The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”


Angry pre-teen child

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?

  • 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 preteen 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.

The Types of Problems Kids Face

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:

  1. 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, having these feelings can bring on irritating or abusive acting-out behavior. For example, 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.
  2. Social Problems. Some kids don’t get along well with others, particularly people their 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. A bully solves her problems at the expense of everyone else’s sense of security.
  3. 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. For example, your son may lie and tell 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 keeps lying about his schoolwork night after night while his grades fall lower and lower.

How to Teach Your Child 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.

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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.

Don’t Ask Your Child “Why” They Misbehave

“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.

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 for Your Child

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.”

Don’t Accept Wishful Thinking Responses From Your Child

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?”

Be a Role Model for Your Child

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.

How Will I Know If It’s Working?

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.

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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.

Be Persistent in Addressing Your Child’s Behavior

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.

Like this article? Join the conversation below or jump to the top to share on social media.

Related Content:
Challenging Parenting Issues: 5 of the Hardest Things Parents Face
It’s Never Too Late: 7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively


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 (18)
  • Me1

    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.

  • Cathy
    My daughter is 14. I am a very protective parent. I am out of my mind right now. Over the past month I found out she stole 3000.00 from her grandma, stole 100.00 from sister, skipped school and has been doing dab, snuck out 3 times in the night andMore I found condoms. She denied it forever and now she seems like she has no regret.
  • rezhna
    sometimes we forgive not because we are wrong but because staying angry robs our happiness
    • no
      thank u so much for this comment.
  • Concerned mama
    Our daughter is 9 years old. Our house rules are no boyfriends until she is older. Last year one of my friends slipped and told me her son and my daughter were boyfriend and girlfriend. I asked my daughter about it and she lied to my face. I toldMore her what happened and she still denied it and then finally admitted it. This morning, it came to light that my daughter is still boyfriend and girlfriend with this boy. I do not know how to handle this without taking the lying personally. I have had several conversations with her in the last week about lying and what it can do to our relationship because I have caught her in small lies. I don't feel like yelling will help the situation but I need this behavior to change and her to know it's unacceptable. Any ideas?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be so frustrating when you discover that your child has lied to you, and it can be difficult not to take this type of behavior personally. As noted in the article above, kids usually act out because they lack effective problem solving skills,More and we encourage parents to view lying as a faulty problem solving skill. Lying is often used as a way to solve some type of problem, such as wanting to avoid a consequence, or to smooth over a potential conflict. It can also be helpful to focus less on the lying itself, and more on the underlying behavior, such as not following your rules around dating. For more tips on effectively addressing lying, be sure to check out How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens. I recognize how challenging this behavior 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.
  • Paigep
    If you raise kids from an early age to love reading, they will likely do better in school. Since the brain is 80percent developed by age three, make sure hat you read, talk, sing, dance and draw pictures with your young child. Children under 5 really shouldn't watch tv either.More Remeber that some kids have a more creative type of spirit and will do better at a school that is more creative and open minded. If your kid struggles in school, get them tutor. Don't allow obscene behavior or cursing and make sure that boundaries are very clear.

    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

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      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: We

      appreciate you writing in. Take care.

  • No Where to Turn
    Dismayed Parent I know how you feel. I have a 16 year old son who has from the age of 5 been very defiant and destructive. For the last two years I have been fighting him about his school work and to no avail.  He only has 65 creditsMore so far.  Just recently I went looking for my laptop and no where was it to be found.  I also noticed that my emergency money was missing.  He denied it all.  That same day I noticed this I went out and bought a drug test and tested him when I got home from work.  It was positive for pot. I went into action.  I did not focus on the stolen money or the laptop (though I was really angry) instead I got him into a rehab program the next day and had my husband take him to NA.  Tonight was his first meeting at NA and when he came home he immediately went to his room and got his pipe and handed it to me.  I took him outside away from the other children and we talked.  He finally admitted that he had sold my laptop, his xbox, my nook, and stolen my money all for pot.  This was very new to me because out of all four of my children he is the one that always lies and will never admit to any wrong doing. My husband told me that all the people at the NA meeting told their life stories and how everything started with pot and then progressed onto harder drugs which destroyed their lives.  I did not want to break this new thing but I also did not want him to think he could get away with this either.  So I told him there would be a consequence (thank goodness that even though I took his phone away I was still allowing him to call his girlfriend for one hour every night).   I told him that for the next two nights he would not be able to use the phone to make that call. However, for coming clean at the end of this week he would get his phone back.  He accepted it with a little whining that he should not be punished for telling the truth.  This is from a child that has always used aggressive behavior to get his way.  He is well known to yell, call names, use foul language and destroy whatever is close by.  I have holes in my walls from his fist.  I am hoping I handled this correctly because the way I handled it was way different than I normally handle these issues.  Since I have been reading these articles I realized I punished harshly and long. To be exact this kid had been grounded for a whole year. By the way once he was released he went right back to his old ways. I was also on my way to doing it again but as I researched for ideas I discovered this site and though it goes against my nature I decided to try it out.  I held in my anger and listened to my son.  So now I want to learn more because I do know this is not the end and we as a family have a long ways to go. So to a dismayed parent from another dismayed parent you are not alone in this road of destructive behavior.  I hugged my son and told him that he meant the world to me and while he was under my roof he will obey my rules and I will not back down like before.
  • talemwam1


    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.


    • Marissa EP


      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.

      • talemwam1

        Marissa EP talemwam1

        Thank you so much for taking time to reply. I really apprieciate it.

  • Helplessmomma5

    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!

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      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.

  • carlee_peters

    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).

  • alphonsacordeiro
    My daughter solves her maths problems perfectly. However when she writes the final answer she writes it wrong.
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