What causes bad child behavior? James Lehman says it happens because children don’t yet know how to solve problems effectively. To put it another way, they’re trying to handle many of the situations that life throws at them by acting out. They do this, frankly, because it’s working for them. But here’s the truth: If you don’t find out what problem your child is trying to solve with his behavior and offer him a new solution, the acting out will most likely continue—or even get worse over time.
Does this sound familiar?
The negative behaviors that have become habits are like a well-worn groove; it’s easier for your child to fall into one of them as they have a hundred times before.
-You tell your teenage son he can’t go out during the week, and he kicks a hole in the wall before storming out of the house anyway.
-You ask your pre-teen daughter to change her inappropriate outfit. She throws a screaming fit and calls you a b—-, all before 8 a.m.
-Your 10-year-old wants to watch TV, but he needs to finish his homework. When you put your foot down, he rages and has an hour-long meltdown that leaves you feeling frustrated, exhausted and helpless.
Keep in mind there are many different kinds of problems kids encounter and each looks a little different in terms of behavior. These are the three main types of problem-solving challenges you might see:
- Emotional problems: Everyone has moments of feeling angry, sad, frustrated, helpless or excited. When you’re a child who hasn’t figured out how to deal with his emotions, just having these feelings can bring on irritating or abusive acting-out behavior.
What this looks like: Instead of dealing appropriately or even reasonably well with being told "no," your child has tantrums, curses at you, yells, or punches holes in the walls.
- Social/relational problems: Some kids have an inability to get along well with others, particularly people their own age. They don’t know how to introduce themselves to someone, how to say "no," or how to handle it if a peer does something they don’t like. Bullies often lack social problem-solving skills and treat others poorly to compensate.
What this looks like: Your 13-year-old daughter wants to be accepted at school and to get her way at home, so she uses bullying—of peers and siblings—to feel more powerful. She’s solving her problems at the expense of everyone else’s sense of security.
- Functional problems: This is when your child has problems meeting responsibilities around the home, at school, or in the community. He might continually lose schoolwork, refuse to do chores, talk out of turn in class or talk back to teachers, and lie about having his homework done.
What this looks like: Your son lies and tells you he did his homework in school. The next day, you tell him you want to check his work but he didn’t even bring it home. He says he forgot—another lie. Before you know it, the zeros are piling up and he just keeps lying about his schoolwork night after night while his grades fall lower and lower
Teaching your child how to solve problems
The best way to start teaching your child better problem solving skills is to have a conversation about a particular incident. Do this after things have calmed down and before you talk about consequences. Your goal here is to identify the problem, teach your child how to solve it, and then hold him accountable—not to punish him and make him miserable.
Find a calm time to sit down with your child and talk. If your child refuses to participate without being abusive or refuses to participate at all, put one privilege on hold until you get through a calm, cooperative conversation. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Eliminate "why" from your vocabulary. "Why" invites excuses and blame. Ask deeper questions to identify the problem such as "What were you thinking when…?" or "What were you trying to accomplish by…?" This works well for both elementary school kids and teens. Some kids, especially those in preschool and early elementary school, might have a hard time answering these questions. Younger kids will develop the ability to talk about their thoughts more as they grow older. Be patient, take a break and let your child think about things a bit more rather than putting the pressure on them to answer right away.
- Focus on one issue at a time. Talk about one problem and one problem only during this conversation. Don’t bring up something that happened two weeks ago or something else your child did today that upset you. If your child brings up another incident, let him know you will talk about that later. Tackling too many problems at once usually only results in frustration on your part, because it’s overwhelming to address them all at the same time.
- Identify replacement behaviors. Talk about what your child will do differently the next time this problem comes up. Allow your child to try to come up with an idea on her own; make some suggestions if she’s struggling. Perhaps you decide that when you tell your preteen daughter she can’t do something, she can go to her room and write in a journal instead of screaming and calling you names. Or maybe you decide that she might ask herself it it’s worth it to scream at you and call you names, or tell herself, "It isn’t the end of the world if I can’t wear this skirt to school."
- No wishful thinking allowed. When you ask your child what he will do differently next time, many kids will give you an answer that is based on wishful thinking, such as, "I just won’t do it again" or "I’ll do better." Wishful thinking is a type of faulty thinking that indicates that your child truly believes he can just do something without really putting thought or effort into it. Get your child to be more specific. Ask him, "How will you stop cursing at me? What will I see you doing instead?"
- Be a role model. Remember that kids study us for a living. If you yell and curse but you don’t want your child to do the same thing, this is a problem. It’s important for you to act the way you want your children to act. Observation is a key learning method for kids, especially younger ones, so be aware of this. You are the most important role model in your child’s life, even if he acts like you aren’t, so make sure to play the role well.
What changes will I see as my child develops good problem-solving skills?
Many parents have unrealistic expectations about the problem solving-process. They call us on the 1-on-1 Coaching after their very first try, disappointed that it didn’t work and that their child turned right around and did it again. This is extremely frustrating, but it’s really no surprise. When kids are caught in the heat of the moment, it’s hard for them to remember that conversation you had a few days ago—or even earlier that day. The replacement behavior you talked about is right there on the surface—it hasn’t sunk in yet, so to speak. The negative behaviors that have become habits are like a well-worn groove, and it’s easier for your child to fall into one of them like they have a hundred times before. After all, these old, comfortable behaviors have been learned and reinforced over time, while the new behavior hasn’t. Be prepared for the fact that you will need to be your child’s coach. Give him a brief reminder about what he’s supposed to do instead, and then walk away. You also might need to experiment with several different replacement behaviors over time to find one that fits. For example, some kids cool down best with a bike ride or some exercise, and some like to listen to music in their room. Listen to your instincts—you know your child best, and will find the right solution together.
I know this process isn’t always easy. There will be times when you take some steps backwards, or maybe you’ll get off to a really slow start and won’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Rest assured that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve talked with many parents on the 1-on-1 Coaching who felt hopeless and frustrated but were able to stick with it. Over time, I saw them really make some phenomenal changes in their homes. It’s important to focus on the positive and look for even the smallest improvements. Keep talking about what can be done differently and stay positive. It’s important to give your child some verbal recognition for both noticeable changes and effort. Incentive systems and reward charts are also helpful ways to reinforce replacement behaviors. Positive verbal recognition and earning incentives each help to keep you on track to create some long-term behavior changes. Continue to do your best and take one small step at a time.
The reward? As you go through this process of having problem-solving discussions and coaching your child, you will see that he gradually uses those replacement behaviors more and more with less coaching from you. And as kids get better at solving various problems on their own, most will start to feel better about themselves. As James Lehman says, "you can’t feel your way to better behavior, you have to behave your way to better feelings." Having strong problem-solving skills improves self-esteem. Kids feel good about themselves when they conquer something that’s hard and let’s face it: when kids feel good, parents feel good, too. It’s a win-win.
About Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former 1-on-1 Coaching advisor with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.