In Over Your Head? How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Regain Control as a Parent

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Recently, a frustrated mom sat in my office and said, “I just don’t know what to do anymore. We’ve tried everything! There’s no punishment that gets through to our child; there’s nothing we can say that will fix her behavior. There’s so much going on we just don’t know where to start.” Sound familiar? Parents often get by on intuition and advice from others, but let’s face it–that’s not always enough, especially if you have a child who doesn’t respond well to your attempts to manage their behavior. All kids push the limits, but the stress this causes parents can range anywhere from overwhelming to nearly unbearable.

There are so many parents out there who would give anything to have some peace and quiet at home, and peace of mind about their family life. Not only are you struggling to keep your head above water, you’re caught in a flood of behavior issues that pop up one after the next and you may also be struggling to just hold on so you don’t get swept away. If your child has ODD or ADHD, it can feel like every day is a new parenting obstacle course. What I say to parents who come to me feeling this way is, first take a deep breath. You’re not alone. And what’s more, you didn’t find yourself in this situation with your child all at once, so you don’t need to put pressure on yourself to climb your way out of it all at once, either. We all go to that place of fear and negativity when we’re anxious about our kids or our parenting. Fear says, “You have to fix this right now or else!” But if you put that feeling aside, logic might tell you that you and your child are both human, and can only do so much at one time. So instead of trying to turn around five years worth of issues in a matter of minutes, it’s more effective to think about one thing you can start doing differently today to be a more effective parent than you were yesterday.

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Once you’ve shifted your thinking a bit and taken some pressure off, there are some other practical steps you can take to start to regain your sense of control and confidence as a parent. Here are some of the suggestions parents have found most helpful over the years.

1. One thing at a time. Sitting down and making a list of every single thing you want to change about your child is not what I mean here—any parent could easily come up with a dozen or so things they want to change! Looking at such a big list will only make you feel more overwhelmed and cause more stress in the long run. What I do suggest is to just think about your top three concerns. What behavioral issues are causing the most chaos and stress in your home? Choose the three most troublesome issues and write them down. Your list might look something like this:

  • Defiance
  • Refuses to do homework
  • Disrespectful behavior

Then ask yourself, are there safety issues because of this behavior? Issues that pose a safety risk, either to your child or to others, should always be dealt with first. Once you’ve considered any safety risks, rank your top three concerns in order of priority—and the top issue on the list is where you put your focus for now. Those other two things might need to wait until you build up your confidence and have more energy. Working on just one thing is enough. Remember, when tackling multiple behavior issues as a parent, it’s important for you to take one step at a time. Eventually, those steps will add up to better behavior and more effective parenting.

2. Come up with a plan. Know what your expectations are—what do you want to see your child do? Make sure you are able to communicate your expectations in clear terms. Describe actions that you see and hear rather than using words like “good,” “nice,” and “better.” Action words are much clearer, and far less subjective than adjectives. Here’s an example. A parent who wants their child to put forth more effort in school might say, “You need to quit goofing off in school. I really want you to get better grades and study harder.” A clearer way to say that is, “I want you to listen and pay attention in school, and when you get home I want to see you sitting at the table for an hour each day doing schoolwork. The electronics will be off, and you won’t have any privileges until you’ve worked for an hour. Once your grades improve to Bs and above, we’ll revisit this plan.”

Before you talk with your child, you should also come up with a plan on how you will hold her accountable. What will you do if she does not meet your expectations? How will you respond? In the moment, it’s most effective to restate your expectation and then walk away. When things have calmed down, problem solve and then give a consequence if the situation calls for it. When you have established your plan and you are sure you can follow through with it, clearly state your expectations to your child and let her know what is changing.

3. Fewer speeches, more coaching. In The Total Transformation program, James Lehman tells us that parents often over-explain themselves because they think this will make their kids understand. The truth is, lectures and speeches aren’t effective. James recommends instead to have conversations that are focused on what your child’s responsibilities are, and how he can meet them. For example, what can your child do instead of leaving the house without permission when he thinks you’re being unfair? How can he stay out of trouble next time? It’s extremely important for you to take on the role of “coach” and help your child learn new behaviors that are more effective. Put things in your child’s best interests, rather than trying to convince him he needs to change so he’ll get into college, stay out of jail, or be able to keep a job in 10 years. Set the speeches and justifications aside, and focus on developing the skills your child needs to do better. Let your consequences do the convincing.

4. One step forward, two steps back. It’s important to expect setbacks with progress. Change is a slow process that you just can’t rush. Think of the caterpillar inside a chrysalis, awaiting the day he is ready to break out and take flight for the first time as a butterfly. That caterpillar knows he can’t speed up his transformation without jeopardizing his well-being. He knows that the time will come and he must be patient. It’s far more effective for a parent to also take one day at a time, and take it slow when making changes at home. Things will get better, but sometimes your child will still make a mistake. All is not lost—just take a deep breath, follow through with your plan and remember that you can handle this. Start with a fresh slate each day and stay positive.

5. Be empowered. There is power in numbers. Whether you’re a single parent, happily married, or somewhere in between, parents need a support system. Find a way to build in some time for some social support each week so that you can recharge your batteries and feel refreshed and motivated to continue on. If the problem feels too big for you to handle within your family or social circle, seek support elsewhere. This is not a sign of weakness, but a measure of resourcefulness, commitment to change, and a good way to add some more tools to your parenting toolkit. Your child’s pediatrician, teachers, and this website are a good place to start. All of these resources can help you gain a new understanding of your child, make suggestions, and help you to figure out what next steps you should take if you feel like you keep running face first into a brick wall. Parenting classes, support groups, or counselors and therapists in your local area can also be a huge help.

When you’re faced with so many behavior issues you don’t know where to start, it’s not easy. Remember, your journey toward more effective parenting will start with just one step. And by accepting that this will take time and choosing to be positive and have patience, you can take that first step toward progress, starting today.

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About

Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former Empowering Parents Parent Coach with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.

Comments (20)
  • Hola
    We have a grandchild that refuses to get uo in the morning to go to school. What should we do?
  • Tmflores
    My 7 year old is so trying. It starts first thing in the morning with refusing to get out of bed and get ready. He's not nice to kids at school, doesn't listen to teachers and avoids classroom work by using the bathroom and thnot roaming the halls until aMore teacher catches him and brings him back to class. He refuses to do anything for himself and constantly talks back, bullies siblings, rude to neighbors, basically anything he can do to make you not like him he does. I spend most days crying because it's gotten to the point I don't even want him around me. He's in therapy but honestly the advice of not letting him get a rise out of me doesn't really help and I find it horrible that he enjoys upsetting others. I just don't know what to do. When I ask my parents for help or advice all I hear is that boys will be boys and that no one told me to have children. They suspect adhd but they are still testing and observing. I don't know how much more I can handle before I have a breakdown myself.
  • OliviaK
    I have a 7 year old son who, within the last 6 months, has begun calling me names such as dumb f***in dumbie when's he's angry or he has recently told me on 2 occasions "shut your f***in mouth. I'm a single mom but he does see his fatherMore on a regular basis. I don't use this type of language and his dad tells me he doesn't either. Most recently, the behavior has occurred later in the evening when he's tired and/or hungry. During one incident, he was playing on the computer and his younger sister was asking him questions. He became quickly irritated by the questions and stood up and yelled at her in her face. I told him his computer time was over and sent him to his room to take a break. He immediately began screaming, flailing his arms around, and then called me a dumb f***in dumbie and slammed his door. His consequence was he had to stay in his room with nothing for the rest of the night. I feel like nothing is getting through to him. I've role played with him when he's calm about how to act and respond when I tell him to go take a break in his room. When he's tantruming, he's unable To process anything. I've tried cueing him to stop and take a breath which he will do but then quickly returns to raging. I feel like I'm at such a loss on what age appropriate and natural consequences should be for his age and how to deal with him in these moments. I feel like it's verbal abuse when he calls me names and tells me to shut my f**in mouth. He has no diagnosis and does great at school but I feel he has such an anger management and lacks self control at such a young age. I don't know how to handle it.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      OliviaK I hear you.  It can be so frustrating and confusing when your child is acting out in abusive and defiant ways, especially at such a young age.  I’m glad to hear that you have talked with your son during a calm time about what he can do differently whenMore he becomes angry, and have provided cues to him when he is triggered.  You might find additional suggestions on how to help him learn to manage his emotions appropriately in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/8-steps-to-anger-management-for-kids/.  You’re also not alone in your confusion as to how to deal with this kind of behavior when it happens.  You might find our article series on verbal abuse helpful as you plan out your response.  Here is the first article in the series: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/kids-who-are-verbally-abusive-part-1-the-creation-of-a-defiant-child/.  I recognize what a difficult situation this must be for you, and I hope you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • KimS
    I have a 17yr old daughter that goes through my stuff, listens in on my phone calls, follows me into every room asking "what im doing", asks me personal questions about my sex life, makes hurtful and disgusting comments about my grooming behaviors because she seen pubic hair in theMore tub and my razor, constantly wants to go everywhere with me no matter what the situation and flips out if I say no, when not with her she blows my phone up even while shes in school, if left in the car while im in the grocery store shes texting me asking "what im doing", she calls me names, screams and yells whenever i want to be around friends or date, when i final went on a date for the first time in years she blew my phone up with disgusting and hurtful remarks and she made it hell for the babysitter so i would have to come home. Just yesterday she became violent with me because i got up and went into my bedroom for some privacy on a phone call because she was listening to my conversation. Please help, i dont know what to do. I love my daughter with all my heart but i cant live like this anymore. I have 3 other children that i worry will think this behavior is normal.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @KimS 

      I’m sorry to hear

      about this situation with your daughter, and I hear your concern that your

      other children might start to copy this behavior.  One step I recommend is

      talking with your daughter during a calm time, and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parental-roles-how-to-set-healthy-boundaries-with-your-child/ with her.  For example, you might tell her

      that certain topics are off-limits, and you do not feel comfortable discussing

      these with her.  You might find some additional strategies for you to use

      in our article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-thinks-hes-the-boss-how-to-get-back-control-of-your-home/. 

      Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and

      your daughter.  Take care.

  • Not sure what to do
    I have a 15 year old girl. I am a widowed single mother. I have had a lot of problems with her. Last summer she attempted suicide last year and was only in a rehab for a week. We'll I hate to admit this but she has manipulated me andMore is constantly staying with friends and refuses to come home and I believe she is smoking pot. The situation is when she comes home she screams, yells and is verbally abusive and states she hates it here and throws things. But yet when she us around her friend she seems calm. She has other siblings younger and older. I'm trying to figure out how to bring her home without her behavior getting out of control. Do you have any advice?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Not sure what to do 

      I hear how concerned you are about your daughter, and the

      choices that she is making right now.  At this point, it could be useful

      to contact your local law enforcement agency to see if they might be able to

      offer you assistance in bringing your daughter back home.  It could also

      be helpful to talk with her before she comes home about your rules and expectations

      for her behavior, as well as her plan for following those when she is back in

      your home.  Sometimes, parents find it beneficial to involve a neutral

      third party, such as a family counselor, who can work with you to develop an

      action plan to follow when your daughter returns to your home.  For

      assistance locating resources in your community, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.  I

      recognize how challenging this must be for you and your family, and I wish you

      all the best moving forward.  Take care.

  • frustrated

    We have a 13 almost 14 year old, that absolutely has defiant behavior. He has had tantrums, he has been abusive, and at times even bordered on physical. He has missed school because of his behavior, refusing to go. He has also fallen behind in his work, mainly because he is just not putting n the effort.. We told him we would not allow him to play in his football game  - a big deal because he will set a record for most games played. This will crush him. I want to find more positive ways to help move him forward. I think the punishment, even though it is well deserved, and we told him this was an absolute consequence, may have the opposite effect. at the same time, we want him to take us seriously when we give him a consequence.

    Are there ways we can begin to turn this around. Is keeping him out of the game the right move, or are there other ways that are more effective.

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @frustrated

      You ask a great question. Generally speaking, it’s not

      usually productive to use activities that can’t be earned back as consequences

      as explained in the blog How to Give Kids Consequences That Work.

      It’s usually more effective to use everyday privileges such as cell phone,

      computer time, or video game time to motivate your child to make better

      choices. For example, if the issue is your son isn’t going to school, perhaps

      you link his electronics privileges to him getting up and going to school every

      day.  If he gets up and goes, then he earns his privileges. If he chooses

      not to, then he doesn’t earn his privileges that day. He would have another

      opportunity to earn them the next day by making a better choice. You can find

      more useful tips for motivating your son to do better in school in the article 10 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Better in School. I hope you find this

      information useful. Be sure to check back if you have any further questions.

      Take care.

  • Sad
    Sometimes people have to just give up.  Most of the articles I read have to do with tweens or teenagers.  There isn't much help or support for an 8 year old boy.  Especially if he has been on every single medication that there is for ADHD.  There is nothing left.More  Nothing.  Especially if you live in Oregon.  We have this lovely system called the Oregon Health Plan, and trust me, they couldn't care less if your 8 year old is violent, has rages, and wants to kill himself.  They won't help you.  You have to have really good insurance to MAYBE get help.  My own mother offered to pay cash for a pediatric psychiatrist, but guess what???  They won't do that.  Seriously, they won't take cash!!  They will only see you if you have insurance.  I know this sounds horrible, but I wish my son had cancer instead of a mental health problem.  If he had cancer, he wouldn't be denied treatment.    So, sometimes you have to give up, and just hope you have enough money saved for his bail for when he starts committing crimes.  I know how that sounds, but when there isn't any hope left, you give up out of sheer emotional exhaustion .
  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    frustrated pawpaw
    Raising young children certainly does offer some challenges and
    having three young ones who are so close in age must be even more so. I can
    only imagine how upsetting and exhausting your situation must be. It’s
    understandable you would feel at the end of your rope. I think many
    grandparents inMore your situation would feel the same way. A couple things you may
    find helpful are developing a self care plan for yourself and also picking one
    acting out behavior at a time to focus on. Too often, we try to change
    everything all at once and this can leave both the guardian and the child
    feeling overwhelmed. Instead, develop a specific action plan that includes both
    ways of holding the child accountable as well as ways of developing a more
    appropriate replacement behavior. For more information on deciding which
    behavior to focus on as well as ways you can begin to address that behavior,
    you may find these articles helpful “My Child’s Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin?” How to Coach Your Child Forward & How to Discipline Young Kids Effectively: 4 Steps Every Parent Can Take. One word of caution: expecting 100% compliance from 4 year old,
    or any child for that matter, is probably inviting failure. It’s going to be
    important to work more towards increasing compliance than on perfect obedience.
    I had mentioned self care as another important suggestion. Too often, parents
    and guardians put themselves on the back burner, to the detriment of everyone
    involved. It is almost impossible to be an effective caregiver if you are
    feeling exhausted and overwhelmed all the time. Taking time out, even in small
    increments, can go far towards helping you maintain your composure when
    interacting with your grandson. Self care can be as informal or formal as you
    choose and can include anything from going for walk, meeting a friend for lunch
    or finding a kinship support group or individual counselor you can talk over
    your struggles with. We have a couple resources you may find helpful. First,
    the 211 Helpline can give you information on community services and supports.
    You can reach the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222. Another
    great resource for grandparents who find themselves parenting their
    grandchildren is http://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/g.... We
    appreciate you writing in and sharing your story. Your grandchildren are very
    fortunate to have you in their lives. I hope you will continue to check in and
    let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • bad behavier

    hi recently i had my girlfriend and her son move in with me. ive known them for 14 years but i was married, im now seperated. i love my girlfriend but her son who is 15 wont listen to any of my house rules. baseicly ive have just a fewMore and really feel they are not asking to much.  1. no more than two friends over at once.  he brings 4 over lots of times but mostly 3. i dont know these kids and really dont trust just anyone in my home.  2.  no one is allowed in the house if me or my girlfriend are not here.  when we get home their is always someone in the house.  3. no drugs in the house.  constintly they are smoking pot in the room.  to me these are not even really rules but things that should be a automatic respectfull thing to do.  he tells me ok he wont do it anymore but with in hours right back at it.  what should i do about this behavier?

    • TamaraB_ParentalSupport

      bad behavier 

      It is so good that you are reaching out for support. Navigating
      a significant transition like this can be a delicate thing to do, especially
      with an adolescent. They are in a developmental stage where they are pushing
      for their independence and setting limits can often lead to power struggles. A
      good thingMore to keep in mind is that while you are certainly a supervising adult,
      it is going to be most helpful to make sure that you and your girlfriend are in
      agreement about  the house rules. Once you are sure, we recommend that
       she take the lead in implementing them consistently.  The value in
      this approach is that limits are maintained in your home while you are taking
      the important steps of making adjustments to the relationship with your
      girlfriend’s  son now that you both are living together. Even though you
      have known him for a long time, things change when people begin living in the
      same space.  It could be beneficial for you both to take the time to get to
      know what each other is like in this situation so that when limits are set, it
      does not turn into a battle of wills. Here are articles by James Lehman and
      Carrie and Gordon Taylor that have some very useful tips for blended families http://www.empoweringparents.com/My-Blended-Family... ,  http://www.empoweringparents.com/Blended-Family-Th... .  Thanks for writing
      and we wish you well as you move forward.

  • Lost Stepmother

    I'm a mother of 2 boys, 4 & 9.  Fiancee gained custody of his kids in June as their mother attempted suicide for the third time in the two years Ive known her, the boy9 and girl12.  The girl is dark, shes an artist, very non ambitious unless its toMore do with art or music, failing 7th grade. Monday she said she finally made a friend and asked for her to come over so I was all for it and said yes. She wanted to walk to the park w/her friend so I said sure. Came back and guess what, she was high on pot. This new so called friend had pot. I was furious. Its clear she needs therapy, but she's been grounded from everything (ipod, ipad, phone, tv, xbox) and clearly does not care. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Her dad and I have tried everything to help her, she's not latching on. We've tried everything over the past few months that was suggested and punishment and discipline aren't working. We don't know where to go from here. She isn't smoking pot to be cool, she said she's smoking it because she likes the way it makes her feel. What do we do next? We are so lost, we don't know what is left to do. Please help.  Any suggestions are welcome.

    • Ninja mom

      As a very similar teenager I now know there are things that would have worked for me- the brooding artist.

      Incentives based on interests. Concert tickets based on good grades. Promise of art camp if she stays clean and sober. Shopping for her style of clothes if she has 1 month of good attendance. Also making your house an artists Mecca. Maybe an art set up in your garage, musical instruments so she can form a band, even a pool table or something her friends would want to play. Kids get high when they need to numb pain, boredom, feeling disconnected. Finding out what her main issue is and helping her to express her angst through art will empower her and build her confidence.

    • TamaraB_ParentalSupport

      Lost Stepmother 

      Watching an adolescent go through such trying times can be
      tough. The transitions your family are going through are very difficult. Add to
      that the developmental challenges young people face and this is a tricky
      situation to navigate. It sounds like you have tried many strategies to help
      her and there hasn’t beenMore much that has seemed effective. One thing that 
      is important to know about guiding behavior is the idea that consequences or
      rewards alone do not change behavior.  A child may know that something needs
      to change, but can get overwhelmed and not know what to do if it seems too hard
      to accomplish. Coaching a child to find appropriate ways to cope with
      difficulties is also an important and useful strategy. Sara Bean talks about
      this concept in her article  http://www.empoweringparents.com/the-surprising-re....  It also may be beneficial to seek out support
      in your area. Given her recent life experiences, she may benefit from
      specialized care such as a support group or individual counseling. You can
      find out about resources in your area by calling The National Health and Human
      Resources Helpline at  211 or 1-800-273-6222 .

    • Lost Stepmother

      This will be the 4th time she's gotten in trouble for smoking pot wish us since living there.  All the other times were when she came home from her mothers for the weekend. Her friends where her mother lives are all drug users and goth.

  • Mr
    Is ok to take a small cup of water and pour it on your kid who refuse to get up. To get ready for school?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Mr 

      We speak with

      many parents who have gone to great lengths to get a child out of bed in the

      morning for school.  Out of frustration, and not seeing other options,

      parents describe examples of taking all the blankets off the child’s bed,

      making great amounts of noise, and even pouring water on the child in an effort

      to get them out of bed.  While I understand the motivation behind doing

      this, this is not a course of action that we recommend because it tends to have

      the effect of escalating a situation instead of gaining the child’s

      compliance.  By pouring water on your child, you are not teaching him how

      to get out of bed on time independently; rather, you are teaching him how to

      resist you.  A more effective route might be to talk with your child

      during a calm time about specific actions he can take to ensure that he is up

      and ready for school on time each day.  You may also choose to link a privilege

      your child values to being ready.  You can find more strategies to address

      this situation by reading http://www.empoweringparents.com/My-Kid-Wont-Get-Out-of-Bed-Stop-the-Morning-Madness-Now.php  I understand

      that this is a frustrating situation, and I hope that you will check back and

      let us know how things are going.  Take care.

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