The Top 5 Parenting Mistakes-and
How to Avoid Them

by Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor
The Top 5 Parenting Mistakes-and How to Avoid Them

As parents, we all make mistakes. On the Parental Support Line, I often encourage parents to give themselves a break—after all, it’s impossible for any of us to be perfect. Our kids test us at every age and stage; it’s part of their job as children to push boundaries with us and see where the line is drawn. As they get older, it can often feel like we are running through a parenting obstacle course: just when we’ve figured out one stage—and its many challenges—our kids move on to the next one. So you might feel pretty confident in your role as a parent when your child is nine, but then everything changes again when he moves on to the tween years and starts acting out in new, unimagined ways.

The other problem with looking for a “magic consequence” is that it assumes that the consequence itself will change behavior.

While mistakes happen, I think it’s always a good idea to be aware of what you’re doing so you can adjust your reaction to your child’s behavior; this helps you become a more effective parent. Over the years, I’ve helped parents get through all kinds of “obstacles” with their kids, no matter what the stage. Here are the 5 top mistakes that we hear about on the Support Line:

1. Personalizing your child’s behavior.

It’s hard not to take it personally when your child misbehaves or says something hurtful to you. I think it’s important to accept that you will get upset from time to time and your feelings will be hurt. You might be shocked and angry when your child misbehaves, and that’s natural—you’re human. But try to recognize when you’re too upset. Remind yourself that when you feel this way, you’ve got to give yourself some time before you interact with your child about it; try to calm down before you come up with your discipline strategy.

How will you know you’re personalizing things? You’ll feel really upset. You’ll say or think things like, “How could he do this to me? How dare you speak to me that way! You’ll do what I tell you to when I tell you to do it.” What you want to do instead is recognize that you’re taking things too personally and then try to detach from the situation. Calm down and leave the room if you need to. On the Support Line, I often start by asking parents “What behaviors are you concerned about?”  The parent might respond, “My child is disrespectful.”  But in order for parents to begin to tackle problem behaviors, we need to talk in terms of “doing” and not “feeling.”  I’ll then ask, “What was going on when your child wasn’t respecting you?” The answer might be, “Well, he wouldn’t do his homework,” or “She won’t clean her room.” I actually like to hear that, because I know that now we have something to work with—a behavior that we can tackle, instead of an emotion. As James Lehman says, “Focus on the behavior, not the feelings.” You can fight with your child until you’re blue in the face about disrespect or motivation, but the way to really effect change is by focusing on their behavior.

I often recommend that parents set up a structure and real goals that their kids can work toward rather than lecturing your children about how they should respect you. That will never get you anywhere.

2. Misunderstanding the developmental stage of your child.

It can be easy to misunderstand the developmental stage of your child, whether they are younger or in their teens. What I mean by this is that parents sometimes assume that their young child has more understanding about human nature—and how he should behave—than he actually does. On the Parental Support Line, I hear from many parents who have the expectation that their children should be altruistic, for example—that their kids should think of other people first. And if a young child has an advanced vocabulary, it’s easy to assume his verbal ability indicates he’s also physically and emotionally advanced. But as James Lehman says,They’re not little adults, they’re children.” You can’t expect your child to have the same kind of empathy, altruism or physical discipline and skills that you do. They simply don’t have that capacity yet.

This also shows up with teens—there is an expectation that teenagers should feel gratitude, be very empathetic, and be future-oriented. So parents will try to motivate their kids by lecturing them about their future. The truth is, teens are very selfish in their focus; that’s part of the developmental stage they’re in as adolescents. It’s our job to teach them empathy and goal-setting. I don’t think there’s any point in getting angry with your child for something they can’t do yet. Knowing what your child is capable of at a certain developmental stage can really help you to have reasonable expectations for them.

3. Expecting one type of parenting style to fit kids with a specific diagnosis.

James Lehman says that regardless of your disability, you still have to figure out how to get along in society. This is absolutely true, but some parents take it to mean that all kids can and should respond to the same kind of parenting. The truth is, for kids with ADHD or other diagnoses, your parenting style will have to change a bit to be effective. Simply setting up a structure and using consequences to keep a child with ADHD on task, as you would for a child who does not have it, will usually not work—in fact, it’s been shown that children with ADHD respond better when you alter the rewards and consequences system. (Dr. Bob Myers explains how to do this in his Total Focus Program for kids with ADD and ADHD.)

Kids with ADHD may know how to do things, but sometimes they just can’t pull it off. Maybe they get started on a task, but they can’t finish it because their impulsivity or distractibility gets them off track. If you don’t understand that as a parent, then you’re punishing your child without being helpful to him—and the behavior won’t change. That’s why you need to learn how to coach your child appropriately by saying things like, “Hey you’re getting off track. Why don’t you come back and finish your homework first before you start on the next project?” You also may need to accept the fact that before their meds kick in, they are going to have a challenging time getting ready for school.

So even though the end result is that you want your child to function in society as an adult some day, that doesn’t mean that you treat every child the same way. You still have to parent differently according to your child’s needs or diagnosis.

4. Looking for a “magic consequence.”

Parents often ask me, “What’s the ‘best consequence’ for this behavior?” They want a list of consequences they can plug in when their child misbehaves, but that’s not exactly the way it works. James Lehman recommends using a consequence that is related to the behavior, if possible, so it is often case-specific. For example, if your child can’t wake up and get ready for school in the morning, you might make him go to bed earlier. But, experiencing this consequence is really only part of solving the problem of why your child isn’t able to get ready for school on time. So with that consequence, what you’re also teaching your child is, “You’re too tired—you need to get more sleep.” Problem solving is the foundation of this technique, not giving consequences. 

The other problem with looking for a “magic consequence” is that it assumes that the consequence itself will change behavior. But when you want to change what your child is doing, you really need a whole system of discipline, limit setting, coaching, teaching and problem solving, like the one James Lehman created in his Total Transformation Program. James says to always ask yourself the lesson your child needs to learn. That lesson may or may not include a consequence. Think of consequences as a tool in your toolbox that you may or may not use, according to the job. Remember, consequences alone will not change behaviors; if they did, all we would need would be a consequences and rewards chart—but  we need more. You can’t make lasting behavior changes without using problem solving.

5. Believing that harsh, long-term punishments will work.

Harsh, long-term punishments usually come about when parents are personalizing their child’s behavior. Some parents feel that if their child gets a really severe or long-term consequence, they’ll never forget it—and the experience will cause them to never disobey them again. But if your punishment is too harsh, your child won’t feel remorse but probably will feel resentment towards you. In my opinion, we don’t want to use punishments to create fear, shame, physical pain, or resentment. 

Don’t take away special occasions, birthday or holiday celebrations, or anything the child cannot earn back. Taking away a video game for a week is very different from taking away a homecoming dance your son or daughter will never be able to go to again. Instead, you want them to have opportunities to practice doing the behavior correctly and to earn privileges.

It can take practice for your child to change his behavior, and being able to practice means learning how to make better choices. So being grounded for three weeks is often ineffective—you’re really just “teaching your kid how to do time,” as James Lehman says, not how to change what he’s doing. You’ll also be lucky if your child remembers why he’s been grounded in the first place. And here’s another big one: you’ve got nothing to work with as a parent—no  opportunities to use incentives to motivate your child during this time. Your child needs the opportunity to practice getting it right the next time in order to improve behaviors.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your teen frequently swears at you and his siblings. Giving him a long-term consequence gives him no opportunity to practice controlling himself—he has no incentive to try. He’s already lost everything for three weeks, so he’ll probably reason that he might as well swear, because he’s got nothing left to lose. Rather than trying to stop something that happens frequently all at once, require your child to make steady improvements.

Instead of long-term consequences, we recommend that you first think about how frequently a behavior happens. Set your goal at gradually reducing the frequency. So if your kid swears at you four times a day, your initial goal might be three times a day with an eventual goal of zero. This can be hard to accept at first, but this really works.

Also, if the behavior happens four times a day, you’ve got to have incentives that you can use four times a day. For example, you might take away your child’s cell phone for two hours each time. And in that time period, your child has to practice not swearing at anybody in the house in order to get his cell phone back. If he does swear again, the two hours start all over again. Now, rather than trying to stop something immediately, you’re encouraging your child to learn how to behave appropriately, all the time. And that’s the name of the game—for every parent.

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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.


This is great information. Sooooo helpful for me (I have a six year old and I have a friend who is having problems with her teen. I'm going to forward this on to her. Thanks for these e-mails.

Comment By : preciouskids

Thank u so much for opening my eyes in how o can change to help with the problem instead of trying to change my daughter the entire time. This was very helpful.

Comment By : diosyboo

My son doesn't have a cell phone. He doesn't get TV or computer time or video games at my house (he gets a lot at his dad's house on the weekends, but I have no control over that.) A lot of the consequences you talk about simply don't apply unless you're a family who has bought into the whole gadget and material stuff paradigm. So what other sorts of carrots & sticks can be used?

Comment By : Alia

This info is great-I hear it all the time from my son's ABA therapist. I need to change my outlook on his behavior. The problem is that no one has been able to tell me HOW to do that-only that I need to do it. How do I change everything I've ever known about parenting (taught by my parents-I turned out great)? I've read all the stuff about trying to calm myself. If I wait until I'm calm, the issue has passed, the consequence has lost its relevancy and my son "gets away" with the maladaptive behavior without any correction. Just once, I wish someone would tell us how to go about changing our behavior and perspective toward this stuff instead of just saying we need to do it. You can tell a 5 year old they need to cook dinner for themselves, but it doesn't do them a bit of good unless they know how to use the stove or read a recipe.

Comment By : ADHDMom

My problem is that my 7-year-old son acts out almost every night at bedtime, after everything is done for the night and all that is left is for him to go to sleep. So how do you deal with that or enforce a timely consequence with that? The soonest opportunity is after school the next day, which is too late and not effective...

Comment By : hustonmomma

* Dear ‘hustonmomma’: When you begin to address a behavior problem, don’t start by thinking about how to enforce a consequence to change the behavior. Ask yourself, “What problem is my child trying to solve by acting out?” “Is he overly tired and feels miserable, does he want our attention, is he acting out because we’re upset, stressed, and raising our voices at him?” When you know the problem your child is trying to solve, you can come up with a solution to help him.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Alia: What we recommend in the Total Transformation Program is to not rely on just carrots & sticks to change behavior; instead, rely on teaching your child problem solving techniques. Let’s say your child is doing poorly in school because of poor study habits. A problem solving discussion with your child would address what they can do differently in order to get their work done everyday. You discover during this conversation that your child is waiting until right before bed to do homework, they’re exhausted, and they can’t focus as well, or run out of time. This discussion is much more useful for making lasting behavior changes then simply taking away privileges until your child’s grades improve.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I feel for Alla, who has the added burden of an additional parent that is the "fun" household. The child looks forward to their weekends as time away from the "mean" parents. HustonMomma - my 12 year old lives for his back scratch each night before bed. He is ADHD, and by this time of night his meds have worn off. After his bedtime routine, usually growling and grumbling the whole way thru it, he arrives with a big smile wanting a back scratch or shoulder rub. Only takes a couple minutes, and gives us a chance to bond. Anyway...then he's off to bed with no problem. Human touch is important. I see people pet their dogs and cats more than they hug their kids.

Comment By : StillLearning

I have three daughters. I made so many of these mistakes with my oldest but have learned better how to deal with problems. I didn't start practicing better parenting until she was half way through her 16th year. Her behavior improved so astoundingly that I now consider her one of my very best friends. (she is now married and in college) My younger daughters are very respectful as I am of them. I almost never lose my temper anymore and when I do, I apologize. There is always a better way to handle a problem! Excellent advice in this article! I love this site because I am always learning some new tool to be a better parent!

Comment By : cheran67

I think the struggle now, is that my son is 10 and learning there are all sorts of people out there with all sorts of responses, behaviors and attitudes. I have to focus on being as consistent as possible, so he knows what to always expect from me. However, he expects people to react to him the way I do. This frustrates him when it doesn't work out that way and he comes home with a different behavioral challenge for me! Go figure. Any ideas?

Comment By : oliver's mom

Wonderful tips Carole. These wer exactly the mistakes i was committing. This is an eye opener. though i try hard t empathise, the way you have put the childs perspective is magical. Thankyou for better parenting me.

Comment By : Mothers On The Go

* Dear ‘oliver’s mom’: In order to give you a helpful answer, we would need to know a little bit more about the behavioral challenges you are referring to. This is how the Support Line service can be helpful. If you are a Total Transformation Program customer, give us a call. Support Line Specialists can answer questions on how to apply a specific technique from the Program in your own home.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ADHDMom: Taking care of a child with special needs takes a lot of emotional and physical energy. Understanding your child’s capabilities and challenges will help. Getting support for yourself can be just the ticket to changing your perspective and how you interact with your child. A great resource for this is a parenting support group. Support groups share information and advice, can help with feelings of isolation and give you the opportunity to talk honestly about your concerns with other’s who share your experiences. Attending a support group can help you increase your coping skills and feel more empowered. Ask your child’s pediatrician or other health care providers for information on local groups or try searching the internet. For support for parents of kids with ADHD, try this web site: CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

For the ADHDMom... I, too have an ADHD child and my emotions can run high when misbehaviors happen, the school calls, etc. I have discovered a stress relief technique called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) that really helps me manage my emotions. Honestly, it works. It may or may not resonate with you, but there is a ton of free information about it at There's nothing to buy and I'm not selling anything. It's simply a technique anyone can learn. A calm parent is a better parent, right? Best of luck to you.

Comment By : Another ADHDMom

It is not the "job" of children to try their parents. I have two beautiful children at home still and they do not do anything to try their limits. I think that children will try their limits when parents are having a tough time knowing what to do. I have raised two families and this second time around I have learned so much and one thing is this. Children will respond to unconditional love. I treat my children with the utmost less than the way I wish to be treated. They learned this from day one and it has continued. They give me the same. "Children" is just another word for "us" with the hope of having someone in their lives to guide them in the right direction.

Comment By : Mari

What do you do when your 16yr. old daughter doesn't want to live with you. I am divorced for 7yrs. trying to move forward, but she wants to stay with her father who travels a lote & 3/4 of her life was never there. He is giving her what she wants in order to stay with her friend & school. My daugher & I have never been apart and now she just is ok with everything what do I do & how do I handle it.

Comment By : Help

* To ‘Help’: It sounds like you are feeling pretty hurt by your daughter’s wish to live with her father. At 16, your daughter is in the process of individuating, or figuring out her identity outside of her normal home setting (your home, in this case). It is common for teens to pull away from their primary parents and feel more comfortable spending time away from home. In fact, some teens prefer to be away from home, as it can give them a strong sense of independence. Whatever your daughter’s reason for wanting to live with dad, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s natural, for your daughter to feel drawn toward her father and want to have a relationship with him, especially as she is going through a process during which she is still forming a solid sense of self. Even though he hasn’t been very involved in her life, he is still her father. It’s not likely that this is a personal thing—in other words, it’s probably not that she wants to get away from you—she just wants to be with her father at this point in her life. What you decide to do about this situation is a personal decision to be made by the 3 of you and it is my hope for you that other parents who have been in your shoes will comment and share their stories with you. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this.

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

These 5 are a great source of good sound advice. I'm sharing this article with a young mother I'm trying to mentor to. She has 4 kids under the age of 7 and two male step children ages 10 & 12. She doesn't have a computer or internet.

Comment By : Kelley S.

This is a great article. We have just begun the Total Transformation program and my husband and I are very excited about the prospects of using it. Literally, we have just completed the first lesson and are having a hard time being patient for the other lessons and keeping to one per week! We can see that cutting through the emotional junk is very necessary and getting to the real problem (which is in there somewhere in our 11 year old daughter but not being expressed properly) is key. When she is really out of control, I am not sure if we should get her to calm down or try to get her to the problem first? It seems to get more complicated if we have to send her off as her coach and then get back to her on what the problem really is; it seems as if this can become overwhelming in itself and taxing. Ideally I would hope to be able to speak something that would calm her sooner and then be able to move on to the problem and solution quicker. Do you think this is correct to expect?

Comment By : LBS

* To “LBS”: Thank you for asking a great question. In the moment, it can be difficult to decide how best to respond to a child who is acting out. Many parents will want to try to problem solve with their child when the behavior is happening. We find it to be more effective to wait until everything has calmed down and then have a problem-solving conversation. It’s going to be difficult to process through a situation and problem solve others way of dealing with an issue while everyone is an escalated state. What we would suggest to do in the moment is to disengage from the situation and walk away. Any attempt on the parents’ part to calm an out of control child has the potential to escalate the situation further. It may be helpful to problem solve with your daughter ways she can calm herself down before she escalates again. Here is an article by Sara Bean that gives some tips on how to help your child calm down: How to Handle Temper Tantrums: Coaching Kids to Calm Down. You could also call the Parental Support Line at the number found in your Total Transformation workbook and we can work with you to develop an action plan that addresses this behavior. I hope this information has been helpful. We wish you and your family the best as you work through the Total Transformation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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