When "Good" Kids Behave Badly: Is Your Child Starting to Push Your Buttons?

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When Good Kids Behave Badly: Is Your Child Starting to Push Your Buttons?

Do you have a “good” kid who’s starting to act out?  All of a sudden, he’s pushing your buttons, failing to comply with rules and his bad attitude has soared through the roof. You start to wonder what happened to your child—and where you went wrong. Your parenting hasn’t changed, so what’s going on? What’s behind these changes in your kid—and more importantly, how can parents adjust and deal with them effectively?

"If your child has developed a bad attitude and is being rude and disrespectful toward you, one of the best things you can do is not take the bait."

Related: Want to change your child’s behavior? 

When kids’ behavior changes—especially at that pre-adolescent age—parents start to worry, and no wonder. Suddenly the sweet child who used to want to do everything with you looks at you with embarrassment, disdain or exasperation. I think it’s important to realize that, just as your child moves on to that next phase of adolescence, you yourself are going through your own phase as a parent. This phase is really a type of grieving process as you mourn that child who might have been a loving, curious and enthusiastic little girl or boy. At the same time, you’re getting used to the new kid in your house—and that new kid can often be sullen, rude and disagreeable. And what’s worse, it often feels like it happens overnight! My husband James and I went through this with our own son, and it took some adjusting on our parts to get used to the changes.

Is It a Phase?

Here’s the truth. You wouldn’t want your child to stay little forever, so remind yourself that the fact that he’s moving on to the teen years—and all that comes with it—is actually normal and healthy. This doesn’t mean that you should put up with any rude, disrespectful, risky or defiant behaviors—far from it. I just want you to realize that what your child is going through (and how he is behaving) is probably pretty typical. Acting out behavior, as difficult as it is for parents, is often part and parcel of adolescence for most kids. Whether your child is exhibiting mild, moderate or severe acting out behaviors, it’s all hard to manage, and most parents need some support and guidance. I can’t emphasize enough that parenting programs like the Total Transformation can be really helpful for any parent. (Contrary to what many people believe, the Total Transformation actually helps parents of kids with all types of behavior, not just severe or defiant ones.)

Note: If your child exhibits a sudden or extreme change in behavior, or seems distressed, despondent or anxious for a prolonged period of time, have them seen by someone with professional diagnostic skills. Be sure to have a pediatrician rule out any underlying issues that might be causing any behavior changes.

Phases in life are real for all of us, and adolescence is one of the most chaotic times we go through in our lives. Some kids transition through these years more smoothly than others, but typically it’s a very difficult time for most. Think back to when you were a 13-year-old awash in hormones and remember how you felt. I don’t know that many of us went through that very gracefully—or would volunteer to do it again!

Related: How to give consequences that really work to your child or teen.

Along with the physical changes your child is experiencing, there are social and emotional changes as well. Her friends are changing—and all at different rates. Some kids mature physically at 13, while others won’t fully mature until they hit twenty. School becomes more challenging academically, and friendships are forming and dissolving daily. On top of that, your child is going from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school. Maybe your family made a move to a new town where your kids don’t have friends yet. Or perhaps there’s been a loss in the family, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. All of these things can be very difficult and upsetting for kids, and may cause them to act out (or withdraw and “act in”) rather than talk with you about it. So while your child’s new, disagreeable behavior could have hormonal causes, keep in mind that it might also be something exterior that’s making them act disrespectfully. Your job is to hold them accountable for their behavior regardless of the reason for it. Even parents of “good kids” who misbehave need skills to deal with the inevitable changes in behavior that happen with every kid. The truth is, you can’t just expect those changes to go away or fix themselves.

Here are five ways you can effectively deal with your child’s behavior changes.

1. Know your child. A big piece of the puzzle here is that you really need to know your child. Does your daughter get grumpy when she’s getting sick? Is your son a pill when his team loses? You have to be a parenting detective sometimes. Ask yourself, “Is my child having a hard time at school? Does he have an infatuation with a peer? Is he being bullied by other students at school?” Knowing your child helps you determine whether what’s going on is something situational, that should pass quickly – like a team loss – or something that may become more problematic – like consistently rude behavior.

2. Talk to Your Child. Sometimes there’s nothing outward that you can point to—everything seems normal, but your child is in a foul mood that seems to last for days. In some cases, the best thing to do is talk to them first. Starting  that conversation really depends on the age of your child, but it’s always best to come out and say that you’ve noticed they seem a little less happy than they used to. Or you’re concerned about them because they used to seem to enjoy things more. And really listen to what your child has to say. If they can’t tell you what’s wrong, depending on your child’s age, you might check with their teacher or other parents. Sometimes you can get a sense of how the kids are doing in general in your child’s group or grade. Maybe there’s a lot of bullying going on in your school and you didn’t even know about it.

Related: Having a hard time communicating with your teen?

3. Don’t Give the Behavior Power. While it’s good to know the cause of your child’s behavior, it’s also important that you don’t give it too much power. If your child has developed a bad attitude and is being rude and disrespectful toward you, one of the best things you can do is not take the bait. Keep the expectations in your house clear: “In our family, we treat each other with respect.” Don’t get sucked into a power struggle and argue the point—remember, you don’t need to attend every fight you’re invited to. If your child has acted out, wait until you’re both calm and then you can give them consequences for their behavior if that’s what’s warranted. But don’t give their bad attitude or backtalk power in the moment, because that only teaches your child that they can push your buttons.

4. Pull back and don’t react. Like most of us, you’ve probably reacted the same way every time with your child when she has acted out, and it didn’t do any good. So take some time and really think about what’s called for in the situation. Ask, “What direction do I need to go here? What does my child need from me right now?” In the Total Transformation, we talk about the need for parents to do coaching, problem solving and limit setting with their kids. These are roles that every parent needs to play, regardless of whether or not they have a so-called “typical” kid, or one who is defiant and acts out a lot.

Related: Learn the key roles that every parent needs to play in order to be effective.

So take some time, think about the situation at hand, and begin to make a plan for what you will do depending on what the inappropriate behavior was. Is it something that is an ongoing problem with your child, or is it just a one-time event? Are you going to set some limits right away, or start by talking to your child first? Then follow through on what your child needs—and what you need, according to your bottom line.

5. Stake out your bottom line. It’s so important for you to figure out what your bottom line is and stick to it. If you feel that your child’s behavior was mildly disrespectful—maybe she said “whatever’ as she left the room, but complied with the request you gave her to empty the dishwasher—you might let it slide. But if your teen daughter says something sarcastic, hurtful and rude, then she’s crossed a limit. Be clear about what your bottom line is: “We don’t talk to each other that way in our house. Now hand over your cell phone. You can have it back when you speak to all of us in a polite way for the next two hours.” The other thing to remember is, when your kids are trying this stuff out, they don’t always know how it sounds—they’re pushing limits and testing boundaries. So as they push, you have to say, “Hold up. You can only push so far and here’s the limit.” Do it matter-of-factly and in a calm, neutral tone of voice. Address what needs to be addressed. And on the other side, ignore what isn’t important.

Related: How to state your bottom line as a parent—and stick to it.

Realize that there’s also a match between what you’re going through as a parent and as a person, and what your kids are going through in their lives. When life is going more smoothly, it’s easier to cope with more challenging behaviors. If you’re under stress at work, financial strain, or having difficulties with another family member, it’s much harder to deal with a child who starts acting out. It’s important to remember that all kids have bad days and bad times. They can be hungry or tired or have problems transitioning from school to home. There are millions of reasons why kids act out or push buttons—remember, pushing buttons is just what kids do. Our job is to tell them the limits and hold them accountable for their behavior.

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About Janet Lehman, MSW

Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

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