The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

8 ways to change a child’s ‘bad’ behavior

(Johan Keslassy/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“Max keeps getting in trouble,” my friend Dena said. A sixth-grade teacher sent him to the office for swearing at her. Another reported him for throwing a chair when kids laughed at him for thinking Puerto Rico was a state.

Dena and I are both school counselors, but she felt ill-equipped to help her own son. “I feel like the worst mother ever,” she told me.

Parents often blame themselves for their child’s misbehavior, said Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior.” “This idea that kids’ behavior is a reflection on the parent creates such a fear-based parenting culture, but all kids mess up. It’s part of learning self-control and how to behave in a given situation.”

According to recent research, a child who lashes out may not even be acting with intentionality, said psychologist Mona Delahooke, the author of “Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.” She explained that many challenging behaviors are subconscious, involuntary and occur when a child inaccurately perceives threat. She urges adults to view kids with challenging behaviors as individuals with vulnerable nervous systems, not “problem children.”

Simply meting out rewards and punishments often does not work. Here’s how to elicit lasting behavioral change, according to the experts.

9 ways parents can empower a child who has learning issues

Lead with empathy and connection

Delahooke told of a 12-year-old boy who seemed fine when he found out his favorite teacher had been transferred to a new school, but 10 minutes later, turned over his desk and was sent to an isolation room as punishment. “This was a foster child with multiple losses who had no idea why he did that, and the punishment only served to make him feel worse,” she said. “He needed more connection, not less.”

“If I just send kids away for breaking the code of conduct, I tell them they’re disposable while rewarding them for their misbehavior,” said Jessica Lahey, a teacher and author of “The Gift of Failure.”

When she taught drug- and alcohol-addicted teens, one of her students leaped out a classroom window and took off running. “I don’t think he had an actual plan other than ‘away,’ ” she said. The boy was transferred to a facility that offered more intensive treatment.

Lahey had never been trained to work with kids whose traumatic home environment manifests as defiance or rage, but she learned through experience to lead with empathy. Similarly, parents may need to strengthen their relationship with their child before they can effectively target behavioral change.

Borrow tactics from negotiation

In both negotiation and parenting, you need to pick your battles, said Rellie Derfler-Rozin, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s business school. “Win-win in negotiation is about giving the other person as much as you can while still getting what you care about,” she explained. “Never say, ‘This is my last offer,’ unless it really is. Parents lose credibility if they don’t follow through on a threat.”

Derfler-Rozin also recommends thinking about your child’s interest rather than their position. Their position might be that they want more screen time, but their interest could relate to a desire to belong, which you could address in other ways.

If parents want to change a behavior, they have to understand its purpose. Otherwise, they will probably come up with an intervention that lacks staying power, said Brendan O’Day, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s business school. He relayed the story of a boy who was playing Fortnite in the middle of the night. “His father tried locking the controllers in his truck, but the kid smashed the windows to get them back.” Instead of relying on that kind of technical solution, address the adaptive challenge, which involves figuring out what’s at stake. “What need is the behavior serving?” O’Day said. “Do they want to feel competent? Do they want to hang out with peers? Are they looking for a way to relax?”

Talk above their age or maturity level

Research shows that children are more likely to behave when parents convey that they trust them and have high expectations. “The very thing that’s missing is what you should give away — respect and authority,” said psychologist Adam Cox, author of “Cracking the Boy Code.” He advises parents to invite their child’s perspective on complex moral and ethical issues, ask them questions that are slightly above their age, and assign them difficult tasks that align with their interests.

“So many kids feel essentially disrespected because no one gives them anything important to do,” he said. “Kids who are dysregulated are demanding respect, and if we don’t give it to them, they’re not going to give it to us.”

Focus more on relating than teaching

Julie Morgenstern, author of “Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best In Your Child and You,” has analyzed how parents spend their time and draws a distinction between teaching and relating. “When we teach kids, we bring them into the adult world and they’re the student of us,” she said. “When we relate to them, we enter their world and become their students.”

She once worked with a client whose 11-year-old daughter was struggling. She said, “I can’t reach my daughter; she keeps storming away from the dinner table.” Morgenstern realized the woman was spending 95 percent of her time trying to teach her daughter life lessons about how to ignore gossipy girls and focus on schoolwork, and suggested she instead say things like, “I hate when that happens to me.” When the mother focused less on lecturing, her daughter’s mood and behavior improved because she felt heard, understood and validated.

Be intentional with vocal tone and language

Cox encourages parents to use “task tone” to eliminate unhelpful emotionality and make requests or suggestions feel more manageable. He describes the vocal tone as focused, steady and directive, “not shouting like a drill sergeant.”

The words you choose are equally important. “One of the most powerful phrases I use with my kids is, ‘I can’t make you do this,’ ” Reynolds Lewis said. “When you drop the rope, your child has to grapple with the situation instead of avoiding it by fighting with you.”

Avoid lecturing, and pose open-ended questions. You might ask, “Why did you cuss at your teacher?” said Nathan Maynard, chief executive at BehaviorFlip and co-author of “Hacking School Discipline.” “If your child responds, ‘I was mad,’ follow up with, ‘What are some other ways you could deal with your anger?’ ”

Teach them how to recover from mistakes

Instead of shaming a child or insulting their character, ask the child whether they were their best self. Then help them repair the harm. Model what it means to take responsibility and make amends. “If your child is weak on accountability, look at your behavior,” said Sue Enquist, founder of One Softball and former head softball coach at ULCLA. “Kids are human sponges” — they’ll soak up and acquire both your good and bad habits.

Any consequence should be logical and restorative. “If a kid is throwing food in the cafeteria, the consequence should be to clean the cafeteria, not just talk it through,” said Brad Weinstein, chief innovation officer of BehaviorFlip and co-author of “Hacking School Discipline.”

Maynard once mediated a situation involving a teen who stole classmates’ cellphones. “The boy and I met with one of the targets at the target’s home to talk about how we could make it right, and everyone got a chance to talk about how they’d been impacted,” he said. “Understanding the ripple effect of his behavior is what made the boy want to stop stealing.”

Help them connect their emotions to behavior

To help your child self-regulate, explain that feelings are tied to behavior. Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” recalled a time when her well-behaved, kind son was picking on his younger sister. “Instead of making it about the bad thing he was doing, I said, ‘Sawyer, was someone mean to you today?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t feel good when such-and-such happened at recess.’ I said, ‘The reason I’m asking is because this is unlike you, and I know if person A is mean to person B, then someone was probably mean to person A.’ ”

Two years later, when Sawyer was 11, Lythcott-Haims discovered he had absorbed the lesson. “I was an emotional mess and inflicting it on my family,” she said. “My son reached out, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Mom, was someone mean to you today?’ My eyes welled up, my anger completely abated and I said, ‘Wow, thank you for asking.’ It was so powerful.”

Examine unmet expectations

Gather information from your child about why they are having difficulty meeting expectations. “We adults are famous for thinking we know what’s going on, imposing solutions, and getting mad at the kid when the solutions don’t work,” said psychologist Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child.” “But the kid was not a party to those solutions.” He advises parents to view their child as their partner, not their adversary, and solve problems together.

“Parents may fear they’re relinquishing authority and lowering expectations, but neither is true,” Greene added. “The biggest complaint I get from kids is their parents aren’t listening, and the biggest complaint I get from parents is their kids aren’t talking. But they’re not talking because we’re not listening.”

When Dena asked Max how she could best support him, she discovered that kids had been taunting him for months. Max attended a meeting with his teachers and school counselor, who started to pay closer attention to the classroom culture and gave him tools for managing frustration. As soon as Max felt supported and could envision a path forward, he stopped acting out.

As Delahooke noted, behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg. “For each child, you need to go under the waterline and address the causes through relational safety, human connection and warmth. Kids want to do well and will do well if they can.”

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in the District, a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, and the author of “Middle School Matters.” She blogs at and tweets @pfagell.

More from Lifestyle:

How to help girls build each other up, rather than tearing each other down

5 ways to help kids survive the social turmoil of middle school

Want to raise empowered women? Focus on middle school.

10 ways to help boys form the close friendships they crave

How parents can stay connected with their teen sons