I thought I have tried everything until I read this article, I feel optimistic about this. I am going to try these ideas, I know there is no sure thing but if one of the ideas work we will be helping the situation.

Comment By : Liz

I have been trying to teach the skills listed above to my 10 yr. old ADHD son when he has "meltdowns" over something very minor. He has trouble when things are not exactly right/fair (disappointing). He will take a minor disappointment (ex. his souvenier had only his initial and his stepbrothers had their names - his name is unusual and no first initials available for other sons) and escalate it until he is verbally abusing me and my husband and being boldly defiant about resulting consequences for the disrespect/abuse. I have the TT program and have had good results with it except for these occasional meltdowns. I can see them coming, but have yet to prevent them from happening. I suspect that he is envious of the relationship my husband has with his sons even though my husband treats him exactly the same and has told him he loves him just as much. My son has asked repeatedly why he cannot have my husband's last name. Except for these meltdowns, our blended family is strong and happy. I don't want to lose that!

Comment By : mom of meltdown master

I have a 13 year old son that is acting out in class, his excuse is always that the teacher doesnt like him or she embarrassed him in front of everyone. I have taken away his electronics as punishment but it continues. He acts out at home, but always apologizes and has remorse for his behavior. I know he doesnt know how to handle these stressful situations. Im having problems teaching him how to deal with this when he is angry. He seems to really react to my husband verbally and wont listen to anything he tells him and this is part of my frustration also. Im tired of always being the referee. Any thoughts on how to handle the verbally acting out in class?

Comment By : jenniferl

this really hit home for me. my 17 year old stepson has decided that his dad and i are pushing him too much in school and treating him like a child. when we give him his space and don't check up on his school work he slacks off and does a bad job. we are now at the point that he hates living with us. he says daily that he doesn't want to be here. we sent him to stay with his grandmother , after a week he had to come back home because we realized he stopped doing homework altogether. now back at home, he is rude and disrespectful to his dad. i think he tolerates me and doesn't verbally disrespect me , though his 9 year old sister gets her share of name calling from him. how do i make him realize that this behavior is unacceptable and that he has to respect his father and this family? i am afraid that if we don't fix this, this family will be ruined. his sister is now acting out over the special rules we have, like not answering him if he says something mean or leave him alone if he doesn't want anyone to talk to him.

Comment By : acinomeralc

* Dear 'acinomeralc': We appreciate your questions and can direct you to some more resources on our web site for answers. In this article Why You Should Let Your Child Fail The Benefits of Natural Consequences James Lehman discusses how to let go of micro-managing your child and gives you tips on how to discuss your child’s school failures. Taking the approach outlined in this article could be the right attitude needed to work with your 17 year old son on his homework issues. Another behavior concern you mention is that your 9 year old daughter “ . . .gets her share of name calling . . .” from your 17 year old son and that she is now acting out over the special rules you have in place to handle this. We would suggest that you approach this situation between them differently. What you want to keep in mind is that as her parents, you’re responsible to provide a healthy and safe environment for her. That means a household that is free from abuse. Instead of asking her to not answer him if he says something mean to her, do what James Lehman says, “Accept no excuse for abuse.” Give your son a consequence when he is abusive to his sister. (See: The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings). James Lehman considers name calling ‘abuse’ and says that “if you have an older child who’s abusive to a younger child, and you let that child get away with this kind of behavior, your younger child will start to realize that his sibling is more powerful than you are as a parent. The younger child will begin to think that you can’t keep him safe from his older sibling.” When your son abuses anyone in the family, tell him, “There’s no excuse for abuse. You’re not allowed to abuse people. Go to your room.” He’s likely to blame his sister for driving him crazy but this is common for people who use verbal abuse. They blame the victim of their abuse and don’t take personal responsibility or actions to change their behaviors. Talk to your son about what he can do differently when he feels frustrated, irritated or anger—besides saying hurtful things to family members. To help your son change his behavior, change how your family responds to verbal abuse. If you are a Total Transformation Program customer, call us here on the Support Line for more help in applying the techniques from the Program. Let us hear from you. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Researchers would definitely back you up on those three skills, but they add two more: a positive self view (the kind of self esteem that comes from "doing well" rather than simply "feeling good" about oneself) and a moral set of standards. Four of them are expanded here and the research referenced:

Comment By : Kate Jones

Very appropriate,perceiving and understanding before reacting;works as well for us adults.

Comment By : judson

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angry child, behavior problems, acting out, oppositional defiant disorder, defiant behavior, anger and defiance, backtalk

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