"Good" Kids Behave Badly: Is Your Child Starting To Push Your Buttons?
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?
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.
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
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!
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
Here are five ways you can effectively deal with your child's behavior
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
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.(When Good Kids Behave Badly reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents)
Janet Lehman, MSW, worked with her husband, James,
as co-creator of
The Total Transformation Program. Janet has worked with
troubled children and teens for over 30 years. She is a social worker who has
held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation
officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in
traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.