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

by Janet Lehman, MSW
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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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.

READER'S COMMENTS

This was helpful in making me remember that ther child may have other issues happening in there life outside of the house that is affecting their behavior. It isn't just me that is the problem.

Comment By : sue

It's interesting that I'm going to follow some of this advice with my oldest son, who will be 38 in October. He left home when he was about 20, and so most of our communication is via phone, texting, emailing, and very rare (once every 2-3 years) visits. He's been pushing my buttons for several years now, and when I stood up for myself, he blew a gasket. He has since ignored the "olive branch" I extended to him, at least 3 times over the last several weeks. I finally emailed him, after many prayers, and much careful thought. I stated that it was becoming obvious to me that he's been avoiding contact with me, and has expressed no interest in repairing our relationship ~ basically, I indicated "enough is enough". The ball is now in his court. I can only pray that our love for each other will prevail. Any comments?

Comment By : Ana\'

I will try to remain calm and give my son some quiet time after each "blow-up". We are both reactive when this happens so it will be a learning curve for us both. WI will also study the cds more to get more info and be more aware of the "button pushing" aspect.

Comment By : Lisa

This was certainly very helpful. I will put some of these pointers into practice.

Comment By : Nicole

I would like to see food issues mentioned in articles like these. My oldest daughter was very nice as a 2 and 3 year old, then her behavior took a turn for the worse and turned into full-blown ODD when she was 5. By then I also had a 1-year-old who cried all the time and a middle girl who was very sweet and calm. After two years of hell, based on a few chance comments I had heard or things I had read, I tried experimenting with their diet and it turned out the oldest and youngest were both severely intolerant of gluten and corn. When those food were removed the bad behavior cleared up too. Not enough people know about the psychological and behavioral consequences of food allergies or intolerances. I wish I had known three years ago!

Comment By : Elizabeth

* Hi Ana. In situations like this there comes a point where you simply have to shift your focus back onto yourself. It’s very hurtful that your son is not accepting your attempts to reconcile the relationship and has even decided to cut off communication altogether. Perhaps with more time he may change his mind, but until then it’s best to focus on what you can control—yourself. And you’re doing just that. When you find yourself feeling hurt or sad about the distance between you, shift your energy into an activity that is calming for you. Some people find exercise, journaling, or crafts to be a helpful coping skill for example. We’re very sorry to hear that this is happening and we hope you are able to reconnect with your son sometime in the near future. Best of luck to you and take care.

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

Having Chronic Health challenges and an adult daughter with Down's Syndrome who has major behavior challenges, it has made it very difficult t be consistant with my 9 yr old daughter with ADHD. And the little darling takes. She is a full advantage!!! Do you have any help for a single mom of 5 girls who's exhausted

Comment By : elizabeth

* Hi Elizabeth. It’s easy to see why you would be feeling so frustrated and worn out. It might be a good idea to look for some support for you and your family in your local area. You can find out what kinds of support and resources are available to you by contacting 211, an information and referral service, at 1-800-273-6222 or by visiting www.211.org. We have a few articles that will be helpful for you, as well:
How to Discipline Kids: The Key to Being a Consistent Parent
Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy
"I'm So Exhausted": 4 Tips to Combat Parental Burnout
We post brand new articles and blogs every week so please continue to check back with us regularly for the latest in expert parenting advice. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

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

I am really concern, with the disobedience and disregard for rules. Even at school, she is drinking, stealing my vitamins and now my bike. I am really feeling out of control! I need help Twins! Consequenses don't even seem to bother her!

Comment By : twin mom

* To “twin mom”: I can understand why you would be concerned with your daughter’s behavior. Underage use of alcohol and stealing are troubling. These behaviors can be very challenging to address. It may be helpful to find out what types of local supports are available in your area. I have some ideas you might try. First, some states have programs through the court system that offer some oversight and linkage to services. These programs are often called PINS or CHINS (Person/Child In Need of Services or something like that). You typically need to petition the court to get your child involved in such a program. If you contact your state’s department of juvenile justice they will be able to tell you if any such programs exist in your area and what they entail. Other parents we have worked with have found these types of programs to be helpful in regaining some control and sanity in their homes. Second, we recommend contacting the 211 National Helpline, an information and referral service. You can call them at 1-800-273-6222 or visit them online at www.211.org. The goal of this service is to link people with valuable resources and support within their communities. I hope these ideas help—it sounds like you could really use some relief from all the madness and mayhem in your home. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank You so much for this! I have a great kid with some mild teenage behaviors, and this helps! I want to help him learn and deal before certain negative behaviors take hold. This helps a lot!

Comment By : snme101

Hi, you articles are great! However I need serious help. I have a 10 yr old son the is a great child.mgood in school just have a problem with laziness but we are working on that. I also have a very active (sometimes obnoxious) 5 yr old. I would also like to add I am now married to the 5 yr olds father and my husband has been the father to my 10 yr old since he was 2. My oldest son has (only a few times) hurt his brother (sometimes on accident) but not felt any emotion twards him being hurt.mthe lack of emotion and respect is scaring me :( he once accidentally gave him a bloody nose and didn't even look at him or care.mwe had to force him to appologize. I tried talking to him and all he would say is he doesn't like his brother, I'm afraid he is bitter twards him but I don't know why? Please help me, I don't know how to handle this.

Comment By : Mom92

* To “Mom92”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. Sibling issues can offer some challenging behaviors for parents to address. I can appreciate your concern around your son’s apparent lack of empathy or emotion towards his brother. It can be upsetting when it doesn’t seem as if your child cares whether or not he has hurt someone else. It’s not unusual for kids not to exhibit empathy or concern like adults do. As Dr. Joan discusses in her blog post How Do You Teach Kids to Be Empathetic? (And Why It’s Important), empathy isn’t something that always comes naturally to all children. Siblings especially can have a hard time exhibiting empathy towards each other. You can help your son develop empathy towards his brother and others through problem solving with your son ways he can respond differently in situations involving his brother. Sara Bean gives tips on having problem-solving conversations with your son in her article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems" It probably isn’t going to be effective to try to make him to apologize. Instead, you can have him make an amends to his brother as a way to make it up to him; he could do something special for his brother or he could write an amends letter saying something like “I was wrong when I pushed you down, next time I’m upset I will….” This will help him learn to take responsibility for his choices. I can hear how upsetting it is for you to hear your son say he doesn’t like his brother. As hard as it may be to hear him say, your son is allowed his feelings. Not liking his brother isn’t an excuse for his behavior. Instead of focusing on his feelings, focus on his behavior and his choices. We hope this information is useful for your situation. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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