"My Kid Will Never Change." When You've Hit a Wall with Your Child's Behavior

by James Lehman, MSW
My Kid Will Never Change. When You've Hit a Wall with Your Child's Behavior

Have you ever listened to parenting advice, all the while thinking, “That won’t work with my child—nothing does. He’s too difficult; no one can get through to him.” If you’ve ever felt this way, stop what you’re doing and read this article. We sat down and talked to James Lehman, who explains how to get through to “hard case” kids—and how to manage their behavior effectively. (The good news? There is hope—and room to make some real changes that work.)


Let me be clear: kids don't behave because they like their parents; kids behave because it's in their best interests to behave.

Q: James, what is your response to parents who say, “My child is really tough. He’ll never change.”

James: I understand that parents get frustrated and exhausted trying to deal with kids who can be really resistant and difficult. But I know from experience that that doesn't have to be the case—there are other ways of solving the problems of acting out, defiance, attitude, and lack of motivation in children. I think when a parent says, “My child will never change,” one of the things they’re saying is, “My parenting style will never change; I don’t think there’s anything new I can teach my child. And because I'm stuck where I am, he's going to stay stuck where he is.”
If your parenting style isn't working and you don't change it, it's probably going to continue not working. That’s just a given. But if your parenting style develops and you learn different ways to coach, teach and set limits on your child, I believe that eventually you will see change.

Q: So is there any one thing a parent should be doing to help their child change?

James: In my opinion, people change for a variety of reasons, some of which can be hard to understand. The idea that it takes a certain amount of input, or that there’s one thing you should do in order for your child to change, is not really a logical one. It’s not like you can just wave a magic wand a certain way and get your child to behave. The truth is, different kids need different amounts of support. I think that it's important for parents to understand the concept that knowledge is cumulative in kids. In other words, one bit of knowledge doesn't create one bit of change. Rather, it takes a lot of bits of knowledge to create one bit of change. Really, the idea that kids won't change is out of context with how they learn. If the approach you’ve been using isn’t working, try another one—trust me, you can learn more effective ways to solve the problem of inappropriate behavior. That’s something I’ve helped parents do my entire career—and I have seen true change happen over and over again.

Q: James, the first step for many parents is getting their child to listen to them. How do you go about doing that when you have a “hard case” kid who never listens to anyone—and especially not to his or her parents?

James: I think that this is another instance where parents have to look at their own skill base—and not at their kid’s. Understand that your child’s capacity to listen will be influenced by his age, his peer group, the setting in which you are having a conversation with him, and the issue at hand. And if your child is really angry and frustrated about something and you're trying to reason with him, he's not going to listen, plain and simple. Just accept that going into it.

I often ask parents to envision what might have to happen in order for their child to listen to them. What would be an ideal place for a talk? Most parents can describe the setting: it's quiet, there are no distractions, everyone is calm, and they have a chance to really share their ideas with their child. I think all of these elements have to be in play in order to have any kind of discussion with your child.
Here’s another crucial thing to remember: kids will listen to something—and comply— when it’s in their best interests to do so. Let me be clear: kids don't behave because they like their parents; kids behave because it's in their best interests to behave. So parents who compromise about household rules in order to get their kids to do what they want are missing the point. Instead of trying to get your child to like you in order to behave, what you have to do is get your child to like his life, his privileges, his friends, and his independence. Because all those things that matter to us, also matter to our kids—and are incentives for them to try harder.

Instead of giving in to your child and trying to be his friend, communicate that it's his responsibility to listen to you—and that he'll be held accountable if he doesn’t. The relationship between responsibility, accountability and consequences can’t be stressed enough here. The message should always be: “You're responsible and I'm going to hold you accountable.” And let him know there are going to be consequences if he doesn’t comply with the rules.

I also believe that parents have to say something worth listening to. Kids don't listen to preaching. Kids don't listen to labeling. And they don't listen to name calling or blaming, either. I think it’s helpful to talk to your child in a direct, matter-of-fact way. Don’t personalize what is happening; just stick to the facts. Try to define the problem in a way that is solvable. “It’s your responsibility to take out the garbage. If you don’t, there will be consequences.” And let him know he’ll be rewarded if he is able to meet his responsibilities consistently. This is how you hold your child accountable.

Q: What are some tips for getting through to your child, especially if that child is a hard case?

James: Again, I think if your child sees it's in his best interests to respond to you, hard case or not, he's going to find a way to respond. To give you an example, we often see kids with behavior problems really getting along with teachers who are highly structured. That’s because the structure the teacher has set up makes it clear that it's in the child’s best interests to behave. Sometimes that's because the teacher doesn't take any playing around and sets limits right away; sometimes it's because the teacher gives consequences and rewards that the child finds meaningful. Remember, there always has to be interplay between structure that's clear, and rewards that are meaningful. And if you find the right combination, your child will respond to you—whether or not he's a hard case.
I also think that with hard cases, you have to be very clear about who you are. I don't think you have to be hard yourself, but you have to be able to clearly define what you expect from your child. And let them know that you're going to hold them accountable. I think kids who are hard cases often don't see what's in it for them. They might think, “So what’s in it for me if I clean my room? What's in it for me if I do my homework?” I think the answer is to have a structure where you can show them what the consequences and rewards are. So they know what’s going to happen if they don’t finish their assignment or mow the lawn. It’s clear to them what they’ll get as a reward—and what might be taken away as a consequence.

I also believe there is a lot of legitimacy in giving kids more independence when they do things more independently. So you can say things like, “You can stay up half an hour later because you’ve shown me that you can be responsible with your reading homework.” That actually motivates your child to act more independently. And when I say independently, I don't mean defiantly—I just mean independently. In other words, they're able to meet their responsibilities without a lot of prodding or threatening or following up from you.

Q: What if you have a child who doesn't seem to respond to consequences?

James: If your child doesn't respond to consequences, then you simply haven't discovered things that are consequential to him. Don't forget, a consequence can be a reward, too. Too many parents use the term “consequences” when they mean punishments. Many kids become very resistant to the idea because of what they think it means. Instead, parents have to learn to use the carrot and the stick—not just the stick.

So again, once a child sees it's in his best interests, a lot of things will change. Here's a great example: Let’s say you have a kid who hasn’t worked hard in school, isn’t really committed to anything and is kind of lazy around the house, perhaps a little mouthy sometimes. And then one day he wants to get his driver’s permit. Oh man, do things change! All of a sudden, that same child is apologetic when he makes a mistake. He's interested in doing the things you want him to do—and he's willing to do his chores and homework. All because he wants to drive that car.

You might not have a car to use as a reward with your child, but there are other things that might work. In my opinion, parents have to develop a motivational system—a “motivational package,” if you will. That means that you should always have a menu of rewards on hand. And I think that list should come from your child. When times are good, I recommend that you sit down and say, “Hey, I'm making a menu of things we could do that you might enjoy. Can you help me out?” And by the way, you should also have a menu of consequences. It’s a mistake to have only one consequence that you use all the time. Instead, have a consequence system that allows you to have choices. So it's not the same old, “Go to your room.” If you have a list of consequences, you can give your child and yourself a little more elbow room. Remember, consequences that are task-oriented are the most effective because they promote learning and change.

Q: What about parents who say, “I don’t know how to motivate my child—he doesn’t care about anything?”

James: I think parents should set goals with their children to motivate them. So a goal might be, “If you can clean your room for three days, then you get an extra half hour of computer time.” Now your child is working toward something reachable. But remember, the incentive has to be something your child wants. Things that tend to work with kids these days are cell phones, computers, video games, and television. These are all “carrots” we can use to give our kids the incentive to behave and be responsible.
By the way, I think for many kids with motivational problems, the right approach is, “We will give you half an hour on the computer; that's our gift to you. Every member of the family gets it. And if you want more, then we need to see you trying harder and keeping up with your responsibilities.” I tell parents to limit time on the computer because I think a great opportunity is being missed here: you are squandering your chance to offer it as a reward. By limiting your child’s computer time, he has to put forth some effort to earn more. Be sure to clearly define what a child must do—and for how long—in order to earn that extra time.

And incidentally, it’s also been my observation that if you can't motivate your child, something will someday. What I mean by that is that it’s important to know that there are other catalysts in your child’s life besides you—and that’s a good thing. I’ve seen teens who are slobs clean up their act when they get a girlfriend. Certainly kids go back and get their GED's when they find out they need a high school diploma to get anywhere in life. So you are not the only change agent in your child’s life—but you are the most influential one.

Q: James, what would you say to parents who feel like their child is hopeless—and that nothing will work for them?

James: I would say that I understand—I think there are children who certainly make you feel hopeless when you're trying to parent them. Believe me, I’ve worked with some entrenched, out-of-control kids over the years. But by using that system of responsibility, accountability and consequences, I saw many, many of those kids turn their lives around and go on to become successful adults. So in my mind, there's always hope—but you have to be willing to work at it to create real change.


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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 understand everything you said here. But....will this work on a 17yrs who thinks he is man enough to do as he pleases?

Comment By : AngieCaskey

Where I get stuck is when I tell my 7 yr old to do something following the tools I've learned through this program and she refuses and starts going into a tantrum, then what? The conssequence does not work because she is out of control. She simply refuses to go to her room and I have had to physically take her to her there and then when I get her to her room, I can't get her to stay there. We have lost many door knobs as they get torn off during our tug of war. Any suggestions?

Comment By : Noel

I think that what James is describing is applicable to people of any age. People tend to act in their own self-interest. As a parent you have the right and the responsibility to set limits for your son's behavior. You have to find out what he wants and what he doesn't want and set up a structure that reflects that.

Comment By : monkbiker

What if you are the stepmother and the father doesn't do dicipline? The kid already has everything he wants handed to him so nothing is left to use as a reward. The father sttepts to set consequences but the child, 16, argues, pouts, whines, harms himself, breaks more rules and generally uses his behavior as a weapon to make everyone else miserable until the father caves out of exhaustion. As the step mother it's not easy to do discipline without back up, but the father is often gone. I let a lot of behavior go, but the behaviors that have a negative effect on the rest of the family are hard to tolerate.

Comment By : tntbes

* Dear Angie Caskey: We get quite a few calls on the support line from parents using the program with 17 and 18 year old teens. There are many techniques available for use with this age group. And that certainly is the age when you’re likely to hear, “I’m an adult and can do whatever I want.” It does change over time —- your child’s ability to assume increased responsibilities. There will be changes in how independent he can be. But examine that remark; it’s easy to see the flaw in it. No one can do whatever they want. And 17-year-olds must still comply with school systems, community laws, and your house rules. Let your child know, “Yes, you are growing up, but you’re not quite living independently yet. While you’re still here with the family, there are house rules and behavior expectations of you.” The Total Transformation Program will show you how to assume control —- the first step in making positive changes in your household and learning how to create an environment where family members assume personal responsibility for their behavior choices. James will teach you many techniques, including what to say when you implement those techniques. You might also enjoy this series of articles written by James Lehman regarding working with older children: Rules, Boundaries and Older Children:

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Noel: Temper tantrums are a common problem. But you’ve done the first step toward making changes by recognizing what does not work. As you said, in the throes of a temper tantrum, consequences don’t work and neither does getting into a power struggle. There is a great article by James Lehman, called "Avoiding Power Struggles with Defiant Children", which address what you’re going through. We as parents have to put a halt to the tug-of-war by disconnecting from it, and we must disconnect in a way that does not escalate the situation. That’s the challenging part because we have feelings, too. It’s also important to role model to our children how to calm down in these circumstances. When your child is in the throes of a temper tantrum, you can’t reason with them, but you can escalate the temper by threatening them. You can’t make them calm down, they have to do that themselves, but you can coach them to try to calm themselves down. As you’ve noticed, staying engaged with your daughter does not help her to focus on herself —- she stays focused on you. When you tug on the doorknob, she tugs right back. Have a talk with her and tell her you recognize that calming herself is hard for her and you are going to try to coach her during that time so she can do a better job. Let her know that your coaching will be very short, after which you will move away from her so that she can focus on calming her body. Tell her that when she is calm, you can talk again. Talk about some of the ways she might calm herself down: (1) taking slow, deep breaths (2) listening to music or (3) resting on her bed. So let’s say she has a temper tantrum. You might say, “You need to find a way to calm yourself down. We’ll talk when you're not so upset.” Here’s the most important piece: You must speak in a non-threatening tone and have a pleasant look on your face. Your words won’t be effective if they're said in anger or exasperation. If she feels forced by you and resists, you’re in that tug-of-war again. You have to think of this as "coaching" her to calm not "requiring" her to calm. If after a pause, she continues to escalate, and seems determined not to disconnect from you, give her a reminder of what tools she could use. “Maybe you could go lie down in your room for awhile. I’m going to go to my room for a bit too.” Calming down is the child’s work to do. You can’t physically do it for them and you can’t force them to do it. You can only role model how it’s done, problem solve with them on calming down techniques, briefly coach them during a temper tantrum, then step back and allow them to learn to do this work for themselves. Thanks for your question. Please feel free to call the Support Line if you have any more. These specialists will help you come up with program techniques to address the behaviors your working on. Keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Please address discipline and parenting when the teen goes back and forth every week between divorced parents and there is no communication or cooperation between the parents.

Comment By : kcm

Ms. Banks, I see the part 1, but I've not seen part 2 or 3. Where can I locate those.

Comment By : Gloria

Dear Gloria, Here is the link to the missing information you requested: Older Kids And Adult Children Let us know if you need anything else and good luck to you!

Comment By : ridgeback522

My 17 year old basically has told me when he is 18 he will do what he wants when he wants? He has to registar August 3rd for his senior year and he turns 18 on september 18 He lies to me continueously and his friends stays out all night making me think he is at his friends and he has met girls on line that I dont think is right. I bought him a car last year because his father died and I needed another person to take my other son places and school, i have to work struggling as it is and he drove through tar and does not think he has to clean it off its a horrible mess of course this is after he lied to me and stayed out all night and this is after he text me and said he was having his girlfriend over to watch a movie up in his room on his bed and not to disturb him as they might fall asleep, so I have taken his car,phone and computer away so that is why he feels he is not responsible please help or give advice.

Comment By : maureen

Being 18 doesn't automatically make you an adult. I have a 18 year old son, who seems to have no motivation. Having a girlfriend hasn't help change it, she works and pays for everything. He quit school his senior year, he doesn't work, got into drinking and tried to steal some liquor, and he was busted. Even court hasn't changed him, except now he isn't drinking, they test once a week for that now. We don't supply him with money or rides, but his friends always drive him around buy his soda or cigarettes. Of course the excuse for not having a job is because of his record, so he tells us.But we don't really believe he has applied at that many places. I offer him a ride to apply, but he never takes me up on that. We would just like him to get his GED and a job, and be responsible. He even lost his license because of tickets, but that doesn't stop him from driving his friends cars. He doesn't have any friends that he could move out with, and I don't want to force him to move anyway, I want to help. He has relative in Detroit that he could move to, but that would not be a good move, they are totally into drugs, drinking, and stealing plus more that is not printable. He is a follower not a leader and I know he would be doing these things also. His sister says just cut him out of our life for now. I can't. Any suggestions would be appreciated. I don't know what else to do or say. My husband and I have stayed united during this, but I think he is ready to give up on our son.

Comment By : Floundering Mom

I've done all this,setting rules and goals, my son will change when he wants to change and take the next step, next week I have to attend a reinstatement meeting to get him back into school. I'm not going to lie for my son, he refuses to better himself and listen. I'm done fighting him. Soon he'll end up in jail, and this time Dad won't be there. When you exhaust yourself, sooner or later you have to turn your back. Either he'll see, and hear I'm not there and then maybe he'll change and realize that his way doesn't get him far.

Comment By : LTD

Dear Maureen, Talk to your son, tell him you need your help with your other son, sounds like he's telling you what he's doing and wants you to be a parent. Setting rules and following through is hard, because you just want a break. I fall in the trap, I need a break when my son is rude I'm done at 8:00 pm, I told you no your not going out becomes whatever, and my son does what he wants. Now my son doesn't tell me this is what he's going to do with his girlfriend, but I check on my son and keep the door open to his room, and keep checking. I might even make some popcorn, and join them for the movie, have a big slumber party. Maybe it'll work, and if it doesn't try something else, like but movie in that you want to watch and reverse the anger roles.

Comment By : LTD

for all the readers out there of empowering parents i want you all to know with the help of Mr James and lot of prayers to God . you well get help the anwser the strenght the words hope hope hope please never give up on you child never give up. they are struggling as much as we did when we were younger looking for anwser we have to have patient this is huge role on our side keep working on yourself to stay physically mentally and specially close to God so he gives us the strenght we need because this issues our childrens are going thru is stronger then our physicall strengh and the help of mr James word makes me realize of to handle my son is being very consistent persisntent patient and put your emotion to the side when it comes to consequences like MR james says let them fail. they eventually get tired of failing trust me it works!i got lot more gray hair but iam very happy with the help of empowering Parents letters i hope everyone that read this coment take it to heart all these lesson we get again thank u again mr James God gives u the words necesary to help our youth.Betty Catuse

Comment By : Betty Catuse

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