In Over Your Head? How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Regain Control as a Parent


Recently, a frustrated mom sat in my office and said, “I just don’t know  what to do anymore. We’ve tried everything! There’s no punishment that gets  through to our child; there’s nothing we can say that will fix her behavior.  There’s so much going on we just don’t know where to start.” Sound familiar?  Parents often get by on intuition and advice from others, but let’s face  it–that’s not always enough, especially if you have a child who doesn’t respond  well to your attempts to manage their behavior. All kids push the  limits, but the stress this causes parents can range  anywhere from  overwhelming to nearly unbearable.

Related: Does your child manipulate you  constantly?

“So Many Problems — Where Do I Start?”

There are so many parents out there who would give anything to   have some peace and quiet at home, and peace of mind about their family life.  Not  only are you struggling to keep your head above water, you’re caught in a  flood  of behavior issues that pop up one after the nextand you may also be struggling to  just hold on so you don’t get swept  away. If your child has ODD or ADHD, it can feel like every day is a new parenting  obstacle course. What I say to parents who come to me feeling this way is,  first take a deep breath. You’re not alone. And what’s more, you didn’t find  yourself in this situation with your child all at once, so you don’t need  to put pressure on yourself to climb your way out of it all at once,  either.  We all go to that place of fear and negativity when we’re anxious  about our kids or our parenting. Fear says, “You have  to fix this right  now or else!” But if you put that feeling aside, logic  might tell  you that you and your child are both human, and can only do  so much at one time. So instead of trying to turn around five years worth of  issues in a  matter of minutes, it’s more effective to think about one  thing you  can start doing differently today to be a more effective parent  than you were yesterday.

Once you’ve shifted your thinking a bit and taken some pressure off, there  are some  other practical steps you can take to start to regain your sense of  control and  confidence as a parent. Here are some of the suggestions parents  have found  most helpful over the years.

1. One thing at a time. Sitting down and making a list of  every  single thing you want to change about your child is not what I mean  here—any  parent could easily come up with a dozen or so things they want to  change! Looking at such a big list will only make you feel more overwhelmed  and cause more stress in the long run. What I do suggest is to  just think  about your top three concerns. What behavioral issues  are causing the most  chaos and stress in your home? Choose the three most  troublesome issues and  write them down. Your list might look something like this:

  • Defiance
  • Refuses to do homework
  • Disrespectful behavior

Then ask yourself, are there  safety issues because of this behavior?  Issues that pose a safety risk, either to your child or to others,  should always be dealt with first. Once  you’ve considered any safety  risks, rank your top three concerns in order of  priority—and the top issue  on the list is where you put your focus for now. Those other two things  might need to wait until you build up your confidence and have more energy.  Working on just one thing is enough. Remember, when tackling multiple  behavior issues as a parent, it’s important for you to take one step at a time.  Eventually, those steps will add up to better behavior and more effective  parenting.

Related: How to parent calmly and stop your child from  pushing your buttons.

2. Come up with a plan. Know what your  expectations  are—what do you want to see your child do? Make sure you are able  to  communicate your expectations in clear terms. Describe actions that you   see and hear rather than using words like “good,” “nice,” and “better.”  Action  words are much clearer, and far less subjective than adjectives. Here’s an  example. A parent who wants their child to put forth more  effort in school  might say, “You need to quit goofing off in school. I really  want you to get  better grades and study harder.” A clearer way to say that is,  “I want you to  listen and pay attention in school, and when you get home I want  to see you  sitting at the table for an hour each day doing schoolwork. The  electronics  will be off, and you won’t have any privileges until you’ve worked  for an hour.  Once your grades improve to Bs and above, we’ll revisit this plan.”

Before you talk with your child, you should also come up with a plan on how  you will hold her accountable. What will you do if she does not meet your  expectations?  How will you respond? In the moment, it’s most effective to  restate your expectation and then walk away. When things have calmed down,  problem solve and then give a consequence if the situation calls for it. When  you have established your plan and you are sure you can follow through with  it, clearly state your expectations to your child and let her know what is  changing.

3. Fewer speeches, more coaching. In The  Total Transformation program, James Lehman  tells us that parents often over-explain themselves because they think  this will make their kids understand. The truth is, lectures and speeches  aren’t  effective. James recommends instead to have conversations that are   focused on what your child’s responsibilities are, and how he can meet them. For  example, what can your child do instead of leaving the house without  permission when he thinks  you’re being unfair? How can he stay out of trouble  next time? It’s extremely important for you to take on the role of  “coach”  and help your child learn new behaviors that are more  effective. Put things in  your child’s best interests, rather than trying to convince him he needs to  change so he’ll  get into college, stay out of jail, or be able to keep a job in  10 years. Set the speeches and justifications aside, and focus on developing the  skills  your child needs to do better. Let your consequences do the  convincing.

Related: How to make consequences work for your child,  even when he says, “I don’t care.”

4. One step forward, two steps back. It’s important to  expect setbacks with progress. Change is a slow  process that you just can’t  rush. Think of the caterpillar inside a chrysalis,  awaiting the day he is ready  to break out and take flight for the first time as  a butterfly. That  caterpillar knows he can’t speed up his transformation  without  jeopardizing his well-being. He knows that the time will come and he  must be  patient. It’s far more effective for a parent to also take one day at a  time,  and take it slow when making changes at home. Things will get better, but  sometimes your child will still make a mistake. All is not lost—just take a deep  breath, follow through with your plan and  remember that you can handle this.  Start with a fresh slate each day and stay  positive.

5. Be empowered. There  is power in numbers. Whether you’re  a single parent, happily married, or somewhere  in between, parents need a  support system. Find a way to build in some time for  some social support each  week so that you can recharge your batteries and feel  refreshed and motivated  to continue on. If the problem feels too big for you to  handle within your  family or social circle, seek support elsewhere. This is not  a sign of  weakness, but a measure of resourcefulness, commitment to change,  and a good  way to add some more tools to your parenting toolkit. Your child’s   pediatrician, teachers, and this website are  a good place to  start. All of these resources can help you gain a new understanding of  your  child, make suggestions, and help you to figure out what next steps you  should  take if you feel like you keep running face first into a brick wall.  Parenting classes, support groups, or counselors  and therapists in your local  area can also be a huge help.

When you’re faced with so many behavior issues you don’t know where to start,  it’s not easy. Remember, your journey toward more effective parenting  will start with just one step. And by  accepting that this will take time  and choosing to be positive and have  patience, you can take that first step  toward progress, starting today.


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