Paula L. White M.A.

Shape Parenting

Kids Behaving Badly: Abandoning Blame and Finding a Fix

How a concrete plan of action can change the way your child behaves.

Posted Apr 07, 2018

Every parent hopes to raise a warm, kind, socially-adjusted child, but inevitably, lots of moms and dads are tasked with loving and guiding a young person who others have come to know as a playground bully, a "problem child", or the meanest kid in class.  When children’s behavior defies community standards or contradicts good family values, parents will likely feel judged, ashamed, helpless or afraid.  Trying to play detective to get to the root of a child's behavior is tough, and adding shame or blame to the landscape won't help at all.  The good news is, a concrete plan of action holds great promise for positively transforming a downward trend of childhood behavior. 


Research shows that when a child displays disruptive behavior, a combination of consequences and connection is most effective in turning things around.  To evaluate your situation, begin by asking yourself 2 questions about your child’s behavior:

1. Is your child almost always argumentative, oppositional, or rude?
2. Based on your own observations and on reports from others, does your child seem indifferent to other people’s feelings OR does your child seem to take pleasure in someone else’s pain?

If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, follow the concrete actions outlined below, and also seek outside help to provide your child with additional emotional &/or mental health support.  If you answered “no” to both questions above, the disciplined, caring structure here can be singularly effective in managing your child's occasional misbehaviors.


  • Always Respond to Wrongdoing.  For parents of disruptive kids, ignoring bad behavior may be viewed as a way of keeping life peaceful.  However, if someone is on the receiving end of your child’s actions, life for that person won’t feel peaceful at all.  As a parent, you must let your children know that every violation of someone’s personal boundaries causes harm, and they must be challenged to accept responsibility for the harm they cause. Yanking on a sibling’s ponytail or destroying her favorite toy are hardly criminal offenses, but behaviors like these can and do have psychological impacts on their victims.  It is your job to be your child’s emotion coach, helping her to label and accept her emotions so that she can progress to self-regulation and appropriate problem-solving.  If you ignore bad behavior when it occurs, you can't coach your child to improve. 
  • Map out Clear, Predictable Responses to Inappropriate Behavior.  Far too often, parental responses to a child’s bad behavior are reactionary, depending on a parent’s mood or circumstance in the moment.  A father may overreact to a child's rudeness, and give a very harsh consequence when his daughter pouts or mumbles rude statements under her breath, yet he might later give a much lighter consequence when she initiates a fight and gives a friend a black eye.  Or, a mother might ignore her son's bullying behavior at home on Monday but then assign a major consequence for the exact same act on Friday of that week. When a parent acts erratically with no transparent value system guiding their decisions, children are left directionless and confused.  A set of progressive, predictable consequences communicates a consistent message about where certain actions fall on the continuum of appropriate behavior.    
  • Strengthen the parent-child relationship.  Building connection with children is the most vital aspect of parenting, a fact often forgotten by parents in the workshops I lead.  Punishments and consequences alter behavior temporarily but they don't have a lasting influence; only a trusted relationship can do that over time. Physical touch is a good way to start to stimulate the presence of oxytocin, a calming hormone that engenders feelings of care.   It's also important to show love in ways that differentiate between a child and his or her behaviors.  This means that although you may withhold your daughter’s allowance for aggressive behavior in the morning, you shouldn’t withhold the “I love you” that you always say to her as she heads out the door to school.  This way, she will come to understand that your love for her remains intact despite the fact that you dislike a behavior she displayed.  

Know also that relationships thrive on validation.  When parents validate children’s feelings, they strengthen the parent-child bond, while providing children with a model for validating the feelings of the people they encounter in their everyday lives.  Even in the midst of misbehavior, a parent might say “I’m sorry that you’re feeling like this," or “I can see that this is tough for you."  Such empathic statements do not condone wrongdoing nor should they erase a warranted consequence, but they do assert that a child’s feelings are valid. This is crucial, because attunement to other people’s feelings lies at the root of pro-social behavior.


The fact is, there are puzzling factors related to why children might be disruptive, menacing, or placing others at risk, and it's virtually impossible to figure out the precise combination of parental actions and attributes that affect what a child decides to do.  Parents need not internalize guilt or blame; choosing to focus instead on setting clear boundaries while being emotionally supportive is the best course of action a parent can take.