No Such Thing as a “Bad Apple”: Fix the Behavior, Not the Kid


How many times has this gone  through your head? Your “difficult” child—the  defiant one who’s constantly  acting out and upsetting everyone—has just done it  again. Maybe he’s called his little sister a foul name, smashed your favorite  framed family photo, or screamed in your face. In a moment of defeat, you think, “What if there’s no hope? What if  he’s just a ‘bad seed’—the bad apple of the  family?”

Here’s  the bottom line: There should never be motivation for a sibling to copy another  sibling’s bad behavior. Period.


While many parents have “gone there” at one  point or another,  understand  that this really is a false statement, because all  children  are inherently  born good. They come out innocent, but simply have   different personalities. At  times, it can appear that  everything your child is doing is negative: his  attitude, the way he treats you  and others, and the way he handles his  problems. That’s when those negative  thoughts get stuck in our heads. As  parents, these thoughts can get us into  trouble because we can unconsciously  begin to reinforce, through our own  behavior, the idea that our child is a bad  person. But that’s not the case.  Remember, it’s not your child who “turns bad,” it’s his behavior that is  inappropriate.

Related:  Is your child’s defiant behavior driving you up the wall?

If your child was born with a moody  or impulsive temperament, and a tendency  to take risks, he has characteristics  that lead him down paths that are more  difficult than other kids might take. Know  that when you have a child who’s  impulsive, who is a risk-taker, who gets bored  and frustrated very easily, he  has a lot of work ahead of him. He will simply need  more practice and help in  learning how to problem solve and cope when things  don’t go his way or when  he’s bored.

Why Kids Misbehave

What motivates kids to  misbehave, act out and be defiant?

  • Power  and control
  • Revenge: “You hurt   me; I’m going to hurt you.”
  • Attention
  • They’ve  given up: “I  just want to give up and be lazy. I don’t want to do homework. I  don’t want to  do chores.”
  • They  want you to give  up: “Please  stop caring if I’m going to be successful. I’m going  to wear you down so you’ll  stop giving me consequences and holding me  accountable.”

We understand how hard it can  be to parent all your kids when one of them  seems to influence the others to  misbehave, tries to grab the power from you  and take control all the time, or  simply makes everyone in the family miserable  with their behavior. It does not  have to be that way. Here are 6 ways to level  the playing field, be consistent  with all your kids, and take charge as a  parent.

1. Don’t make an example of your child. Don’t ever  make an  example of a child by saying things like, “Don’t ever act like your  sister!” Along the same vein, don’t ask your defiant kid, “Why can’t you be  more like  your brother?” Avoid those comparisons and any of these types of  comments  altogether. Comparisons only breed discontent. After all, your child  can’t turn  himself inside out and be his sibling; it’s not fair to ask it of  him and will  only make him feel frustrated and hopeless. Instead, build on each  child’s good  qualities individually.

Related:  Focus on the behavior, not your child’s feelings.

2. “It’s not fair!” Prevent trouble by maintaining the  mindset that  rules are established for everyone, and no one is exempt. With  defiant kids,  it’s often hard to set limits and give consequences, because they  react so  strongly and try to wear you down by negotiating, screaming, or  refusing to  comply. As a result, some parents will give up and  stop trying,  which will cause the other kids to say, “That’s not fair! Why  doesn’t Michael  get his phone taken away when he stays out past curfew?” Just  remember, the  limits should be the same for everyone. You may find that you’re  spending more  time responding to and enforcing limits with that acting out or  ODD kid,  especially at first.  But rules are for  everyone and no one is  exempt. Make it real simple on yourself.

The reason for doing this is  simple: If you give your defiant child  exemptions to the rules and  consequences, you will perpetuate the myth that  they are entitled and that they  are unique and above the law—and that’s exactly  what criminals believe. Don’t stop setting those limits and holding them   accountable. It’s very, very important to let your child know that rules and   boundaries pertain to everyone. (Read our article on Fail  proof Consequences to learn more about putting effective limits on  defiant  kids.)

3. Parroting bad behavior. Another  reason to stay the  course with your acting-out child? If your other kids see she’s  getting away  with breaking all the rules, sometimes they will start copying.  Here’s the  bottom line: There should never be motivation for a sibling to copy  another  sibling’s bad behavior. Period. If there is motivation, then you really  need to take a good look at that and  figure out why.

Related:  Is one of your kids teaching the others how to misbehave?

Here’s an example: Let’s say  there’s a thief in your town that robs a bank,  gets caught and goes to jail. Others  hear about it and say, “I’m not going to  try that.” They know if they get  caught, they’re going to go to jail. Now let’s  say the bank robber got away  with it. The police caught him, but they let him  off and said, “We don’t know  where you hid the money so we give up.” Some  people might be tempted to go rob  the same bank if it was that easy, right?  There’s no consequence and he got  away with all that money. The same goes for  your kids. So there should be no  motivation for any sibling to want to copy bad  behavior.

If you’re doing your job as a  parent and your child is given a consequence,  your other kids look at that and say,  “Every time my brother misbehaves he  loses all his privileges to the  electronics in the house. I don’t want that to  happen to me.”

4. Keep it short. When giving your child a consequence,  be  swift, consistent, and use as few words as possible. One of the things that  we  try to tell parents is “Do less talk and do more action.” We use the police  as  an example: If you get pulled over for speeding, how many words does he say  to  you? Usually three: “License and registration.”

What would you do if he stood  there and gave you a half hour lecture? Would  you respect him? Would you even  really listen? Would you care what he was  saying? Chances are you wouldn’t want  to hear what he had to say, you would not respect him, and you’d want to get away from him. The only thing  that means  anything to you is the fact that you were delivered an action—the  consequence  of the ticket. That is how your child feels about you. Just deliver  the  consequence the way a police officer would a ticket.

Will your child say, “Okay, you  caught me—you’re right. Sorry.” Probably  not! We also remind parents about what  we as adults do when a policeman stops  us. We make excuses, we lie, we pretend like  we didn’t know we were speeding,  we cry, we negotiate. We do all this  ourselves, yet we get mad at our kids when they do it with us—but remember, it’s human nature. Just be  businesslike and  objective, and deliver that ticket. This gives you that  detachment and  objectivity that you really need, because otherwise you can get  sucked into the  arguments or the excuses.

Related:  How to avoid power struggles with your oppositional, defiant  child.

5. “He’s your favorite!” Most kids  at one point or another  will say, “Kyle’s your favorite. He gets everything.” Most  parents will say, “That’s not true. I love you all the same.” But when you have  a child who’s ODD  or constantly pushing your buttons, you might feel as if you  like the child  who’s easier to parent sometimes—and maybe you feel guilty about  that. But just  remember, it’s the behavior that you like better, not the child. And  when your child says,  “You like her better!” you can even reply, “I don’t like  your behavior right  now, but I like you both the same.”

You can also respond with, “First  of all, I don’t. But can you give me an  example of why you think I feel that  way?” Your child is going to give you a  list. Believe it or not, that’s going  to be a very good thing. Now you can say  to them, “I want to do these same  things with you. Last time I took you  shopping with me, you pitched a fit and  called me names in the store. Can you  tell me what it would take for you to be  able to do these things with me?” So  again, tie the consequences and rewards to  the behavior. If you really give  your child the goal and let her know you want  to do these things for her, it  will motivate her to behave more appropriately.

You can even say, “I would love  to take you shopping with me. Can we make a  plan so that I can start taking you  shopping again?” You can say something  like, “Here’s what I need for you to be  able to do. If you can go one day  without any temper tantrums, then the next  time I go shopping, I’ll take you  with me and we’ll see how that goes.” Now  you’ve turned it around so that your  child has a motivator to earn that outing  with you. And, you’re putting the  power to change on her.

Related:  Give your child “fail proof” consequences.

Best of all, you won’t be on  the defending end trying to figure out how you  can prove to your child that you  love her. When you do it this way, you’re  letting her know it has nothing to do  with love at all. Rather, you’re saying, “I love you and I want for you to have  these things. Your behavior dictates all  of it. So what can you do to start  earning it all back? That’ll make you happy,  me happy, and everyone happy.” Now  it’s real workable for your child. She can  earn that trip. And she knows you  want her to be successful and get it.

6. Recognize each child’s uniqueness and talent. No two kids  are the same. It’s your job as a parent  to let each child know that you  recognize their  uniqueness and help them discover their own talent, whatever  that is. With defiant  or acting-out kids, we forget that they do have that same  uniqueness and talent  ; every child is born with one. It can be hard to dig  down underneath all that icky  stuff that might be spewing out every day, but it  is in there—even if it’s just that  your child is extremely determined and  strong. Maybe your son is a good artist  or your daughter is an exceptional  basketball player. Maybe your child is good  with other kids.  What do they  love to  do? As a parent, try to encourage them in whatever it is they love  doing. If  all you’re focusing on is all the bad stuff every day, you and your  child might  both forget that there’s some good stuff in there too.

Remember, there is no such  thing as a child who’s a “bad apple.” While a bad  apple is never going to turn  good and be “un-spoiled,” as humans, we always  have the option to change. And  anybody can change at any given time.


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