“My Child’s Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin?” How to Coach Your Child Forward



“My child misbehaves so much that I don’t even know where to start!” This is one of the most common things we hear on the parent coaching team, and it’s an understandable problem. Many parents tell me they feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and anxious when dealing with their child or teen’s acting out behavior. They wonder how they’ll be able to tackle so many issues at once.

But here’s a secret: thinking about the problem in this way will only make you feel defeated before you even start.

James Lehman says: “Start where your child is and coach them forward.” In other words, build on your child’s strengths and keep your expectations reasonable. We also recommend that you not try to tackle everything at once but pick one or two behaviors you want to change and then move on from there.

Remember, your overall goal is to see your child make improvements—it’s not simply to have your child do what you tell them to do.

If you feel completely overwhelmed by your child’s behavior problems, here are eight tips to help you focus on changing your child’s behavior step by step.

1. Set Reasonable Goals

Often, instead of trying to make gradual changes, parents expect that all the inappropriate behavior will stop immediately. The truth is, you might see certain behaviors stop right away, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will never act out again. It’s not going to be instantaneous, and it will take just as much practice on your part as it does on your child’s part.

Change takes time. It’s not just you who needs time practicing new techniques. Your child also needs to practice so they can learn by repetition. You want to ask for reasonable change because your child cannot make major changes all at once.

2. Know Your Child’s Strengths

It’s important to have a good idea of what your child is capable of doing. Here’s an example: Some kids have an issue like ADD or ADHD. It’s important to get a good understanding of what ADHD looks like in your child. Is it hard for them to focus and stay organized? Maybe they daydream when they’re supposed to be working.

Every child is different, and you need to modify your expectations accordingly. Also, your child needs to know their strengths and weaknesses, so they can recognize when they’re getting off track and learn how to get back on.

After determining your child’s strengths and weaknesses, understand that they will improve from that starting point.

I’ve seen kids who are defiant or oppositional completely throw in the towel because they’re not capable of doing what you’re asking, particularly with school work. That’s why it’s crucial to find out what your child’s abilities are and begin right there. That’s one of the most critical steps in making sure your expectations are reasonable.

3. Keep in Mind That Your Child Is Working Toward a Goal

Accept that your child is working toward a goal. In other words, your child won’t be able to stop their inappropriate behavior on a dime.

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If your teen is in the habit of getting their way by intimidating others in the family with their angry outbursts, understand that this behavior will not go away immediately. Work with them on making small steps toward good behavior. You might say:

“You need to give me your cell phone for the next two hours until you can behave and talk appropriately.”

The key is that during that time, your child is practicing this new skill. You’re not saying, “That’s it—you’ve lost your phone all day.”

Many kids struggle with punishments that last too long and end up giving up halfway through. Instead, you want to have short-term goals throughout the day. Work toward short-term accomplishments and successes all day long.

4. Pick One Behavior to Work on at a Time

When I ask parents what they’d like to start working on with their child, many say general things like, “I just want my kid to listen to me,” or “I want my teen to do what I ask them to do when I ask them.”

I think it’s essential to pick a specific behavior to start with and a time of day when it should be accomplished. When you’re just beginning to use the techniques in the Total Transformation Program, you need to put some structure in your child’s schedule, or else you’re too likely to get into a power struggle with them each time you ask them to stop what they’re doing and do what you want.

Choose a concrete behavior, such as doing homework daily, or being home at curfew, instead of working on your child’s attitude.

You might feel concerned because you’re letting other behaviors slide when you focus on just one, but realize that your child is learning valuable skills when they change one behavior at a time—skills they will be able to use in all situations going forward. Primarily, they’re learning how to do what they don’t feel like doing and that there will be consequences if they behave inappropriately. Make no mistake, a lot is happening when you choose one behavior at a time and work solely on it.

5. Start With Physical Behavior

Many parents ask, “Where do I start?” I always recommend that you begin with physical behavior first. It could be a safety issue, like your child sneaking out of the house at night. Many parents will say that backtalk is the biggest thing they’re dealing with. It’s tough for them to tolerate, and that’s natural. But if your child is not coming home at night, I suggest putting backtalk aside for a bit and focusing on making sure they’re safe and complying with house rules regarding curfew.

Physical behavior can also apply to kids who act out and are destructive or abusive at home. If your child is punching holes in the walls or intimidating their siblings physically, you want to start there. We recommend that you adopt James Lehman’s philosophy “there’s no excuse for abuse” in your family. Let your kids know there will be serious consequences for their abusive actions and follow through on them.

Many parents will avoid tackling these big issues because it’s easier to pick something small than it is to address the big scary things. But if it’s a health or safety concern, I don’t think you have any choice—that should always come first.

6. Can’t Decide Which Behavior to Tackle First? Get Some Help

There are some instances where you may have to deal with two behaviors at the same time. Let’s say your child talks back to you while you’re trying to help them complete their homework assignment, and you’re not sure which behavior to address first. This is where parent coaching can be beneficial.

Parent coaching can help you determine, based on your child and their overall behavior, what the best issue is to address first. We can tell you what technique to really focus on and which ones to set aside for later—and we’ll help you come up with a practical strategy.

7. If Your Child Doesn’t Seem To Be Making Enough Progress

A common stumbling block for parents is when they feel their child isn’t making enough progress. But remember, the goal is that your child improves—not that they will listen to you 100 percent of the time. It’s very different.

Sometimes you can change that by changing your parenting techniques and the house rules. Power struggles between you and your child will usually cause them to dig in and not cooperate. Putting more structure into place is sometimes necessary. You might say to your child:

“You have to do your chores Saturday morning if you want to go out Saturday night. Get started at 10:00 a.m.”

At other times, your child might be having real difficulty making improvements. James Lehman says we have to “parent the child we have and not the child we wish we had.” He reminds us that our kids are unique individuals. This brings us back to the importance of determining your child’s capabilities—again, be sure that what you’re asking of your child is reasonable.

8. Don’t Take Your Child’s Behavior Personally

Many parents also get trapped in wanting their kids to feel a certain way. They want their kids to care about cleaning their room or to care about doing their homework.

The truth is, it’s not your child’s fault. Many kids aren’t wired to feel that way yet. The important thing is not that your child cares, it’s that they learn how to do things even if they don’t feel like doing them. This is a huge life skill.

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When you’re working to have your child’s behavior change, try to pay attention to what it looks like rather than what your child is saying. James Lehman says to ask yourself:

“What would I see if I were watching this on television with the sound turned down? What would my child’s behavior look like right now?”

This is an effective way to visualize your child’s behavior when you’re having a hard time separating it from what your child says or feels. Just ask yourself, “What is my child doing?”

Let’s say the sound is turned down, and you see your teenager fighting with you. Then they stomp off to clean their room. They may be sullen and have a bad attitude, but they’re also doing what you asked.

Work on the behavior first, and the attitude will come. James Lehman says, “Don’t feel your way to better behavior; behave your way to better feelings.” And that’s exactly what you want your child to do.

Sometimes in parenting, it’s “two steps forward, one step back.” But remember, even if that’s the case, you are still moving forward. Yes, your child will challenge you. They’ll come back and test you to see if things have really changed. They’ll try to get you to go back to the way you used to be, particularly if they were calling all the shots.

But stand your ground, and eventually, their behavior will change. One way to stay encouraged is to remember where your child started and compare it to the progress they’ve made. It’s also important to encourage your child when this happens. Keep saying things like:

“I know you can make improvements because you have already done it. Keep at this.”

Related Content:
Your Child Is Not Your “Friend”
Do You Parent with Your Wallet? (Or Know Someone Who Does?)


Carole Banks, LCSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 16 years, and is a former online parent coach for Empowering Parents. She is also the mother of three grown children and grandmother of six.

Comments (5)
  • Lizzy
    Hi, My 11yrs old boy manipulates me, sometimes uses swear words, says I don't care about him, he talks back to me while im trying to help or just show him the correct way with whatever he was doing and the same with him completing his homework. HeMore has a completely different relationship with this Dad, where he would never speak nasty or back to him, he would do what he was told the first time etc. My son is also manipulate in other ways of wanting to spend time with me all day if he could unyet, He will say you don't care about me, when he feels anxious he keeps biting and picks his nails and then blames me as I tell him he needs to stop doing it otherwise it will cause an infection! at times he does it in front of me for a reaction! I do try to spend time with my son, to speak, play a game, go for a walk etc you can guarantee he will pick a fight for no reason, I sometimes just keep quiet as I am so tired and feel drained with it all, then when I have calmed down try to deal best with the situation but it seems endless....also constantly jumping from saying my name to mom! also Mom are you listening! repeating himself with the same questions and sometimes the questions are irrelevant and have no meaning to what we were talking about! Obviously with the lockdown at the moment, and homeschooling with online class lessons can be boring and tiresome for all kids, but he is lazy and im finding it extremely difficult in getting him to start getting up in the mornings and organising himself with a schedule so he knows what he is supposed to do, any homework that needs doing before his online class lessons that particular day! trying to get him to take an interest in anything! proving very difficult! and if that is not enough, he says he does not have friends and that is my fault, but he does not try hard to enough to approach other children his age to engage and play the games they are playing, he expects them to play what he wants! then he wonders why the kids do not want to bother with him. Just recently before another lockdown I arranged to meet up with a school friend of his to play football, they had a great 2hrs together playing. Then by the weekend, whilst messaging each other online, they are no longer friends and thats my fault also, when it was my son's fault because he does not know when the stop pestering people with phone calls and messages until the other person blocks him and has had enough, but of course when I try to explain this to him, he tells me im in the wrong, lies to me that he did not do that and the list goes on! I would appreciate any advice that you can give me right now to start rebuilding our unhappy relationship, many thanks.
  • zaida
    Hi i have four boys ages 12/10/9&7 i am really in trouble with their behavour. They all seem to act the same way back talks ,throwing tantrums, yelling,fighting constantly with each other name calling . Then it comes to me shouting at them and feeling terrible afterwards. I am realyMore in need of help im at my breaking point . Do not get me wrong i love my boys and always end up spoiling then after i shouted at them for whatever they did wrong. Lol its becoming costly. Thank you for the advise ive read so far
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be challenging when your kids are fighting with each other, and then with you. We speak with many parents who describe a similar cycle of tantrums, yelling and then feeling bad when things calm down. The good news is, you have theMore power to break this cycle by changing how you respond. By responding in a calm, controlled way, you can be an effective role model to your sons about how to handle strong emotions more appropriately. You might find some good starting tips in Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child’s Behavior Make You Crazy. I recognize what a difficult situation this can be, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • suzanne
    my 11 year old child has really bad behaviour problems got to the point were I can't take him anywhere
  • Getting there I think
    This is one of many excellent articles on your site. I have changed my parenting toward our fourth child as I recognosed that my parenting style was just not working with him as it had for the older three. Things are slowly improving but the next challenge is to getMore his Dad on board. This article summarises perfectly one of the things I have been trying to say. I have sent him a link. I have found so many great  little perfectly "do-able" tips across your site. We are nowhere near the end of the road, but at least I don't feel like I'm the only driver when I have access to your advice. Many thanks.
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