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It's Never Too Late: 7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively

by James Lehman, MSW
It's Never Too Late: 7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively

Many parents write in to Empowering Parents and ask, “Is it too late to change the way I parent my child—and will it actually work if I do?” In this article, James Lehman explains how you can change the way you parent, and why your child’s behavior has a much better chance of improving when you do. James gives you 7 ways to be a more effective parent, starting today.

Work on the behavior you want to change most—then, move on to the next one. Don't try to tackle everything at once.

Some parents are afraid that their child won't change no matter what they do. Many find themselves reacting automatically when their child behaves inappropriately; as soon as he acts out, they’re yelling and screaming, or getting sucked into power struggles. And even when parents try something new, it's easy for them to get discouraged. Some try to do different things from time to time, but when these methods seem to be ineffective, they eventually give up. This is true especially if the behavior has been a problem for years and they haven't been able to do anything about it.

I’ve found that if you don't really take the time to think your response through, you often wind up simply reacting to the things your children do—and not responding effectively. Many parents become frustrated with their child’s behavior and want to give a punishment right away. Unfortunately, doing this doesn't provide any effective training to the child; in the end, it's just not helpful. There's a big difference between the words “react” and “respond.” When you react, it’s almost like a reflex—your buttons are pushed, and you go into your routine. But if you’re responding, you’re being more objective. You're still going to hold your child accountable, but you have more time to consider the consequence you’ll give him and what you want him to learn from it—and there’s less of a chance you’ll take your child’s behavior personally.

To anyone who asks the question, “Is it too late to change my parenting style?” I would say that it’s never too late. It may not always be easy, but there are effective things you can start doing right away to change the way you respond—and to improve your child’s behavior.

7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively

1. Decide What You Want to Work on First: One of the things I see with parents is that they don’t know where to start. But I think it’s simple: start with the things that put your child at risk. These are the behaviors that are physically or emotionally dangerous to your child or others—where he is hurting somebody physically, breaking things, or being unsafe outside of the home.

My experience is that if you want to change everything at once, you’re going to be very disappointed. Not only is that an impossible task; you're going to alienate your child. I also think parents should address the things that violate their values and morals, and that are risky to the child and others. Start there. Do we want to change everything? Well, good luck, maybe we can. But I think we want to start with the most dangerous, risky stuff, and then move forward.

2. Pinpoint Exactly What You Want to Change: I think it’s helpful for parents to break behaviors down into separate pieces and work on them one at a time. So if your child curses at you and storms up to his room and slams the door, start with the behavior you want to change most. When you talk with him, you want to break it down. Begin with, “Don't curse. That doesn't help solve the problem, and I'm offended by it. What do you think you could do differently the next time you get upset?” Your child may not be able to come up with anything, but offer some suggestions and get him to pick one option. And then say, “All right, so the next time you’re upset, instead of cursing, you’ll just go to your room.”

So work on the behavior you want to change most—then, move on to the next one. Don’t try to tackle everything at once.

3. Explain the Change: If you're going to change a specific response to a behavior, it might be helpful to sit down with your child and explain what that change is going to be. When things are going well and everybody is calm, you can say, “Oh, by the way, I wanted to tell you something. I don't think being grounded in your room all day when you use bad language is working around here. It doesn’t seem to be helping you to change. So from now on when you curse, you're going to go into your room until you write a letter of apology. Then, when you’re done with that letter, you can read it to me and we’ll talk about it. While you're in your room, I'm going to take your computer and cell phone away to make sure you stay on target.” Be clear on what you're going to do. Your child may get angry and frustrated, but don't let him turn it into an argument. Say, “I understand that it might be frustrating, but this is how I want our family to work.”

I also suggest that you don't make speeches, but keep your remarks specific and focused. Remember, speeches cut down on communication.

4. Tell Your Child What the Goal Is: I think it’s important to define your goals to your child. You can say something like, “My goal is that you don't hurt other people by saying bad words.” Or “My goal is that you don't steal money out of my wallet,” or “My goal is that you don't punch the wall,” or “My goal is that you don't throw sand in kids’ faces or bite them when you’re playing in the sandbox.” You can start out the conversation by saying, “I've noticed that when somebody teases you a little, you get really upset and you get yourself into trouble. I hate to see that, because then you get punished—and it happens all over again the next day. So from now on, let's figure out a way for you to handle this differently so that you don’t get into trouble. When someone teases you, what can you do instead?” And come up with a game plan of what he might do next time.

It’s important to realize that what comes out of your mouth doesn't always get into your child’s ear the way you want it to. And so even if your child is confused when you talk with him—he may be frustrated, worried, or angry—just try to stay calm. Whatever it is, say, “Let's just see how it works out first.” Your child doesn't have to agree; it's not a democracy. But it's a way of approaching problems that, over time, will change his perceptions of his relationship with authority—and his relationship with you.

5. Manage Opportunity: If you’re concerned that your child is going to do something hurtful or destructive, one of your options is to manage the opportunities he has. Let’s say you have a teenager who continuously gets speeding tickets. He doesn’t respond to your efforts to get him to take responsibility and drive more safely. One of the things you can do is take away his car. When you do that, you’re taking away the opportunity. It’s similar with younger kids. If they demonstrate that they won’t stop stealing money out of your wallet, take away the opportunity by putting a lock on your door or locking your purse in the trunk of your car. Opportunity management is one of the simplest ways of shaping behavior. In other words, if your daughter can’t handle the mall without throwing tantrums, don’t take her to the mall. If your son is at a restaurant and he can’t stop acting out, take him out of the restaurant. Once your child demonstrates that he can’t handle something, remove the opportunity until he shows you that he can. Often, if your child doesn't have the opportunity to do something, it won’t happen.

6. Don’t Appeal to Your Child’s Empathy: Asking your child, “Do you know how it feels when you’re disrespectful to me?” or asking, “How do you think Tommy feels when you take his lunch money?” are appeals to your child’s empathy. But children, and especially teenagers, don't experience much empathy for anybody. They are simply not in touch with those feelings. The apparatus that manages empathy in the mind is not working properly yet; some say it isn’t fully formed. Regardless of the reasons, empathy is not an approach that will convince your child of anything. Consequently, they don’t experience empathy for everyday situations, so you can’t depend on that tactic to change their behavior. Instead, you have to work with their self-interest. If you want your child to change something, you have to demonstrate that he will benefit from changing; that it’s in his self-interest. If you want your child to stop lying or manipulating, you have to frame it in a way so he can see how he would benefit from stopping that behavior. It’s not helpful to say “Can’t you see how much your manipulating hurts me?” Instead, say, “Aren’t you sick of getting grounded for manipulating? You’re the one who gets hurt when you manipulate. Remember, Josh, the consequences won’t stop until the manipulation stops. So stop doing this to yourself.”

7. Set Limits and Give Consequences: I think an important component of teaching our kids is learning how to set limits on them. There’s an old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.” But I say, “You can lead a horse to water and you can't make him drink—but you can make him thirsty.” That’s what your consequences should be designed to do. Accordingly, we can’t make our child change. But if we use the right combination of consequences and motivation, we can, in a sense, make them thirsty to change.

Remember, consequences are a means to an end. And if you find an effective consequence, continue to use it. By “effective” I mean that your child responds to it, even if only for a short while. It’s not always helpful to immediately go for a bigger hammer if the consequence doesn’t appear to be working. You should always have a bigger hammer in your toolbox, but escalate slowly.

Here’s the deal: someday your child is going to change—if not for you, then for his boss, a judge, his probation officer, or his girlfriend. Hopefully he’ll change before he engages in too much self-destruction. In any case, you’re on duty now, it’s your watch, so just do the best you can.

So how do you know if you should change your parenting style? I believe that you have to change the way you parent if what you’ve been doing up until now has proven ineffective. There’s information regarding learning effective parenting styles, giving effective consequences, and ways to have conversations with your child that promote change and don’t create excuses. Do your best to access that information, both here on Empowering Parents and in other trusted places.

And remember: It’s never too late.


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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."


This is exactly what I need to hear right now. I am so worried about my 15 yr old daughter. She has spun out of control and I need help. thank you for this great website.

Comment By : riversong

This is a 5 star article! (Had technology trouble). I so appreciate the encouragement that it is never too late to change. The suggestions in the article look good and I plan to use them for a very difficult boy that, just yesterday, I was ready to give up on. Today, I am trying again.

Comment By : Jomomof4

This is great encouragement and a good reminder to focus on changing only one behavior at first. Thank you.

Comment By : RileyRoo

James is right. Don't stop trying with your child, even if you have a teenager. Our son is nearly 17 and recently we have seen some improvement in his behavior. Yesterday he even said thanks without being reminded! When James says keep your cool and respond, don't automatically react, that is a hugely important bit of advice. So is working on one behavior at a time. Things are not perfect here, but then raising a child is not easy, especially when they turn into teenagers! I'm still worried, but I have hope things will get better. Thanks, Empowering Parents.

Comment By : Worried Mom

James' methods really do work but you have to be patient and never stop trying! Our boy was completely out of control and in special ed because no one could handle him. After a couple of years using the program, he is mainstreamed in school and is doing great! He still acts like a teen, but I like him so much better now and our home life is no longer upside down! Thanks James!

Comment By : Grateful mom

I have tried talking calmly to my 13 yr old son and all he will say is I am nagging him. No matter what approach I try to take, he says the same thing. How do you have a calm conversation with a teen who just refuses to listen?

Comment By : mtmom

mtmom - one way to get your teen to listen is to take away all distractions. It amazes me how much 'stuff' teens have these days, and especially how much 'stuff' is in their rooms! I honestly know teens that will talk back to their parents intentionally just to get sent to their room! If they are in the family living area, someone is watching them. If they are in their room, they can watch what they want, listen to what they want, do what they want, talk/text with whomever they want... what kind of consequence is that? We have NEVER had TV or computers in kids rooms. NEVER. Those things are in a common area, and they are set up where we can see them and they are set with parental controls appropriate for their age just in case we aren't home when they are in use. If we send out kids to their room, their ipods and phones stay downstairs with us. Try setting your house up like that, and THEN send them to their room until they are ready to sit and listen calmly. It works!

Comment By : Lynn

mtmom - also... if he says you are nagging, try this... think it over in advance and plan what you want to say. Pare it down to about 3 sentences... 1) this is what I see, 2) this is what I want to change, 3) these are the consequences if it does not change. Keep it simple and clear, and there is NO negotiation!

Comment By : Lynn

These are such great steps away from the drama triangle and toward outcome-oriented thinking. When I am aware of my personal choices in talking with our teens and I do take these positive steps - it works!

Comment By : khask

The secret I need to keep in mind is to treat teens like the creators they are. Not victims from the drama triangle but rather creators from the Empowerment Dynamic (David Emerald). Our son can be quite capable of making good choices when we set him up for success with the right thinking. I really like the steps in this article. They keep me in line for focusing on the desired outcome, rather than concentrating on the problem.

Comment By : khask

* Dear ‘mtmom’: If you are trying to have a problem solving conversation with your son and he refuses to listen, James Lehman recommends that you tell him that it’s clear he is not ready to have this conversation. Say, “Let’s take a break until you are ready to talk about this. Until we have this talk, however, you have no privileges. Let me know when you’re ready.” Kids will sometimes use attitude and remarks in an attempt to get you off track during discussions. Don’t respond directly to his remarks that you’re nagging him. “Just say, we’re not talking about [that] at the moment, we’re talking about what you can do differently.” Using these two techniques, not addressing what he is saying to distract you and withholding privileges until he is reasonably calm during a discussion, should help you succeed in having a problem solving conversation with your son.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Excellent comment about lack of empathy in teenagers. Perhaps as parents we forget that we didn't have it at that time. So often I think that my stepdaughter is ungrateful and doesn't take other peoples feelings into account. At least now I have a reason possibly why. Great advice.

Comment By : debster

I cannot thank you enough for carrying on Mr. Lehman's great work. I am always reading, hopefully learning, struggling, and often failing. Teenagers can be most difficult, especially for a grandparent of 84 yrs. I know we fail often, but at this time she rules the home. Family in dire need of the information offered. Thanks.

Comment By : Praying and Hoping

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effective parenting, change parenting techniques, inappropriate behavior, consequences, setting limits

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