How to Coach Your Child to Better Behavior


Mom having a good conversation with teen daughter

Many parents mistakenly think that consequences alone are enough to discipline children effectively. But it’s not that simple. Parents also need to teach and coach their kids to better behavior.

What it really comes down to is this: you can take away any and every privilege they have for weeks or months at a time. But, if kids don’t know what to do instead—or even understand what else is acceptable—then the bad and abusive behaviors will just continue.

And you will continue to be frustrated and exhausted.

In The Total Transformation® parenting program, James Lehman explains that kids need to learn what he refers to as “replacement behaviors” for their current bad behaviors.

For example, if you have a child who gets verbally abusive when you ask him to do chores, you need to teach him another way of handling things instead of calling you foul names or screaming at you.

In the end, you can’t punish kids into good behavior. Effective consequences are necessary, but they are not sufficient by themselves.

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Three Parenting Roles for Better Child Behavior

In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman identifies three effective parenting roles that we all need to take on with our kids. Committing to taking on these roles is one of the most important steps to stopping undesirable behaviors and making positive changes in your family and home life.

By the way, when James talks about roles, he doesn’t mean the kind of role an actress plays in a movie, where she’s just pretending to be somebody else. Instead, he means a functional purpose which you fulfill or assume in your life. These roles are:

  1. The Trainer/Coach
  2. The Problem Solver
  3. The Limit Setter

Each role is a set of helpful skills that you can use to influence your child’s behavior. It’s important that you incorporate all three on a daily basis, transitioning from one to the other as needed.

Be aware that you might be a Limit Setter at one moment and a Problem Solver at another moment. You don’t want to simply choose one of these roles and become rigid. This won’t be effective.

The three roles go together and must be blended and balanced. I’ve talked to many parents who told me that with time and practice, they were able to use all three roles appropriately and with ease.

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The Trainer/Coach Role

The Trainer/Coach role focuses on teaching your child a skill she needs to be successful in life. The Trainer/Coach role asks you to look at where your child is right now and to coach her forward from there rather than starting at a level higher than what your child can manage. After all, you wouldn’t sit your three-year-old down one day and expect her to write her name all on her own without teaching her first. It’s just not a realistic expectation.

Make sure the ideals you’d like your child to reach are attainable for her. At the same time, understand that children will struggle—and that many times you need to let them struggle. They will experience some discomfort and unpleasant feelings and that’s okay. The struggle is a necessary part of the growing process.

What does the Trainer/Coach role look like in practice? Let’s say your tween is demanding that you take her to the mall, but her room is a disaster. An ineffective way to handle that might be to say: “How dare you talk to me that way! I’m not going to drive you to the mall with an attitude like that. And on top of that, your room is still a mess. Since you didn’t clean it today like you were supposed to, you’ve lost your computer for a week.”

In contrast, the Trainer/Coach would say,

“I want you to be able to go to the mall. I really do. But here’s what isn’t helping you. You loudly demanded that I drive you to the mall and I see that your room is still very messy. There are still clothes, shoes, and books all over the floor. So here’s what you can do instead. You can clean your room, put your clothes away, and put the books back on the shelf, and then come back and ask me if I will drive you to the mall in a quieter voice. That’s how you can get what you want.”

The Problem Solver Role

The Problem Solver role is quite similar to the Trainer/Coach, though its emphasis is more on using problem-solving to develop new skills. The Problem Solver focuses on setting goals and identifying the obstacles that are in the way.

In this role, you might help your child to anticipate future problems and discuss how he can solve them before they happen. For example, you might say:

“Someone will offer you drugs some day. What will you say? Here’s what you can do…”

As a problem solver, you’ll talk about your expectations of your child in a clear, specific way. So for example, instead of saying, “Be a good boy in the grocery store today,” the problem solver parent would say:

“We’re going to the store to get the things on our list. I expect you not to ask for anything and to keep your hands to yourself inside the cart. You are not to grab stuff off the shelves.”

Additionally, the Problem Solver parent is open to trying new rules and letting their child have a chance to earn an age-appropriate amount of independence while engaging him in the process.

For example, let’s say your 16-year-old daughter wants a later curfew. She wants to come in at 11:30 p.m. instead of 11:00. But she’s been coming in past curfew already and you don’t want to reward her bad behavior. Exasperated, you might want to say to her: “You can’t even make it home at 11, and you want me to let you stay out even later? I don’t think so!”

But the problem solving parent would begin by finding out why your daughter isn’t making it home on time right now. The Problem Solver would say:

“I understand you want a later curfew, but you seem to be struggling to get home by 11. What’s going on? What’s keeping you from being home on time?”

And then talk about what she can do differently to make curfew. You have to identify the problem before we can find a solution.

Once you talk about the problem and find a new solution, you might tell your daughter that you’re going to try an 11:30 p.m. curfew if she comes home on time at 11 p.m. for the next week.

Let her know exactly what you need to see in order for her to achieve that goal. Say something specific and observable, such as:

“Come home on time for the next seven days then we can discuss extending your curfew.”

You also let her know what will happen if it goes well. You’ll let her keep the new curfew. If it doesn’t go well, you’ll go back to the 11 p.m. curfew for the time being.

The Limit Setter Role

The Limit Setter role sets limits and rules and follows through without justifying herself, defending her actions, or over-explaining to the child.

For example, if your child is challenging you about his driving privileges and wants to drive three of his friends to a place somewhere outside of town, as the Limit Setter you would respond in a calm and businesslike way as follows:

“You can’t drive your friends to another town and you can’t have more than one friend in the car at a time. That’s the rule until you have more experience behind the wheel.” 

Then, you’ll walk away if your child argues, begs, or pleads. So essentially, effective limit setters also limit themselves. They have limits on how they react to unwanted behaviors—and what they will react to at all. They ignore bad attitudes and don’t try to force their child into compliance by constantly reminding, nagging, pushing, threatening, or doing for the child.

The effective limit setter won’t cross that line because they know it doesn’t work. Rather, they expect compliance and they hold their kids accountable when they don’t comply.

By compliance, I mean that your child is doing the task you asked him to do. The dishwasher is unloaded. The trash is taken out. The dog is walked. You pay no mind if he has a scowl on his face or if he’s stomping his feet or mumbling under his breath—this is the attitude piece that we need to ignore.

As James Lehman points out in The Total Transformation Program: “You’re not there to prevent your kid from doing things, you’re there to deal with what he does and hold him accountable.”

Your mindset might be to make your child do his homework every night at any cost. If so, realize that this mindset isn’t going to work. Instead, your focus should be on setting a standard and holding your child accountable to that standard.

Here’s an example of what this looks like: no electronics each night until your teen has studied for an hour first. If he doesn’t do his homework, he doesn’t get to play video games or video chat with his friends that day. But, he can try again tomorrow. This is how you hold your child accountable.

Understand that if you set that standard and you don’t follow through—if you let him play his video games before his work is done—your child learns that your words and limits are meaningless.

Let me be clear that there are exceptions. If you make a poor choice and give a really ineffective consequence out of anger, you don’t have to follow through. Let’s say your child has come in late, and in the heat of the moment you tell him that he’s grounded for the rest of the summer. Later, after you calm down, you realize that your consequence is unreasonable. Simply acknowledge your mistake, give a new consequence, and move on.

Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work

Using the Parenting Roles: What Kind of Pushback Can You Expect?

You might be wondering, “Once I’m practicing these three parenting roles fairly consistently, what changes can I expect to see?”

Initially most parents can expect their kids to be pretty unhappy. When you stop explaining yourself or engaging in power struggles with your kids, it can be really upsetting for them and hard for them to adjust to.

Just recognize that resistance is normal. Your child will test you to see if you really are changing, or if they can get you to go back to your old ways instead. After all, they were the ones in control back then. Back then, they could drive you crazy, make you scream, and get you to give in by acting out of control. Imagine how powerful they must have felt.

Now as they see you changing, they might follow you around, badger you, talk back, and try to push your buttons. But the key is to walk away and let your kids know their behavior is not going to get them what they want. Don’t adjust your standards based on their emotional state or their ugly behavior. Remind yourself that you can get through this initial escalation. Things will get better if you stay calm and consistent in the face of your child’s anger and resistance.

Related content: Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry

I want to make an important note here. If your child’s behavior escalates to hurting someone else in the home, hurting themselves, becoming destructive or violent, or even threatening to hurt themselves or someone else, you may need outside help. You may need to contact a counselor, a family therapist, or even the police in order to work through this escalation period safely.

Related content: When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”

Creating a Culture of Accountability

Once you become a more experienced Trainer/Coach, Problem Solver, and Limit Setter, you will gradually see your child’s self esteem getting better. His attitude may even improve. As they behave better, they feel better.

You will also create a culture of accountability in your home. What does this mean exactly? It means that the more you hold your child accountable for his behaviors, the more he’ll learn. He’ll find that blaming others doesn’t get him out of his responsibilities. That kicking and screaming in the store doesn’t get him what he wants. That putting chores off doesn’t get him out of doing them. And that being verbally abusive or destructive doesn’t make his curfew later.

It’s a long process, but your child will eventually learn that he’s responsible for his behavior. And he’ll know that you’ll hold him accountable if he doesn’t step up and take responsibility on his own. With time and practice, this gradually becomes the culture in your home.

Will things ever be perfect? Probably not. Your child will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes. But now you’ll have the skills as a parent to get your family through these challenges and back on track.


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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