The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”

By Sara Bean, M.Ed. /

Angry pre-teen child

What causes bad child behavior? James Lehman says it happens because children don’t yet know how to solve problems effectively.

To put it another way, they act out as an attempt to handle life’s problems. And they continue to act out, frankly, because it’s working for them.

But here’s the truth: If you don’t help him find a better way to solve problems, then the acting out will continue. And it will get worse.

Does this sound familiar?

  • You tell your teenage son he can’t go out during the week, and he kicks a hole in the wall before storming out of the house anyway.
  • You ask your preteen daughter to change her inappropriate outfit. She throws a screaming fit and calls you a b—-, all before 8 a.m.
  • Your 10-year-old wants to watch TV, but he needs to finish his homework. When you put your foot down, he rages and has an hour-long meltdown that leaves you feeling frustrated, exhausted, and helpless.

The Types of Problems Kids Face

Keep in mind there are many different kinds of problems kids encounter, and each looks a little different in terms of behavior. These are the three main types of problem-solving challenges you might see:

  1. Emotional Problems. Everyone has moments of feeling angry, sad, frustrated, helpless, or excited. When you’re a child who hasn’t figured out how to deal with his emotions, having these feelings can bring on irritating or abusive acting-out behavior. For example, instead of dealing appropriately or even reasonably well with being told “no,” your child has tantrums, curses at you, yells, or punches holes in the walls.
  2. Social Problems. Some kids don’t get along well with others, particularly people their age. They don’t know how to introduce themselves to someone, how to say “no,” or how to handle it if a peer does something they don’t like. Bullies often lack social problem-solving skills and treat others poorly to compensate. A bully solves her problems at the expense of everyone else’s sense of security.
  3. Functional Problems. This is when your child has problems meeting responsibilities around the home, at school, or in the community. He might continually lose schoolwork, refuse to do chores, talk out of turn in class or talk back to teachers, and lie about having his homework done. For example, your son may lie and tell you he did his homework in school. The next day, you tell him you want to check his work, but he didn’t even bring it home. He says he forgot—another lie. Before you know it, the zeros are piling up, and he keeps lying about his schoolwork night after night while his grades fall lower and lower.

How to Teach Your Child to Solve Problems

The best way to start teaching your child better problem-solving skills is to have a conversation about a particular incident. Do this after things have calmed down and before you talk about consequences. Your goal here is to identify the problem, teach your child how to solve it, and then hold him accountable—not to punish him and make him miserable.

Find a quiet time to sit down with your child and talk. If your child refuses to participate without being abusive or refuses to participate at all, then put one privilege on hold until you get through a calm, cooperative conversation. Here are some tips to get you started.

Don’t Ask Your Child “Why” They Misbehave

“Why” invites excuses and blame. Ask deeper questions to identify the problem such as “What were you thinking when…?” or “What were you trying to accomplish by…?” This works well for both elementary school kids and teens.

Some kids, especially those in preschool and early elementary school, might have difficulty answering these questions. They may not know why they are misbehaving. If your younger child is over-tired and fighting with his sister, don’t ask him “why.” Instead, tell him why—tell him he’s overtired. Say to him:

“You’re not getting along with your sister because you’re over-tired. Go to your room, take a nap, and when you get up, you will feel better.”

Younger kids will develop the ability to talk about their thoughts more as they grow older. Be patient, take a break, and let your child think about things a bit more rather than pressure them to answer right away. Accept that they may not know “why” and deal in a practical way with the behavior itself.

Focus on One Issue at a Time

Talk about one problem and one problem only during this conversation. Don’t bring up something that happened two weeks ago or something else your child did today that upset you. If your child brings up another incident, let him know you will talk about that later. Tackling too many problems at once usually only results in frustration on your part because it’s overwhelming to address them all at the same time.

Identify Replacement Behaviors for Your Child

Talk about what your child will do differently the next time this problem comes up. Allow your child to try to come up with an idea on her own. Make some suggestions if she’s struggling. Perhaps you decide that when you tell your preteen daughter she can’t do something, she can go to her room and write in a journal instead of screaming and calling you names. Or maybe you decide that she might ask herself if it’s worth it to scream at you and call you names, or tell herself, “It isn’t the end of the world if I can’t wear this skirt to school.”

Don’t Accept Wishful Thinking Responses From Your Child

Wishful thinking is a type of faulty thinking that indicates that your child truly believes he can just do something without really putting thought or effort into it. Get your child to be more specific. Ask him:

“How will you stop cursing at me? What will I see you doing instead?”

Be a Role Model for Your Child

Remember that kids study us for a living. If you yell and curse, your child will yell and curse as well. Act the way you want your children to act.

Observation is a key learning method for kids, especially younger ones, so be aware of this. You are the most important role model in your child’s life, even if he acts like you aren’t, so make sure to play the role well.

How Will I Know If It’s Working?

Many parents have unrealistic expectations about the problem-solving process. They talk with us in parent coaching after trying once, disappointed that it didn’t work and that their child turned right around and did it again.

This is extremely frustrating, but it’s no surprise. When kids are caught in the heat of the moment, it’s hard for them to remember that conversation you had a few days ago—or even earlier that day.

The replacement behavior you talked about is right there on the surface—it hasn’t sunk in yet. The negative behaviors that have become habits are like a well-worn groove, and it’s easier for your child to fall into one of them like they have a hundred times before. After all, these old, comfortable behaviors have been learned and reinforced for years, while the new behavior hasn’t.

Be prepared for the fact that you will need to be your child’s coach. Give him a brief reminder about what he’s supposed to do instead, and then walk away.

You also might need to experiment with several different replacement behaviors to find one that fits. For example, some kids cool down best with a bike ride or some exercise, and some like to listen to music in their room. Listen to your instincts—you know your child best, and you will find the right solution together.

Be Persistent in Addressing Your Child’s Behavior

This process isn’t always easy. There will be times when you take some steps backward, or maybe you’ll get off to a really slow start and won’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.

But rest assured that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve talked with many parents through parent coaching who felt hopeless and frustrated but were able to stick with it. I saw them make phenomenal progress with their child and themselves. They restored peace to their homes.

It’s important to focus on the positive and look for even the smallest improvements. Keep talking about what can be done differently and stay positive. Give your child some verbal recognition for noticeable changes and effort.

Incentive systems and reward charts are also helpful ways to reinforce replacement behaviors. Positive verbal recognition and earning incentives help keep you on track to create some long-term behavior changes. Continue to do your best and take one small step at a time.

Related content: Free Downloadable Behavior Charts

The reward? As you go through this process of having problem-solving discussions and coaching your child, you will see that he gradually uses those replacement behaviors more and more with less coaching from you. And as kids get better at solving various problems on their own, most will start to feel better about themselves.

As James Lehman says in The Total Transformation®, “you can’t feel your way to better behavior, you can behave your way to better feelings.”

Having strong problem-solving skills improves self-esteem. Kids feel good about themselves when they conquer something hard. And let’s face it: when kids feel good, parents feel good, too. It’s a win-win.

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