The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems"

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: I Can't Solve Problems

What causes bad child behavior? James Lehman says it happens because children don’t yet know how to solve problems effectively. To put it another way, they're trying to handle many of the situations that life throws at them by acting out. They do this, frankly, because it's working for them. But here's the truth: If you don't find out what problem your child is trying to solve with his behavior and offer him a new solution, the acting out will most likely continue—or even get worse over time.

Does this sound familiar?

-You tell your teenage son he can’t go out during the week, and he kicks a hole in the wall before storming out of the house anyway.

-You ask your pre-teen daughter to change her inappropriate outfit. She throws a screaming fit and calls you a b----, all before 8 a.m.

-Your 10-year-old wants to watch TV, but he needs to finish his homework. When you put your foot down, he rages and has an hour-long meltdown that leaves you feeling frustrated, exhausted and helpless.

The negative behaviors that have become habits are like a well-worn groove; itís easier for your child to fall into one of them as they have a hundred times before.

Related: How to change your child’s behavior, starting today.

Keep in mind there are many different kinds of problems kids encounter and each looks a little different in terms of behavior. These are the three main types of problem-solving challenges you might see:

  1. Emotional problems: Everyone has moments of feeling angry, sad, frustrated, helpless or excited. When you’re a child who hasn’t figured out how to deal with his emotions, just having these feelings can bring on irritating or abusive acting-out behavior.

    What this looks like: Instead of dealing appropriately or even reasonably well with being told "no," your child has tantrums, curses at you, yells, or punches holes in the walls.
  2. Social/relational problems: Some kids have an inability to get along well with others, particularly people their own age. They don’t know how to introduce themselves to someone, how to say "no," or how to handle it if a peer does something they don’t like. Bullies often lack social problem-solving skills and treat others poorly to compensate.

    What this looks like: Your 13-year-old daughter wants to be accepted at school and to get her way at home, so she uses bullying—of peers and siblings—to feel more powerful. She’s solving her problems at the expense of everyone else’s sense of security.
  3. Functional problems: This is when your child has problems meeting responsibilities around the home, at school, or in the community. He might continually lose schoolwork, refuse to do chores, talk out of turn in class or talk back to teachers, and lie about having his homework done.

    What this looks like: Your son lies and tells you he did his homework in school. The next day, you tell him you want to check his work but he didn’t even bring it home. He says he forgot—another lie. Before you know it, the zeros are piling up and he just keeps lying about his schoolwork night after night while his grades fall lower and lower

Teaching your child how to solve problems

The best way to start teaching your child better problem solving skills is to have a conversation about a particular incident. Do this after things have calmed down and before you talk about consequences. Your goal here is to identify the problem, teach your child how to solve it, and then hold him accountable—not to punish him and make him miserable.

Related: Is your child disrespectful?

Find a calm time to sit down with your child and talk. If your child refuses to participate without being abusive or refuses to participate at all, put one privilege on hold until you get through a calm, cooperative conversation. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Eliminate "why" from your vocabulary. "Why" invites excuses and blame. Ask deeper questions to identify the problem such as "What were you thinking when…?" or "What were you trying to accomplish by…?" This works well for both elementary school kids and teens. Some kids, especially those in preschool and early elementary school, might have a hard time answering these questions. Younger kids will develop the ability to talk about their thoughts more as they grow older. Be patient, take a break and let your child think about things a bit more rather than putting the pressure on them to answer right away.
  2. Focus on one issue at a time. Talk about one problem and one problem only during this conversation. Don’t bring up something that happened two weeks ago or something else your child did today that upset you. If your child brings up another incident, let him know you will talk about that later. Tackling too many problems at once usually only results in frustration on your part, because it’s overwhelming to address them all at the same time.
  3. Identify replacement behaviors. Talk about what your child will do differently the next time this problem comes up. Allow your child to try to come up with an idea on her own; make some suggestions if she’s struggling. Perhaps you decide that when you tell your preteen daughter she can’t do something, she can go to her room and write in a journal instead of screaming and calling you names. Or maybe you decide that she might ask herself it it’s worth it to scream at you and call you names, or tell herself, "It isn’t the end of the world if I can’t wear this skirt to school."
  4. No wishful thinking allowed. When you ask your child what he will do differently next time, many kids will give you an answer that is based on wishful thinking, such as, "I just won’t do it again" or "I’ll do better." Wishful thinking is a type of faulty thinking that indicates that your child truly believes he can just do something without really putting thought or effort into it. Get your child to be more specific. Ask him, "How will you stop cursing at me? What will I see you doing instead?"
  5. Be a role model. Remember that kids study us for a living. If you yell and curse but you don’t want your child to do the same thing, this is a problem. It’s important for you to act the way you want your children to act. Observation is a key learning method for kids, especially younger ones, so be aware of this. You are the most important role model in your child’s life, even if he acts like you aren’t, so make sure to play the role well.

What changes will I see as my child develops good problem-solving skills?

Many parents have unrealistic expectations about the problem solving-process. They call us on the Parental Support Line after their very first try, disappointed that it didn’t work and that their child turned right around and did it again. This is extremely frustrating, but it’s really no surprise. When kids are caught in the heat of the moment, it’s hard for them to remember that conversation you had a few days ago—or even earlier that day. The replacement behavior you talked about is right there on the surface—it hasn’t sunk in yet, so to speak. The negative behaviors that have become habits are like a well-worn groove, and it’s easier for your child to fall into one of them like they have a hundred times before. After all, these old, comfortable behaviors have been learned and reinforced over time, while the new behavior hasn’t. Be prepared for the fact that you will need to be your child’s coach. Give him a brief reminder about what he’s supposed to do instead, and then walk away. You also might need to experiment with several different replacement behaviors over time to find one that fits. For example, some kids cool down best with a bike ride or some exercise, and some like to listen to music in their room. Listen to your instincts—you know your child best, and will find the right solution together.

Related: Is your child using acting out behavior to solve his problems?

I know this process isn’t always easy. There will be times when you take some steps backwards, or maybe you’ll get off to a really slow start and won’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Rest assured that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve talked with many parents on the Parental Support Line who felt hopeless and frustrated but were able to stick with it. Over time, I saw them really make some phenomenal changes in their homes. It’s important to focus on the positive and look for even the smallest improvements. Keep talking about what can be done differently and stay positive. It’s important to give your child some verbal recognition for both noticeable changes and effort. Incentive systems and reward charts are also helpful ways to reinforce replacement behaviors. Positive verbal recognition and earning incentives each help to keep you on track to create some long-term behavior changes. Continue to do your best and take one small step at a time.

The reward? As you go through this process of having problem-solving discussions and coaching your child, you will see that he gradually uses those replacement behaviors more and more with less coaching from you. And as kids get better at solving various problems on their own, most will start to feel better about themselves. As James Lehman says, "you can’t feel your way to better behavior, you have to behave your way to better feelings." Having strong problem-solving skills improves self-esteem. Kids feel good about themselves when they conquer something that’s hard and let’s face it: when kids feel good, parents feel good, too. It’s a win-win.

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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.


Excellent advice for biological and foster parents.

Comment By : cw

I will be putting this information to action tonight when I get home!! Thank you!!

Comment By : Kelli

I never had a problem with my daughter acting out until she divorce her husband at 24 years old. Now, she has problems such as lying, talking hateful, cursing, anger, and making bad choices. I ordered the Total Transformation CD's and I wished I could had these tapes when she was living out home. I feel it is a hopeless case when you have a adult child that acts like a 12 year old and not living with you. I do not know what to do and it has broke my heart.

Comment By : hurtingmom

i would telll him that he need to go to bed early than normal cuz of the way he acting

Comment By : jamie

Well Stick to the methods advised in the Transformation Program. It works in time by repeated and consistent approach. I have used all of the techniques with different children in therapy. They always work in one combination or another. You will always get great advise ib the emailed articles. Remember to have positive expectations that the techniques will work this helps you feel 'its only a matter of time and consistency. Best Wishes Joseph Grennell Child Psychotherapist and ABA Behavioural Therapist.

Comment By : joseph2746

hi just wondering how do you get the child to stop stealing he gets everything he wants and he dont own up to stealing and lies always a different story every time ask about the money

Comment By : katherine

* To Ďhurtingmomí: It sounds like you are very disappointed by your daughterís behavior. Going through a divorce is a big transition. As you know, James Lehman felt that children act out because they lack the skills to solve problems effectively. This can be true for adults as well. Big transitions can cause a breakdown of problem solving skills. It might feel like there isnít a lot you can do to help your daughter at this point, but you can. It will be very helpful for you to focus on your reaction when she is inappropriate with you in person or by phone (listen to the bonus CD for more on this). You can also try to problem solve with her and help her improve the way she is handling things (refer to lessons 3 and 6 for this). It certainly is more challenging to work the program with a child not in your home because you donít have the same parental authority with an adult child. But just because you donít have authority doesnít mean you canít have some influence by taking on those 3 effective parenting roles and managing yourself well. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* Hi there, Katherine. It sounds like you are feeling a bit stuck. Your child does not really have to admit anything. The important thing is that you are holding him accountable by restricting a privilege until he makes an amends such as by returning the money or doing some simple, age-appropriate chores to earn the money to pay you back. Try using the suggestions above to have a conversation about what your child did that makes him very suspicious and problem solve that instead before you give the consequences. Here are a couple articles about stealing for more information and ideas: Why is My Child Stealing and What Can I Do?, Kids Stealing from Parents: What You Need to Know Now.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Hi there my Husband and I havean international marriage. iam fromEngland and he is from Canada . we have moved 5 times in 9 years of marriage due to my desperate case off homesickness (that is England to Canada and visa versa ) It has had a great strain on our marriage and our daughter is now 8 years old , so she has been with us this entire journey. To be honest I think she has seen her Mummy sad far to many times and she has seen my Husband and I more unhappy together than happy . I feel that it has had a huge affect on her character , which is why I am writing to you in desperation, about her behavior . she loves a lot ,but her disrespect to us is outrageous sometimes and she can become very aggressive , I feel so incredibly defeated and guilty . guilt I would say is my biggest problem as I feel it prevents me from disciplining her as i should ,out of blaming my self for her behavior. my Husband and I tend to fall out even more when these outburst happen as we want to deal with them in a different way . Help Help Help please . I love my little girl so much and I want to help her so much . I just think she is hurting .

Comment By : Greiving mum

* To ĎGreiving mumí: While itís not great that youíre feeling guilty, itís great that you have such a keen awareness of your emotions and how they might be affecting your parenting. Itís actually good for kids to see their parents struggle with difficult emotions because itís an opportunity to role model for your child. Also, children need to experience tough emotions themselves in order to learn how to manage them. Many parents struggle with guilt, to those parents, James Lehman says, ďI very directly tell parents who blame themselves to cut it out. Remember, itís not whose fault it isóitís who's willing to take responsibility. So if you're looking for answers in Empowering Parents, and otherwise trying to improve your parenting skills, then you're taking responsibility. Maybe you messed up in the past, but let's start here, today, with what you are willing to do for your child now.Ē James also reminds parents that kids canít feel their way to better behavioróthey have to behave their way to better feelings. When you work with your daughter to discuss what her reason is for being disrespectful and teach her ways to solve her problem in a different way, youíll see a really big change. Here are some articles that will get you started by teaching you about Jamesí three effective parenting roles: Why Consequences Aren't Enough, Part 1: How to Coach Your Child to Better Behavior & Why Consequences Aren't Enough, Part 2: Making Child Behavior Changes That Last. If you continue to experience chronic feelings of sadness, it would also be a good idea to check in with someone locally for some support around this. We wish you and your family luck as you move forward from here. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My teenager father's partner is a well seasoned lawyer, I'm a lone parent, what effect might that have on our daughter?

Comment By : devoted yet disgruntled

* To Ďdevoted yet disgruntledí: You ask a really tough question. Children can learn from all of the adults in their livesóeach one of you brings something valuable to the table. Itís helpful to focus on what you can control, which is what kind of influence you have on your daughter. You might do this by teaching her your values, sharing some of your unique skills or talents with her, and helping her learn how to handle lifeís challenges. You can also do your best to be a positive role model for your daughter. Being a single parent takes a great amount of strength, courage, and commitment and as your daughter grows older she will probably come to recognize and appreciate your hard work and the sacrifices you have made for her. In the meantime, be sure to take good care of yourself, too, by making some time each week for relaxation and activities you enjoy. Here is an article for more information: Flying Solo: Six Ways to Soar as a Single Parent. We wish you and your daughter all the best. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What do you do when you use these questions, and the only reply you get is " I want to watch tv, play a game etc." . When my son is told to do something I get screamed at, or get a mumbled shut up. It is so frustrating...we have taken away games and TVs at various times and nothing matters, all he sees is that we are being mean to home. Meanwhile at school he refuses to do anything to get into trouble because he doesn't want to go to the principal's office.

Comment By : At the end of my rope

* To At the end of my rope: It can be pretty frustrating when you have a child who refuses to do anything to help out at home, yet behaves well at school. You are going to be more effective focusing on what specifically your child can do to earn his privileges rather than try to make him see that you are not being mean by suspending them. If he refuses to problem solve with you, let him know that his electronics privilege is suspended until he is willing to talk with you about what he will do differently. During the problem-solving conversation, you could praise him for his good behavior at school, and even ask him, ďWhatís different? What do you do at school when your teacher asks you to do something you donít want to do?Ē Sara Bean talks more about this in her article Angel Child or Devil Child? When Kids Save Their Bad Behavior for You. Thank you for writing in and we wish you the best as you continue to work on this with your son.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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problem solving skills, children, teenagers, kids, bad child behavior, acting out behaviour

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