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 act out as an attempt to handle life’s problems. And they continue to act out, frankly, because it’s working for them.
But here’s the truth: If you don’t help him find a better way to solve problems, then the acting out will continue. And it will get worse.
Does this sound familiar?
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:
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 quiet time to sit down with your child and talk. If your child refuses to participate without being abusive or refuses to participate at all, then put one privilege on hold until you get through a calm, cooperative conversation. Here are some tips to get you started.
“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 difficulty answering these questions. They may not know why they are misbehaving. If your younger child is over-tired and fighting with his sister, don’t ask him “why.” Instead, tell him why—tell him he’s overtired. Say to him:
“You’re not getting along with your sister because you’re over-tired. Go to your room, take a nap, and when you get up, you will feel better.”
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 pressure them to answer right away. Accept that they may not know “why” and deal in a practical way with the behavior itself.
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.
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 if 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.”
When you ask your child what he will do differently next time, many kids will give you an answer 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?”
Remember that kids study us for a living. If you yell and curse, your child will yell and curse as well. 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.
Many parents have unrealistic expectations about the problem-solving process. They talk with us in parent coaching after trying once, disappointed that it didn’t work and that their child turned right around and did it again.
This is extremely frustrating, but it’s 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. 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 for years, 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 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 you will find the right solution together.
This process isn’t always easy. There will be times when you take some steps backward, or maybe you’ll get off to a really slow start and won’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.
But rest assured that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve talked with many parents through parent coaching who felt hopeless and frustrated but were able to stick with it. I saw them make phenomenal progress with their child and themselves. They restored peace to 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. Give your child some verbal recognition for noticeable changes and effort.
Incentive systems and reward charts are also helpful ways to reinforce replacement behaviors. Positive verbal recognition and earning incentives help keep you on track to create some long-term behavior changes. Continue to do your best and take one small step at a time.
Related content: Free Downloadable Behavior Charts
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 in The Total Transformation®, “you can’t feel your way to better behavior, you can behave your way to better feelings.”
Having strong problem-solving skills improves self-esteem. Kids feel good about themselves when they conquer something hard. And let’s face it: when kids feel good, parents feel good, too. It’s a win-win.
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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.
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Dear Parent Coach,
I am doing my best to help my son(13 years old)trying various of parenting methods, attented PPP, I've done SEN course, currently even studying psychology. Despite that my son is acting out exactly like his peers (sadly he is best friend with children who misbehave a lot). The major problem is him getting frustrated each time I am trying to explain something to him, he refuses to listen, sometimes calling names, once he hit me and than automatically said it was a joke. I set up limits but I can't use any form of punishment like taking phone for 2 h or switch off PlayStation as he will attempt to take it from my hand or not let me come even close to it. After his anger outburst I am letting him stay alone in his room to calm down and then trying to talk calmly about what happened but this seems not much result as he is getting frustrated even more cutting me off, shouting, calling names and making me feel miserable. After couple of cycles of trying I'm giving up. Than when he is seeing me sad(sometimes even crying) he is apologising but also always admit and talking about my mistakes for example when I shouted and I'm not supposed to. He is always talking back to teachers and trying to solve the problem immediately even if teacher is saying that they will talk later. It is making him furious and he is able to tap the door and leave the class. He is currently on behaviour plan(green) so there is a progress as he has been twice on amber and even twice on red, so there was a threat of exclusion from school for couple of days. It is very stressful for me as I am single mum worrying about bills and food, work etc. Sometimes I am not able to cope and feeling very down but I am repeating to myself I need to stay strong. In the past GP offered me talking therapy and again positive parenting programme which I did anyway but because I am working full time I am not able to attend all this support. If I made myself free I won't be able to pay bills. Is a hard situation.
I have a 9 years old boy .he gets angry so easily
he doesn't like to do his homework. When i ask him to do homework he yells at me .he just like ti play and play .he doent like bed time he says i wish there is no sleep time .he always gets mad .when other kids do.esn't listen to him .iam so worried about him .what if he gets worse when he grow up
Many parents I have worked with have shared similar worries.
It can be easy to predict a poor future when your child seems to struggle with
everyday expectations. As much as possible, try not to worry about what might
happen in the future. Focus instead on what steps you can take today to help
your son develop better coping and problem solving skills as suggested in the above article.
Here’s another article
I think could be helpful: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/end-the-nightly-homework-struggle-5-homework-strategies-that-work-for-kids/. We
appreciate you writing in. Take care.
My 8 year old son showed his father the middle finger after he (dad) asked for the remote control. I was not at home when it happened. My husband (dad) says that it is the second time he has done. Well i am the discplinarian at home, but i am not sure what i can do about this What if he shows the teacher , other people the finger?
I am more frustrated with my husband's "relaxed approach".
I apprieciate all the answers.
Thanks for writing in with your question! Often times, behaviors
like what you describe are a child’s reaction to a limit they don’t like or
agree with. While it is disrespectful, we recommend not giving it a lot of
power by overreacting or giving consequences in the moment. What might be most
effective is to set a limit like “that is not ok”, and walk away. Later, when
the situation is calm, you can have a conversation with your son about what he
can do different next time, when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do,
instead of showing his middle finger. Often times, the less of a response a
behavior like this gets, the quicker it dies by neglect. I hope this is
helpful. Take care.
Marissa EP talemwam1
Thank you so much for taking time to reply. I really apprieciate it.
I have a 5 year old who is the smartest kid in his kindergarten class but he is also the most disruptive.
When he is at home or with one of his parents or grandparents he is an angle. I get compliments all the time over how well behaved he is. Once one of us are not around he is different.
He does things at school that he would never do at home, such as: throwing things in class while the teacher is talking, shoved a pencil in another child's mouth for fun, sword fights with scissors, takes his shoes off during story time...
Also he throws a verbal tantrum when he doesn't want to do work in class. He will yell and say that it is to hard but when I have him do it at home he is fine.
When he thinks he is in trouble at school he refuses to clip down and screams "No"... I talk to him every day about this behavior but every day is still bad for him...
I don't know how to get him to do the right thing when I am not around. I don't know what to do with my five year old!
Dealing with behaviors that occur outside of the home can be
quite problematic. A lot of parents have similar questions about how they can
influence their child’s behavior at school or other areas, so, you’re not
alone. The most important aspect of helping a child improve his behavior is
problem solving. As Sara Bean points out in the above article, the most common
reason that a child acts out is because he lacks the skills to effectively deal
with situations he finds upsetting or difficult. Including problem solving in
your conversations could be a big help. For example, when you get a report
about an acting out incident, you might ask your son what was going on before
the incident happened. You could also ask him what he was trying to do when he
responded the way he did. Once you have an idea about what may have motivated
the behavior, you can then help him finds ways he could respond differently in
the future. Another thing you might consider doing is implementing an incentive
plan that is focused on positive behaviors at school. He could earn a special
privilege when he has a day at school without any negative behaviors. Or, you
might utilize a more structured behavior chart where he could earn checkmarks
toward a bigger reward. For more information on behavior charts, you can check
out this article Free Downloadables! Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Them Effectively.
It includes templates that can be downloaded and printed off. I hope this
information is useful for your situation. Be sure to let us know if we can be
of further assistance. Take care.
He might just be, you know, 15.
I was the quintessential kid from hell -- merrily told my teachers I'd do my assignments and write the exams but felt my time would best be spent [not in high school class], went to waaaay too many parties and had the worst attitude ever. Why? Because, umm, I was 14, 15 and 16. There really wasn't anything anyone could do about it. My parent conceded that my attitude sucked but given that I'd completed the schoolwork/exams AND that the syllabus said 100% grades were based on written work (ie not being in class)... so the school ought to give me the grades I'd earned. All As.
I hated high school enough to leave early - with a 4.0 GPA. I started college at 16, graduated at 19 & had my Master's at 21.
(I didn't have a learning disability or mental illness, psychoanalyzing my awful behavior wouldn't have helped. There was no need to pathologize my obnoxious behavior... because I'd eventually outgrow it).
My 15 year old daughter solves her maths problems perfectly. However when she writes the final answer she writes it wrong.
Read more: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”