When “Good” Kids Behave Badly: Is Your Child Starting to Push Your Buttons?


Son pushing mom's buttons and she yells at him

Do you have a “good” kid who’s starting to act out?  All of a sudden, he’s pushing your buttons, failing to comply with rules and his bad attitude has soared through the roof. You start to wonder what happened to your child—and where you went wrong. Your parenting hasn’t changed, so what’s going on? What’s behind these changes in your kid—and more importantly, how can parents adjust and deal with them effectively?

“If your child has developed a bad attitude and is being rude and disrespectful toward you, one of the best things you can do is not take the bait.”

When kids’ behavior changes—especially at that pre-adolescent age—parents start to worry, and no wonder. Suddenly the sweet child who used to want to do everything with you looks at you with embarrassment, disdain or exasperation. I think it’s important to realize that, just as your child moves on to that next phase of adolescence, you yourself are going through your own phase as a parent. This phase is really a type of grieving process as you mourn that child who might have been a loving, curious and enthusiastic little girl or boy. At the same time, you’re getting used to the new kid in your house—and that new kid can often be sullen, rude and disagreeable. And what’s worse, it often feels like it happens overnight! My husband James and I went through this with our own son, and it took some adjusting on our parts to get used to the changes.

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Is It a Phase?

Here’s the truth. You wouldn’t want your child to stay little forever, so remind yourself that the fact that he’s moving on to the teen years—and all that comes with it—is actually normal and healthy. This doesn’t mean that you should put up with any rude, disrespectful, risky or defiant behaviors—far from it. I just want you to realize that what your child is going through (and how he is behaving) is probably pretty typical. Acting out behavior, as difficult as it is for parents, is often part and parcel of adolescence for most kids.

Whether your child is exhibiting mild, moderate or severe acting out behaviors, it’s all hard to manage, and most parents need some support and guidance. I can’t emphasize enough that parenting programs like the Total Transformation can be really helpful for any parent. (Contrary to what many people believe, the Total Transformation actually helps parents of kids with all types of behavior, not just severe or defiant ones.)

Note: If your child exhibits a sudden or extreme change in behavior, or seems distressed, despondent or anxious for a prolonged period of time, have them seen by someone with professional diagnostic skills. Be sure to have a pediatrician rule out any underlying issues that might be causing any behavior changes.

Phases in life are real for all of us, and adolescence is one of the most chaotic times we go through in our lives. Some kids transition through these years more smoothly than others, but typically it’s a very difficult time for most. Think back to when you were a 13-year-old awash in hormones and remember how you felt. I don’t know that many of us went through that very gracefully—or would volunteer to do it again!

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Along with the physical changes your child is experiencing, there are social and emotional changes as well. Her friends are changing—and all at different rates. Some kids mature physically at 13, while others won’t fully mature until they hit twenty. School becomes more challenging academically, and friendships are forming and dissolving daily. On top of that, your child is going from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school. Maybe your family made a move to a new town where your kids don’t have friends yet. Or perhaps there’s been a loss in the family, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. All of these things can be very difficult and upsetting for kids, and may cause them to act out (or withdraw and “act in”) rather than talk with you about it. So while your child’s new, disagreeable behavior could have hormonal causes, keep in mind that it might also be something exterior that’s making them act disrespectfully. Your job is to hold them accountable for their behavior regardless of the reason for it. Even parents of “good kids” who misbehave need skills to deal with the inevitable changes in behavior that happen with every kid. The truth is, you can’t just expect those changes to go away or fix themselves.

Here are five ways you can effectively deal with your child’s behavior changes.

1. Know your child

A big piece of the puzzle here is that you really need to know your child. Does your daughter get grumpy when she’s getting sick? Is your son a pill when his team loses? You have to be a parenting detective sometimes. Ask yourself, “Is my child having a hard time at school? Does he have an infatuation with a peer? Is he being bullied by other students at school?” Knowing your child helps you determine whether what’s going on is something situational, that should pass quickly – like a team loss – or something that may become more problematic – like consistently rude behavior.

2. Talk to Your Child

Sometimes there’s nothing outward that you can point to—everything seems normal, but your child is in a foul mood that seems to last for days. In some cases, the best thing to do is talk to them first. Starting  that conversation really depends on the age of your child, but it’s always best to come out and say that you’ve noticed they seem a little less happy than they used to. Or you’re concerned about them because they used to seem to enjoy things more. And really listen to what your child has to say. If they can’t tell you what’s wrong, depending on your child’s age, you might check with their teacher or other parents. Sometimes you can get a sense of how the kids are doing in general in your child’s group or grade. Maybe there’s a lot of bullying going on in your school and you didn’t even know about it.

3. Don’t Give the Behavior Power

While it’s good to know the cause of your child’s behavior, it’s also important that you don’t give it too much power. If your child has developed a bad attitude and is being rude and disrespectful toward you, one of the best things you can do is not take the bait. Keep the expectations in your house clear: “In our family, we treat each other with respect.” Don’t get sucked into a power struggle and argue the point—remember, you don’t need to attend every fight you’re invited to. If your child has acted out, wait until you’re both calm and then you can give them consequences for their behavior if that’s what’s warranted. But don’t give their bad attitude or backtalk power in the moment, because that only teaches your child that they can push your buttons.

4. Pull back and don’t react

Like most of us, you’ve probably reacted the same way every time with your child when she has acted out, and it didn’t do any good. So take some time and really think about what’s called for in the situation. Ask, “What direction do I need to go here? What does my child need from me right now?” In the Total Transformation, we talk about the need for parents to do coaching, problem solving and limit setting with their kids. These are roles that every parent needs to play, regardless of whether or not they have a so-called “typical” kid, or one who is defiant and acts out a lot.

So take some time, think about the situation at hand, and begin to make a plan for what you will do depending on what the inappropriate behavior was. Is it something that is an ongoing problem with your child, or is it just a one-time event? Are you going to set some limits right away, or start by talking to your child first? Then follow through on what your child needs—and what you need, according to your bottom line.

5. Stake out your bottom line

It’s so important for you to figure out what your bottom line is and stick to it. If you feel that your child’s behavior was mildly disrespectful—maybe she said “whatever’ as she left the room, but complied with the request you gave her to empty the dishwasher—you might let it slide. But if your teen daughter says something sarcastic, hurtful and rude, then she’s crossed a limit. Be clear about what your bottom line is: “We don’t talk to each other that way in our house. Now hand over your cell phone. You can have it back when you speak to all of us in a polite way for the next two hours.” The other thing to remember is, when your kids are trying this stuff out, they don’t always know how it sounds—they’re pushing limits and testing boundaries. So as they push, you have to say, “Hold up. You can only push so far and here’s the limit.” Do it matter-of-factly and in a calm, neutral tone of voice. Address what needs to be addressed. And on the other side, ignore what isn’t important.

Realize that there’s also a match between what you’re going through as a parent and as a person, and what your kids are going through in their lives. When life is going more smoothly, it’s easier to cope with more challenging behaviors. If you’re under stress at work, financial strain, or having difficulties with another family member, it’s much harder to deal with a child who starts acting out. It’s important to remember that all kids have bad days and bad times. They can be hungry or tired or have problems transitioning from school to home. There are millions of reasons why kids act out or push buttons—remember, pushing buttons is just what kids do. Our job is to tell them the limits and hold them accountable for their behavior.

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Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

Comments (13)
  • Jennifer S.

    This blog was very true to the point at hand. The problem is, as the patient, i am doing all the things listed above and my 11yr old is just being down right roude to everyone in the family (and teacher at the beginning of school )

    She's Saying she is moving out, yelling, telling us she don't care, unfair that she is grounded and can't play with her friends and So on... this morning, she took her grandma's cell phone/alarm clock and turned the volumes all the way down.

    She is currently in counseling, i talk with her calm and collective and some times get a sturn voice when she wont listen and argues evey point we make. Just not sure what to do now.

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be so challenging when it feels like you are doing everything possible to address your child’s poor behavior, yet she continues to act inappropriately. Staying calm, setting clear limits and expectations, as well as holding her accountable when she is not following theMore rules are all effective steps to address this type of behavior. Something else to consider is that inappropriate behavior is often linked to poor problem solving skills. If she is not also learning what to do differently to follow the rules next time she doesn’t agree with you, or becomes frustrated, her behavior isn’t likely to change over the long-term. You can find some tips on how to have a problem-solving conversation with your daughter in The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • KarineEwbank
    Hi. I have a almost to be 12 years old girl and Ive been looking for some help or advice. She was the sweetest girl on Earth. A straight A+ student. Model of daughter and friend but since she started 7th grade few months ago she has been changing aMore lot. First were the grades, from A+ to B's and C's, now her behavior has changed as she started hanging out with the popular bad girls in her school. She is very calm, quiet, polite, sweet girl at home but she is acting differently when she is in school. She has been in the same school since kindergarten, so we know all the teachers and all the kids in that school and I'm very very concern about my daughters behavior. I talked to her many times and she seems dont understand all the problems that comes next with that change. I'm afraid I'm losing my girl... I dont know how to talk to her about it. I don't know how to make her to abandon the new bad girls she is hanging out. Please help!!!
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      I hear you.It can be very

      challenging when your adolescent’s behavior starts to change in ways that

      really worry and upset you and her teachers at school.When you are addressing your daughter’s

      behavior at school, I encourage you to be direct and clear about your

      expectations regarding her grades and her behavior in the classroom.I also recommend focusing on your daughter’s

      own actions and choices, rather than https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/does-your-child-have-toxic-friends-6-ways-to-deal-with-the-wrong-crowd/.The truth is, all of us are surrounded by numerous influences each day,

      and in the end, we are each responsible for our own behavior.You might find additional helpful information

      in our article series, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/sudden-behavior-changes-in-kids-part-i-what-do-they-mean/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/sudden-behavior-changes-in-children-part-ii-7-things-you-can-do-today/.Take care.

  • Mother

    I got a 5yrs old daughter and 3yrs old son. I am concerned about my daughter because since two weeks she is acting weird. She is a very good listener to me and loves me alot.

    But now she is crying for every reason, she is upset, not happy atall and she is going to motion on the floor though she knows.

    she want me to be with her every time however i am not able to as i am a working professional.

    Please advice why she is acting weird.

    I am worried :(

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      I can hear your worry. It may be beneficial to talk with

      your daughter’s pediatrician about these concerns. Your daughter’s doctor would

      be able to talk with you and determine whether or not your daughter’s behavior

      is age appropriate. S/he would also be able to determine if any assessment

      would be warranted. We appreciate you writing in. Take care.

  • Dali71

    Hi NYC mom

    You are describing exactly my 11 and half year old son's behaviour. He recently added a bubblegum shoplifting incident and our credit card use for online gaming. I am very concern too. Patience, love, lots of quality time, the storm shall pass and we will see our beautiful sun has always been there. good luck!

  • Dirabd

    Raising a granddaughter fathered by son when 17. Now 14 my grabddaughter, once the sweetest and gentle girl has turned into an ogre. She is rude, mean and boast of being not nice. She is very selfish as well. My hysband and i cannot even talk to each other in a normal way. We have to whisper because she says we are screaming when we talk and that she hear us from her bedroom. Yet when we call her down for meals we have to keep calling louder and louder as she says she did not hear us. She refuses to say please. We cannot listen to tv when she is not at school. We walk on eggshell. She complains about every noise we make. Yet she will listen to her music so loud it is deafening.

    For the past couple of years She has visited her mom who lives out of town) every other weekend. It is a different lifestyle. She will come home and say things like her mom says that she can have a tatoo and piercing. She also can stay up alll night there. She knows that it is something we would not be happy with. But we dont say anything. We have an ok relationship with her mom. We helped her get training so she could get a job. We are generous with her as both her parents are dead.

    When we ask our granddaughter if she treats her mom the way she treats us she says no because her mom does nit p..s her off.

    That p word is not the way we talk and we remind her constantly about her choice if words. She tells us to get over it..

    She said more than once that she probably would be better at her mom. We ignored it many times but finally told her that if that is what she wanted then she could do it. She replied that we did not love her and wanted to get rid of her, and that she wont leave because all her friends are here.

    When kyla goes into a rage because we either remind her to do her homework, or because she disagrees with us being food, going somewhere, you name it. She screams and tells us we are driving her crazy abd that if she kills herself it will be our faults. We are at our wits end and terrified she would do something drastic to spite us. We are nearing seventies and both retired when she was born to care for her.

    We took her to a therapist when this first started abd she was put on medication. We noticed a difference. She

    stopped because her mother told her to. She refuses to go back to a therapist. I cry myself to sleep many times and i am worried that my husband will gave a nervous breakdown. After her verbal abuse session towards us he is in tears and says that is not what he envisioned his retirement to be like. And whats mire my husbad has a heart condition for which he had to take medicine. When she is mean to him i ask her if these are the last words she would have liked to tell him if he were to have a heart attack. She screamed at me and said dont try to put a guilt trip in me,. Yet this is my biggest fear. He was a hard working man and he deserves better than to be belittled all the time. I am at my wits end and we have reached a point where we almost want to send her to her mother who is not a very good example for her.

    Our son cannot help either. He has always considered her as a sister. His job entails a lot of travelling. He moved in with us several months ago after we asked for help. He told her she was mean. He could not take her behaviour either. He moved back out. He takes her every other friday for the evening

    I am so sorry for writing so much. I just need help

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      You are in a very tough situation. On the one hand, you want

      to give your granddaughter the best possible chance at being a successful adult

      and are concerned her mother may not be the best role model. On the other hand,

      it is becoming increasingly difficult for you and your husband to manage her

      acting out behaviors. I can’t really tell you whether or not your granddaughter

      should go and live with her mother. I believe, however, that there comes a time

      when you have to decide whether or not the constant battle is worth your own

      health. Only you can decide when that time is. I do know that you have gone

      above and beyond already, taking in your granddaughter and giving her a

      supportive home when her parents were not able to. And, regardless of whether

      or not her mother is the best role model, she is still her mother. Having your

      granddaughter live with her does not mean you don’t love her. What it does mean

      is that raising her is starting to take a toll on your and your husband’s

      health.  There’s no shame in saying enough is enough.  Have you

      looked into community resources like kinship care or respite care? You may be

      able to find some support for you and your family. The 211 Helpline would be

      able to give you information on services like these and others. You can reach

      the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by going online to

      211.org. I wish you and your family the best of luck moving forward. Be sure to

      check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • sad mom
    I have two wonderful teens- a 17 yr old daughter and a 16 yr old son...however my son lately is acting anything but wonderful. He's grown exceedingly fresh, sarcastic and inconsiderate. He doesn't help out around the house at all, rarely says thank you and is now disrespectful. Following whatMore started as a small disagreement with my 17 yr old he called us both a*$holes (me more than once) and was belligerent. Never in a million years would I have said that to my parents. I love my son...but right now I don't like him or who he is becoming. I'm at a loss.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @sad mom

      It can be tough when a normally well behaved teen starts to

      act disrespectfully towards you. It may help to know that this is pretty

      normal. Many teens don’t have the skills to deal with tough situations and will

      often lash out verbally when asked to do something they don’t want to do or get

      upset about something. Normal doesn’t mean OK, however, and it is something

      that should be addressed. One thing you can do in the moment is set the limit

      and then walk away. You can say to your son something like “Talking to me that

      way isn’t going to solve your problem. You still need to take out the trash”

      and then walk away or leave the room. You can always follow up and hold him

      accountable later. For more information on ways you can address this behavior,

      you can check out these articles: Teenagers Talking Back: How to Manage This Annoying Behavior & Disrespectful Child Behavior? Don’t Take It Personally. I hope this helps. Be sure to let

      us know of you have any further questions. Take care.

  • Student Mom
    I am a mother of three, my two sons live with me. We are living in a not so nice neighborhood and the attitudes of the children around us are influencing my boys' behavior to the point they are not acting like the boys I know. I am currently inMore school working on a Master's degree in psychology and child psychology is not my strongest area of knowledge. Also it is easier to implement plans onto others professionally and I believe it is harder when it is your own children. Any thing I can do to change their behavior?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Student Mom

      Wow! You do have a lot on your plate right now. I can hear how

      concerned you are about how your sons are starting to behave. It can be tough

      to know what steps you can take as a parent to combat peer pressure and outside

      influence on behavior, especially when it’s not possible to watch over your

      children 24/7. What you can do as a parent, though, is help your children

      develop the skills to make good choices, whether you are there or not. Truth be

      told, we are all exposed everyday to outside influences. How we respond to

      those influences, however,  is a choice we make. Helping your son’s

      develop the skills to make better choices, and also holding them accountable

      for the choices they ultimately make. We have several articles that offer tips

      for both helping your children develop those skills and also ways of holding

      them accountable for the choices they make. Two in particular you may find

      helpful are Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer PressureLife Lessons for Kids and Teens: 5 Skills Every Child Needs to Learn. I hope

      this information is useful for your situation. Be sure to check back if you

      have any further questions. Take care.

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