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Janet Hicks Ph.D.

Help! My Kid Is Driving Me Crazy

How can I discipline my child without suffering from my own anxiety?

I often speak to parents who are concerned because their child is talking back, lying, acting disrespectfully, and doing things they have been told not to do. Many parents ask me, “Is my child’s behavior normal? How do I know if they have crossed the line between expected and worrisome behaviors? How can I help them and get through this without constantly fighting with them?”

First, I think it is important to consider the child’s age when looking at behaviors. A 3-year-old who is sassy is at a different stage in life than a 16-year-old who is disrespectful. While neither’s behavior should be condoned, a few pointers about your child’s life stage may help.

A theorist named Erik Erikson devised stages that children go through based on ages. Around age 3, children learn to get along with others and begin to experiment with feelings of empathy. As they learn these things, they may have difficulty sharing and not completely understand another’s viewpoint.

Between ages 6 and 12, children attend school and slowly accept that things will not always go their way. They begin to accept that they are not seen as the prince or princess that Grandma has taught them. Children at this age may have problems accepting other children's needs and making friends with others.

Between ages 12 and 19, youth are finding their place in the world. They are juggling issues related to fitting in, hormones, and their appearance, and are starting to understand the world may not be a fair place. Youth often react to these stages through mistaken goals such as revenge, attention and/or power-seeking, or learned helplessness (Dreikurs, 1990).

Parents need strategies to overcome these behaviors and reduce their own anxiety. In light of this, the following strategies might be helpful:

  1. Be consistent. Make sure your expectations remain the same every day and across settings. For example, if it is unacceptable to use profanity at your house, it should be unacceptable at their friend’s homes as well. If you don’t want them to skip school, make sure this is the rule every day all year.
  2. Don’t make threats. Explain the rule and the consequence. If the child chooses to break the rule, apply the consequence. Threatening punishment over and over only teaches the child that the rule doesn’t apply until they have been warned a certain number of times.
  3. Follow through. If you say the consequence is they will not get dessert if they don’t finish dinner, be sure you follow through. Giving them dessert after using this as a consequence teaches the child that your rules mean nothing. Never warn of a consequence that you know you will not be able to follow through on.
  4. Give immediate consequences. Children need to suffer consequences as close to the offending behavior as possible. Young children won’t learn to not repeat a behavior if they don’t remember what they did wrong or the connection to the consequence.
  5. Use natural or logical consequences. For example, a child who refuses to eat dinner may go to bed hungry. Hunger is a natural consequence of not eating and will most likely ensure the child eats dinner from then on. A logical consequence might be applied to a teen caught texting and driving who is not allowed to use the car for a period of time. The important thing here is that the consequence logically relates to the behavior.
  6. Give your child your attention when they need it. Children need to feel they count, are connected to those who care about them, and that you believe they can behave appropriately. If you don’t give them positive attention, children often use negative behaviors to feel connected.

Finally, know that a disrespectful child who is respectful at school and around others is demonstrating that your home is safe. While this never justifies the behavior, it may be comforting to know that children need a place where they can share frustrations and that disrespect only occurs in a safe, nurturing environment. Accept this as a positive, encourage teens to talk to you, and draw the line when it crosses your boundaries.


Dreikurs, R., & Grey, L. (1990). A new approach to discipline: Logical Consequences.

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and society.

Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington. ( n.d.) Adlerian child guidance principles. Retrieved



About the Author

Janet Hicks, Ph.D., is a professor of counselor education at Belmont University and a licensed professional counselor who specializes in child and adolescent development.