"My Child's Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin?"
How to Coach Your Child Forward

by Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor
My Child's Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin?
How to Coach Your Child Forward

“My child misbehaves so much that I don’t even know where to start!” This is one of the most common things we hear on the Parental Support Line, and it’s an understandable problem. Many parents tell me they feel overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious when dealing with their child or teen’s acting out behavior; they wonder how they’ll be able to tackle so many issues at once. But here’s a secret: thinking about the problem in this way will only make you feel defeated before you even start.

“Start where your child is and coach them forward.”

James Lehman says: “Start where your child is and coach them forward.” In other words, build on your child’s strengths and keep your expectations reasonable. We also recommend that you not try to tackle everything at once, but pick one or two behaviors you want to change and then move on from there. Remember, your overall goal is to see your child make improvements—it’s not simply to have your child do what you tell them to do.

If you feel completely overwhelmed by your child’s behavior problems, here are 8 tips to help you focus on changing your child's behavior, step by step.

1. Try to Have Reasonable Goals

I think that many times instead of trying to make gradual changes, parents expect that all the inappropriate behavior will stop immediately. The truth is, you might see certain behaviors stop right away, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will never act out again. It’s not going to be instantaneous, and it will take just as much practice on your part as it does on your child’s part. Change takes time. It’s not just you who needs time practicing new techniques. Your child also needs to practice so he can learn by repetition. The reason you want to ask for reasonable change is because your child cannot make major changes all at once.

2. Coaching Your Child Forward: Know What His Strengths Are

It’s important to have a good idea of what your child is capable of doing. Here’s an example: Some kids have an issue like ADD or ADHD. It’s important to get a really good understanding of what ADHD looks like in your child. Is it hard for him to focus and stay organized? Maybe he daydreams when he’s supposed to be working. Every child is different, and it’s important for you to modify your expectations accordingly. It’s also important for your child to know what his strengths and weaknesses are so he can recognize when he’s getting off track and learn how to get back on. After determining what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, understand that he will make improvements from that starting point.

I’ve seen kids who are defiant or oppositional completely throw in the towel because they’re not capable of doing what you’re asking, particularly in relation to school work. That’s why it’s extremely important to find out what your child’s abilities are and begin right there. That’s one of the most important steps in making sure your expectations are reasonable.

3. Keep in Mind That Your Child is Working Toward a Goal

Accept that your child is working toward a goal. In other words, your child is probably not going to be able to stop his inappropriate behavior on a dime. If your teen is in the habit of getting his way by intimidating others in the family with his angry outbursts, understand that this behavior is not going to go away immediately. Work with him on making small steps toward good behavior. You might say, “You need to give me your cell phone for the next two hours until you can behave and talk appropriately.” The key is that during that time, your child is practicing this new skill. You’re not saying, “That’s it—you’ve lost your phone all day.” Many kids struggle with punishments that last too long and end up giving up halfway through. Instead, you want to have short-term goals throughout the day. Work toward short-term accomplishments and successes all day long.

4. Pick One Behavior to Work on at a Time

When I ask parents what they’d like to start working on with their child, many say general things like, “I just want my kid to listen to me,” or “I want my teen to do what I ask him to do when I ask him.” I think it’s very important to pick a specific behavior to start with and a time of day when it should be accomplished. When you’re just beginning to use the techniques in the Total Transformation Program, it’s important to put some structure in your child’s schedule or else you’re too likely to get into a power struggle with him each time you ask him to stop what he’s doing and do what you want. Choose a concrete behavior, such as doing homework daily, or being home at curfew, instead of working on your child’s attitude. You might feel concerned because you’re letting other behaviors slide when you focus on just one, but realize that your child is actually learning skills when he changes one behavior at a time—skills that he will be able to use in all situations going forward. Primarily, he is learning how to do what he doesn’t feel like doing, and that there will be a consequence if he behaves inappropriately. Make no mistake, a lot is happening when you choose one behavior at a time and work solely on it.

5. Start with Physical Behavior

Many parents ask, “Where do I start?” I always recommend that you begin with physical behavior first. It could be a safety issue, like your child sneaking out of the house at night. Many parents will say that back talk is the biggest thing they’re dealing with. It’s really hard for them to tolerate, and that’s natural. But if your child is not coming home at night, I suggest putting backtalk aside for a bit and focusing on making sure he’s safe and complying with house rules regarding curfew.

Physical behavior can also apply to kids who act out and are destructive or abusive at home. If your child is punching holes in the walls or intimidating his siblings physically, you want to start there. We recommend that you adopt James’ philosophy of, “There’s no excuse for abuse” in your family. Let your kids know there will be stern consequences for their actions and follow through on them.

A lot of parents will avoid tackling these big issues because it’s easier to pick something small than it is to address the big scary things. But if it’s a health or safety concern I don’t think you have any choice—that should always come first.

6. Can’t Decide Which Behavior to Tackle First? Get Some Help

There are some instances where you may be forced to deal with two behaviors at the same time. Let’s say your child talks back to you while you’re trying to help him complete his homework assignment, and you’re not sure which behavior to address first. This is where the Total Transformation Parental Support Line can be really helpful. We can help you determine, based on your child and what his overall behavior is like, what the best issue is to address first. We can tell you what technique to really focus on and which ones to set aside for later—and we’ll help you come up with a practical strategy.

7. If Your Child Doesn’t Seem to be Making Enough Progress…

A common stumbling block for parents is when they feel as if their child isn’t making enough progress. But remember, the goal is that your child improves—not that they will listen to you 100% of the time. It’s very different.

Sometimes you can change that by changing your parenting techniques and the house rules. Power struggles between you and your child will usually cause him to dig in and not cooperate. Putting more structure into place is sometimes necessary. You might say, “You have to do your chores Saturday morning if you want to go out Saturday night. Get started at 10:00 a.m.”

At other times, your child might be having real difficulty making improvements. James Lehman says we have to “parent the child we have and not the child we wish we had.” He reminds us that our kids are unique individuals. This brings us back to the importance of determining your child’s capabilities—again, be sure that what you’re asking of your child is reasonable.

8. Don’t Take It Personally

Many parents also get trapped in wanting their kids to feel a certain way. They want their kids to care about cleaning their room or to care about the effect doing homework will have on their future. The truth is, it’s not your child’s fault; he’s really not wired to feel that way yet. The important thing is not that your child cares, it’s that he learns how to do things even if he doesn’t feel like doing them. This is a huge life skill.

When you’re working to have your child’s behavior change, try to pay attention to what it looks like rather than what your child is saying. James says to ask yourself, “What would I see if I were watching this on television with the sound turned down? What would my child’s behavior look like right now?” I think this is a really good way to visualize what behavior is when you’re having a hard time separating it from what your child says or feels. Just ask yourself, “What is my child doing?”

Let’s say the sound is turned down and you see your teenager fighting with you, then he’s stomping off to clean his room. He may be sullen and have a bad attitude, but he’s also doing what you asked. Work on the behavior first, and the attitude will come. James says, “Don’t feel your way to better behavior; behave your way to better feelings.” And that’s exactly what you want your child to do.

Sometimes in parenting, it really is “two steps forward, one step back.” But remember, even if that’s the case, you are still moving forward. Yes, your child will challenge you. He’ll come back and test you to see if things have really changed; he’ll see if he can get you to go back to the way you used to be, particularly if he was calling all the shots. But stand your ground and eventually his behavior will change. One way to stay encouraged is to remember where your child started and compare it to the progress he’s made. It’s also important to encourage your child when this happens. Keep saying things like, “I know you can make improvements because you have already done it. Keep at this.”


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Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.


Thank you, this article reminds me to keep things in perspective, to remember that children think differently than adults, and that I CAN do this.

Comment By : G.

This is great! My husband and I struggle on what to work on. Reading this together will help put us on the same page.

Comment By : jenntid

Make sure you determine whether or not your child is being abused sexually, mentally or physically by friends or other family members. The child may be suffering from some form of trauma and unable to express his/her feelings so is lashing out.

Comment By : cd

Include some kind of therapy, art, swimming, football, soccer, pet sit for a weekend. Go to a game where your child can yell and cheer. Pressure therapy, put a sheet over a table create a tent. Put up a tent in the yard change the environment, change the behavior. Take a hike, fly a kite, shoot off a water roctet.

Comment By : Teddie

I think that I have been expecting instant results. I am wanting it to all be better too quickly. I have had to sit back and evaluate our situation and see that small strides are being made. I, too, am learning that we are on this road together and it is my responsibility to lead him forward and not get caught up in the small details that can bog us down. Progress. It's all about progress and when I look back, I can see that we have made some.

Comment By : meeisdee

Thanks a lot - the article is very helpfull. I have a teenage son who has an attitude problem and is very disrespectfull. Its frustrating and I feel lost. Reading articles like this help. Thankyou

Comment By : Sandy

What can you suggest when the teacher is the one having expectations that are to high?

Comment By : lildeb

Where can I get info on dealing with a difficult adult son?

Comment By : Lucy

* Dear ‘lildeb’: This sometimes happens. Try your best to not criticize the teacher in front of your child. You want your child to be respectful to his teachers and other school authority figures. If your child knows you disagree with his teacher, this can affect his enthusiasm for the class and his willingness to try hard. Instead, keep good records of how much time your child spends on homework meet with your son’s teacher and tell the teacher your concerns. Another option is requesting to meet with the school’s special education director to see if there can be accommodations made to assist your son. We wish your family the best.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I want to let parents know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I read James' articles faithfully every week and I've put many of his practices into action and they work. The one that works for me with my son, who is ADD, is state the problem that I want him to stop and the consequence if it doesn't and if he argues or has a tantrum, then I walk away. For example, when he doesn't get his way, he likes to stomp around and throw things. I let him know that it's inappropriate behavior and he needs to stop or I will take his cell phone away until he stops OR until the morning. If he continues or starts to yell at me as to unfair I am, I walk away letting him know that he knows the consequences to his actions. This has been the scenario for 2 years. It's getting better! He's showing signs of maturity.

Comment By : luvmykidz

I have two ADHD children and an ADD husband, and how fitting I coach an ADHD child at school. I appreciate all the info I can get.

Comment By : Mb

thank you... we have just ordered the program and haven't rec'd it yet. Reading this is already what we need. It is so vital to feel you have the tools to parent. I think my husband and I just get to an age/stage feeling like we figured it out and then it all changes! We starving for the tools that work at evey age and stage. We know that it all seems to gel when we as parents are on the same page. It makes all the difference in the world... and our little man deserves that!

Comment By : cooks

The tips are good, the problem is I have a kiddo that is off the charts on EVERYTHING. I can't for his safety only choose 1 behavior.

Comment By : rochesternative

My son is wonderful when he is home. He does what he is asked to do, and listens well. He has a tendency to tune you out, and submit to cartoons, but overall I would say he is a good child. Then he goes to school, and he becomes a different child. He does not get aggressive, he is very passive, but he talks to his teacher's badly and he refuses to do any of his school work. He is only 8 and I need this under control before middle school. He is behind in school, and when we do homework together, he does not turn it in. How can I help him?

Comment By : Aprilann

The tips are good, the problem is I have a kiddo that is off the charts on EVERYTHING. I can't for his safety only choose 1 behavior.

Comment By : rochesternative

Thank you, If you are able to respond to me what do I do about a smooth talking, convincing chronic liar? This article has been very valuable, I am very thankful to be on you mailing list.

Comment By : C Jean

Aprilann - since your son is still in elementary school, you can call the school in the morning and request the teacher retrieve his homework from his bag. Once in middle school, the student has the sole responsibility of turning in the homework and the teacher's cannot or will not retrieve it, at least not in our state. Also, you can still set consequences, and give rewards for to your son for turning in the homework. Last year my son would do the homework and failed to turn it in, 50% of the time, and was failing in 4 out 6 of his classes. As a reward, among other things he needed to do to get his grades up, he would recieve a T-shirt from his favorite band - a band I did not like. This was incentive enough to get him to do it. Find out what will motivate your son to turn in his homework. Kudos to you for getting him to even do his homework! LOL!

Comment By : luvmykidz

* Dear Lucy: James Lehman wrote a terrific set of articles on how to deal with older children living in the home. It’s challenging to find that balance between the right amount of support and the right amount of limit setting in these situations. One of the key principles in James’ articles is ‘knowing what your personal boundaries are’; what are you comfortable offering to your adult kids—physically and emotionally, what would you like from them? As kids grow, they are driven to become more and more independent of their parents. This natural growing apart creates the need for a lot of re-adjustments in your parenting role as the years go by, changing the personal boundaries established between yourself and your child. This can create some uncomfortable emotions for parents and kids. All through our lives the adjustments continue as the relationship changes. There may be a time in the elderly years of the parent, for example, when they become more dependent on their children for care and support. Each step of the way, the task is to decide what to offer your child and in turn learn how to accept what your child is able to offer to you. Ask for what you need—privacy, connection, lifestyle or financial issues. Tell your child what you can offer. Learn to hear what your child is asking for and can give. The goal is to learn how to constructively deal with any tensions or problems that arise in your relationships, trying to be accommodating when you can, or learning to accept and respect each other’s differences.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I'm writing about a grandchild. My son is quadriplegic after a car accident 6 years ago. His son is ADHD. He was taken off his medicine this summer because he wanted to try it without it and his mother, my son's ex agreed (not with doctor approval). Her side of the family thinks he's better but I think he's very emotional. He won't listen to my son or us. My son has no use of his hands and can't walk. He was outside with him and he started a fire in the fire pit. He was just burning paper. My son told him not to burn anything else and previously he had thrown gas on the fire and told him never to do that again. Well, my son went into the house and his son put gas on it and of course it puffed up and he got scared and threw the can of gas on there. Thankfully it did not blow sky high. Does he not listen because of the ADHD? Should he be on medicine even if he seems ok with his mother? My son's ex then of course said don't let him play with fire but the kids will not listen even when my son tells him. My son gets really cold and cannot be outside with him all the time to monitor him. Suggestions. The thing I told my son is that he needs counseling and then needs to get his kids into counseling too. The kids previously for 2 yrs had counseling with their mother but my son wasn't invited to it. His son is 10, almost 11 and daughter is 9. They are starting at this age to be angry about his accident and they are not being told the truth about his accident. It's a hard thing especially when both sides don't agree and the mother has primary custody. A concerned grandparent, Deb

Comment By : Concerned grandparent

What a great article! I had no idea where to start and this information has made it clear where I need to begin. Thanks for all of your help! I look forward to future articles.

Comment By : twinlynch

A very good discussion. It highlights important points about keeping peace and focus in the house. Keep these coming.

Comment By : Norris M. Ncube

Thank you so much for sharing such useful information! I see improvements in my son's behavior everyday when I implement the tools and tips from James.

Comment By : esvahokiegirl

Thank you for this excellent article. This addresses almost every question I struggle with as a parent. This keeps MY perspective right, and that's where the changing begins.

Comment By : dls

* Dear Aprilann: It’s a really good idea to take action and do what you can to help your child when he’s behind in school. The best place to start is with a physical exam at your son’s pediatrician. His doctor can rule out any underlying medical conditions. Report to the pediatrician your observations that your son has a tendency to tune you out, and that although he completes his homework, he has problems turning it in as well as problems participating in class. You don’t want to begin using a system of rewards and consequences until you after you make sure that your child is being asked to do work he is capable of doing and getting the appropriate supports that he needs to be successful. We wish you the best and invite you to stay in touch with us. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor

Hello, I have to say I enjoyed a lot this article and shared it with my friends that are also moms. Personally, with my kids of 6 and 8, some time now I started to use a Reward System for kids. It worked as a charm. I quite happy using reward materials (reward charts and diplomas). My kids love it and I see the results after a couple of weeks. Good luck to you all!

Comment By : Amy Douglas

My child has a problem even sitting in class she runs out and has severe anxiety she's on 3 different meds now she's add pdd and also ocd the school is calling me all the time now at least 3 days out of 5 these storys are helpful in knowing i'm not alone cause that's how we all feel at times i'm thinking about cyber schooling at this point i'm not sure if that's best but no school seems to want to even deal with it anymore

Comment By : dmc34

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