Skip to content

Child Behavior: When nothing else works, consider these 7 strategies:

May 1, 2016

Parents are saying discipline, consequences, time out and stickers don’t work. Parents are presenting as more and more defeated when it comes to managing the behavior of their children. They have a long list of tried that – didn’t work scenarios including many of the more popular parenting programs. What’s up with that? Why does it seem near impossible to get kids to listen? What can parents do differently?

To know what to do differently, we first need to appreciate what’s at play creating challenges out of children’s behavior and undermining parental authority. This brief history of the world is needed – or at least a brief history of the past 70 years. It goes like this:

  • 1950’s: Intact two parent families with a primary breadwinner and a primary homemaker;
  • 1960’s: Women’s Movement begins and gender equality begins to be examined publicly;
  • 1970’s: No-fault divorce appears in many jurisdictions, divorce rate begins to climb;
  • 1980’s: Praise your kids was the new mantra in parenting;
  • 1990’s: As the economy tanks and rebounds, good paying jobs go and more families require two income earners. At issues is latch key kids;
  • 2000’s: From computers in bedrooms, to video games to the introduction of the iPhone and then android operating system, technology consumes our attention and this generation;
  • 2010’s: Technology abounds and usage has increased throughout all age groups, right down to infants with strollers adapted to hold iPads and wristbands to count our every step. We tell children the world is a dangerous place and they need to stay  electronically tethered to stay safe. We wonder why children generally are more anxious than ever before.

Consider the above from the experience of the child and its impact on child development. Despite the good that is brought about from these changes, there are still unintended negative consequences.

Children have gone from having continuous access to a parent to marginally direct contact nowhere near the levels of the good ol’ days. Now this is not to suggest that those olden days were necessarily good or bad, but that from a child’s perspective they have less and less access to support, supervision and a parental role model for the transmission of morals and values. These days, even when we have proximity to each other, with both parent and child answering the pull of the smart phone, we are not really with each other.

We are less and less available to help them when they do fall, keep them directly safe from harm and simply  enjoy each others company – all key to the child feeling safe, secure, loved and of value. To add, as we over praise and don’t hold children as accountable as before, their sense of they can do no wrong grows. Bring in a mix of parental guilt for lack of availability assuaged with consumer purchases and we add indulged to the list of growing concerns. All at once we appear hyper-vigilant, yet remarkably disconnected.

We are so removed from our kids as a society and all due to social, economic and technological change that we don’t realize the creeping disconnect that has infected child development. Society has shifted and children’s mental health is the price. Our kids are more and more footloose and fancy free independent and without the real maturity to direct appropriate behavior over the wants of impulses driven by immediate satisfaction.

Parents, feeling embarrassed or shameful or guilty about their child’s issues fear being blamed. Parents and teachers are pitted against each other as schools try to manage the fallout of all this in the classroom and parents seek to hold the educational system accountable to socialize their kids.

It’s time to stop the madness, take a step back and recognize that these seismic shifts in society yield unintended consequences. We have a generation of rudderless disconnected kids. Of course in this context the usual parenting strategies become ineffective. To begin with, our children don’t recognize our authority and many harbor an unstated resentment for our lack of connection. It comes out as behavior. Thus when we seek to punish, take things away, badger and discipline, from the child’s perspective we are only widening the disconnect and escalating the resentment.

Managing child behavior has and will always be determined by the quality of the relationship between the adult and the child. The degree to which we are connected to our children, provide directly for their sense of safety, security and love, we have greater influence and legitimacy in their lives. It is time to restore those connections. Bear in mind, it will seem a tad weird to the child for whom this may be a new experience given their upbringing in the past ten years, versus ours of some 30 years ago.

The parenting strategies to re-mediate child behavior and mental health concerns of this age and time are all about learning how to connect meaningfully as determined from an emotional and attachment perspective. Without going into the theory of this, consider these practices:

  1. Turn off your technology when you walk though the door. Hunt your child down and give them a kiss hello before anything else.
  2. Have technology free periods of the day/week with your child.
  3. Count the number of times you have a meal with your child. Going back some 50 years, and out of 21 opportunities a week, the number back then would have been near 21. Whatever your count, consider how you can increase it.
  4. Take your child’s face gently and directly between your hands and tell your child outright, you love her/him. Do so daily.
  5. Keep the tablet or smart phone out of the bedroom at least at bedtime. Buy an old fashioned alarm clock if needed.
  6. Resist consumer purchases when begged by your child or if to assuage your guilt. Instead, spend time with your child when you feel triggered to make a purchase on their behalf.
  7. When your child acts inappropriately, think less about the consequence you will levy and the fight to hold them accountable and think more about sharing a little disappointment and that you think they are better than that. Let your child know you love him or her but that seeing the misdeed makes you feel sad. Do not come from a place of anger or hostility, but concern and love. Label your feelings so that your child may come to understand his or hers. Connect emotionally.

Of course we value our kids and want what is best for them. The issue isn’t bad parents, but these societal shifts acting beyond our awareness. Societal changes have subtly interrupted parental availability, connection and influence. These 7 strategies are all about counter-balancing and reclaiming the parental role to enable connection. Parents can begin the process at home. The 7 strategies are a start.

As odd as it seems, your kids may find the change unsettling at first. They may try to resist. They are used to getting what they want, acting with limited accountability and believing they do no wrong. Those attitudes have been built in structurally through the fabric of societal change.

The challenge of parenting today is recognizing and working in the midst of that changing tide and not being driven off course by the resistance of the child who may not want to give up the trappings of an indulged lifestyle. It is as if the child needs to learn that good relationships and emotional connections really do feel better than stuff or things.

Finding ways such as suggested above is the antidote. Being connected to your kids through direct availability is key.  With an intact and meaningful connection, parents may not even need many of the discipline strategies we used to talk about. We will have settled the dis-ease and underlying resentment affecting so many children today. We may just all feel better and be better as we get connected. Give it a try.

Food for thought? I would love to read your comments. Please post them below and please share this blog with the links provided.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out my services and then call me if you need help with a child behavior or relationship issue. I am available in person and by Skype.

Download and print this article as a 2-page handout!

https://garydirenfeld.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/gary-feb-12.jpg?w=200&h=301

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

gary@yoursocialworker.com
http://www.yoursocialworker.com

Facebook
Linked In
Twitter

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

573 Comments
  1. Dee permalink

    Thank you . I started the 7, and my 15 year old boy was very open to the small changes in our daily habits, but my 17 dismissed me as kooky. Now she is the first in line for the afterwork electronic timeout and hands on FaceTime !

  2. teresa permalink

    I have a 17year old and 12year old sons my 12 year old is on the ASD spectrum when he starts to go into a melt down sometimes I can redirect him but other times I can’t when he gets really out of hand I worry because he will sometimes take off running and I am disabled so I can’t run after him when he is in s melt down he does not pay attention to things around him I a!ways worry that he will run into a car also he throws tnings anything he can get his hands on dry erase boards,computers,chairs and I worry about him hurting some one also he will throw himself into the door or wall it can be very scary and overwhelming no matter what I try to stay as calm as I can and not raise my voice because I believe that if he is approached with anger his gets worse but there are times that I have slightly raised my voice to get his attention and since I rarely do he sometimes will pay attention but there has to be a way I can make him understand that his behavior is not proper he is very,very smart there has to be a way to discipline him so that he knows his behavior is not acceptable I read ever article I can to try to figure this out there has to because loving way to discipline him I DO NOT believe in spanking I believe that it only teaches kids to be violent when they are upset so I welcome any advice

  3. Marie Idler permalink

    What are the triggers for your 12 year old? Do you recognize them? Does he? Can they be diverted/diluted?

    Catch him doing things right – mention it but don’t overdo it.

    Emphasize your family – nuclear and general – in speech and deeds. You are all a part of one. Where is his father?

    Emphasize your sons’ roles in this family. BTW, what is the role of your 17 year old?

    Prayer really works. So do good examples.

  4. Rupert meinke permalink

    All great info. But when this fails. Consider ur child may have autism (Asperger’s)

  5. Lori T permalink

    Thank you!!! as a parent I have felt exactly what you described. I have 4 children and all have been or will be “diagnosed” with something. It has been incredibly difficult to not feel judged as a parent. In fact the first questions asked by any councilor is “have you taken ‘that parenting course.” Yes. Yes and yes. The assertive parenting style works on most “normal” kids but doesn’t work for my “exceptional” family. But I love them. We follow what you suggest and they are loved and they respect us in our home. WHEN not living up to the expectations put on them in schools…? This is where the struggle is especially for my child with ASD-high functioning child…. Our school is also implementing Socal emotional curriculum to help. It needs to be a shift again in the society to help… A team. BLAMING and judging parents is not helpful and neither is blaming the school system.

    • Yes I agree Lori. I have 4 children, 2 have been diagnosed with something and it is incredibly difficult to not feel judged as a parent. It cripples our strength and stamina to keep going in what is already an exhausting situation. But instead of reaching out and feeling support when we need it, I find myself hiding and staying home and no longer trying to find help and support because it seems impossible and I feel blamed and judged. I have tried and done everything. I feel that those who have fairly “normal” or common issues with their kids that they deal with and so they can’t understand. I know because I have 2 who had just regular growing up issues. That itself is already challenging but having two that have much more difficult issues is way harder, life altering harder. I often think that if those who judge had to deal with the struggles we have with our exceptional “diagnosed” kids who were literally born that way, they would applaud us for how strong we have been and how hard we have worked despite the barriers and judgments. Maybe we would be revered and actually helped & supported. It’s a lonely and difficult thing to deal with.

  6. Katie Abu permalink

    I agree with much of what you have said, except for the telling children you love them. I think that love should be SHOWN more than vocalised, and that regular repetition of the love word can render it meaningless. My parents never told me that they loved me but I never doubted it.

    One of the many problems with children’s access to communications technology is that it enables them to ilsolate themselves from the family.. You’ve gone up to your room or been sent there because you displeased a parent. You get straight on the phone to moan to your friends. They cheer you up and tell you to ignore your Mum or Dad.. Result? You can insulate yourself from the pressure at home to adopt the family’s values. . When you are “home” your social space can still be with your peers. Communication risks becoming entirely horizontal, across peer groups,at the expense of of vertical , down the generations.

    When I was a kid, home was home. You could not connect from it to the world, or that bit of the world that shared your view.

    • Liz permalink

      Not meant to offend, but I completely disagree with you about not telling children you love them. I wasn’t told as a child and everyone assigns different values to different things. We are not all the same. I always thrived on being told I was doing a good job, or I was loved, but almost never got it. It made me feel never good enough. To this day, to hear positive things, whether it’s that I’m appreciated or loved or did a good job or whatever, warms my heart. There’s no such thing as it becoming meaningless. I have a man who tells me positive things every day, and every day, I appreciate him greatly for it. I wish I had it as a child.

  7. Jennifer Gottsch permalink

    Wow – fabulous article. Nail on the head. I have a newly turned 4 year old and I think we’re doing pretty good. I am the one that needs to put down the phone though. I work from home and with him a couple days a week, so that has been a challenger. However we show him immense amount of love & physical affection, which he returns freely & often at such a young age. Will keep this article for future reference.

  8. Why is that CONSEQUENCE is no longer a consideration? Surely those of us that are “older” turned out to be what we are, sometimes in spite of, but mainly because of the fact that we knew that there were consequences for bad behaviour?

    • Renee Sanford permalink

      Thank you for this solid, doable counsel to parents. I’m blessed that my older three children are parenting their children with all these strategies, but I work with parents who are involved with child welfare. They need this information even more. May I have permission to print and distribute this article to these parents (properly crediting and including blog address so they can look you up and read more)?

      • Yes, Yes, Yes. There is a link at the bottom of the article, just above my picture. Click on the link to download the article. Print as many as you like.

  9. kikimudenda permalink

    Thank you so much for this article Gary. Indeed our history is shaping parent – children relationships and I am sure things might only worsen if we don’t act soon. Its not just the planet we need to resuscitate. I am approaching becoming a step mom and I have different ideas about parenting than the children’s mother so it was very helpful to read your suggestions. Heartfelt gratitude. God bless you!

  10. Linette Prince permalink

    Thank you for your insight! I couldn’t agree more that a lack of connection is at the root of most behavioral issues. My son and i both will benefit from practicing these techniques!

  11. Jukie permalink

    Couldn’t agree more! My children, 25 and 27 still come for coffee or a meal, just to spend time together. Making them resilient people accountability for their actions or inaction has set them up for success.
    Great advice !

  12. Kathy leveque permalink

    This was a wonderful article
    I hope people get the message.

  13. Love this article: ‘enjoy each other’s company.’
    ‘The quality of the relationship between the adult and the child’ is paramount. Negative begets negative. We parents must be opportunistic seeking out any-and-all joyful moments and capitalizing on them. Negative moments will happen. Keep negative moments brief and non-judgmental/accusatory. These approaches only serve to undermine a child’s sense of worthiness. Never capitalize on negative moments. That which you capitalize on will grow. Capitalize on that which will beget a beautiful relationship with your children and then water it daily.

  14. Dottie permalink

    Great article!! Will need to try these ideas for my almost 12 yr old.

  15. Shylah permalink

    While I currently do they steps (determined to raise my children in a 70’s like era), how do we encourage continued good, “normal” behavior when their peers are still living as the “normal”. I homeschool my children for personal reasons, but I can’t help but notice even 5 minutes around a child who is public school taught, they ONLY pick up the bad habits.
    My children are far from perfect, but I try my hardest to raise them with the fear of God, and their mama and daddy! They don’t know the sound a belt slipping through loops but they do know what a paddle is and why and when they’ll see it… they have table manners-ish, hold doors open, do their chores pretty good and roam the streets and our farm. They’re risk takers and I love this. I’m often frowned upon for being too lienent on boundaries (playgrounds, strangers, etc) but always within a watchful eye. My oldest 8 got asked to not call his grandma ma’am (TN born living in WA state at the time).
    But what I don’t get is how I can raise my children like this, how they will stand apart from the kids who don’t? Kind of like why bother they’re all doomed… ?

    • Reconsider the use of corporal punishment and instilling fear. With fear they learn avoidance of you and that makes their friends more enticing. Rather than instilling fear, seek to instill empathy concern, love and respect.

      • Shylah permalink

        I don’t mean to instill fear but think of my 98 year old gpa. He knew not to play by the drain ditch growing up because his mama told him Satan was down there. He feared God and his mama finding out he disobeyed. That’s what I meant.
        We don’t actually spank as our boys seem to react better to us coming down to their level and trying to see the offense from their view as well as ours. However they DO know what the paddle is for. My question though is how can I continue to use tg steps listed above and expect results at home, but in public or around other kids who’s parents don’t give a care and tolerate bad behavior or bribe… my boys pick up on that and th b expect it themselves. “Coles mom says that if he was good he’d get a game rental…” I don’t bribe my children or try not to. If I say something I follow through, yet they pick up on things other children are “entitled to” at home I see completely different behavior than when we’re out in public. They test me beyond my patience…

      • Let’s see what other folks have to offer in terms of guidance to you….

  16. Lisa Dunley permalink

    Dear Sir,
    I can’t tell you in words just how grateful I am to have read this article! How absolutely insightful you are and you completely rocked it-I thought at first that I wish I read this as my as-of-today 19yr old son was growing up, I could have done things very differently and maybe with more success. But the beauty of your wisdom is that all of your writings and thinking can apply to grown children as well, and even adults. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  17. Virginia permalink

    Thank you.

  18. Arlene Lynas-Dobie permalink

    I like this article very much and can see merit throughout. If I may, whenever you take something away from a child whether it is meant to shape, change or sanction behaviour or not. Please know that replacing what has been taken away with something equally reinforcing is very important. By example, substitute the highly desired activity with YOU and YOUR time. Don’t do it once, commit to it and watch your child gain a fondness and reinforcement from your presence and interactions. It’s a tall task, because it requires both the parent and the child to change. Be persistant. If it takes months, it’s so worth it in the end.

  19. Kaitlin permalink

    Hi Gary,

    I really enjoyed reading your article and can relate to a lot of this being a mother and Montessori 3-6years lead teacher. I use your tactics of being emotional when I am disappointed with them and tell them they’ve made me feel sad. It works well and the children will tell each other that their behaviour is sad when they see bad behaviour. We provide long day care centres in Australia and I find the children who are with us 5 days for 9-10 hours a day eventually get progressively worse as they just spend way too much of that intimate time away from their parents at such a young age.

  20. R K Batra permalink

    Very practical & genuine article.I was looking for such information since long

  21. R K Batra permalink

    Thank you very much Mr Gary . I was getting depressed with the behavior of my child & his descending achievements in studies . I feel your article will definitely help me improve his grades & his confidence in me . Thank you again.

  22. Susi Gillespie permalink

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve recently discovered my children respond far better to love and time spent with them and discussions about behaviour rather than shouting and punishing (i.e. Naughty step) – they are 2.5 and 5 though so highly difficult to reason with at times!!

  23. Gary, I think this article is very insightful and also practical. You managed to take a lot of information that could have appeared judgemental or condemning and delivered it as a gentle challenge. The article also provided hope, which I think people need most of all. You lined up with my best parenting advice (mom of 4 including my son with autism, 5 grandchildren): the answer is always love. Thanks for handout!

  24. Kristi Linn permalink

    This is so good and what I have been trying to get across to parents and do better at myself. Thanks for sharing this message and for helping others to become better parents!

  25. Marilyn Austin permalink

    One of the very best articles I have read
    in regards to what truly affects children’s behavior. The “unintended consequences” of technology are very easy to see when I (grandmother of 10) reflect on the vast differences of my childhood, and my children’s ( very little technology) — compared to the screen time my grandchildren have & seem to crave. Seemingly technology is substituted for learning basic social skills. I see my children successfully redirect (most) unwanted behaviors by increasing their interactions with their children– and doing many of the activities that they recall from their own childhood ( going on walks : or hiking together, reading books with the child in their lap, singing and dancing together, all activities that redirect their attention from their computer games to focusing on having fun interacting with each other.

  26. Jody Meason permalink

    Thank you sir!

  27. Susan permalink

    Wonderfully written article – thank you so much for your insight.

  28. Jeanette permalink

    After watching Dr. Phil on several occasions it has become very clear that the children who grow up with the sadist emotional problems are the ones who have been allowed to rule the family. Our society has made it unimportant for Mothers to stay home and set the foundation for their children’s future. With the college loans and debt it has made it necessary for both parents to work to enable them to survive. The most important and informative years in a child’s life would be from the age of reasoning and that can begin as soon as one year old. Teaching the child that there is a reaction for his/her actions begins from early on. To disapline your children with love is teaching them not only right from wrong but is setting a pattern for the rest of their lives. It also turns them in to responsible adults. If an adult (more then not the Mother) is not available in these formative years the child will suffer. When I raised my children, I choose to be a stay at home mom and have never regretted it. I loved taking them on nature hikes, to the swimming pool for lessons and was always available to attend their school plays, ect. I was a Den Mother and a 4-H teacher and loved teaching little girls 7-8 years old how to sew and use a sewing machine. Most people would say I was lucky to be able to stay home.
    We did not have 2 cars and when I needed to take my children for appointments or other things, I would take my husband to work so I could use the car. We didn’t have all the luxieries that the families have today, but I wouldn’t change my time with the children for any of those things. I was always available when they came home from school and when we sat at the kitchen table for snacks that is when I would hear about their day. It also gave me a time to pick up on any little problems they might be having. I so wish that parents would realize how important this special time and attention to their children is for their happiness and future.
    When we moved to a new neighborhood one of my son’s playmates asked him why his parents never yelled at him. I was so proud when my son told his friend that he never wanted to do anything to make his parents feel bad.
    Just recently an adult asked me how did I raise such nice children. I said with lots of love and fear that they never wanted to dissapoint us.
    It takes lots of time and nurturing to raise a good family and to this day I am very proud of them.

  29. Janie Bentley permalink

    Gary, do you have any comments for my daughter who substitute teaches several times a week? She is usually with 2nd to 5th graders. Her heart is so tender towards them, and the many serious needs that come out in the children’s conversations, but the ability to keep control of the classroom is exhausting. She said there are always the ones who are quietly waiting to learn, while most are angry, tired, hungry, have learning challenges, or just determined to push to the limit. There is such an additional challenge when you do not have the opportunity to build relationships like there regular teacher.
    Even one suggestion of how you would handle this situation would be so much appreciated. Her flesh wants to never go back,,, her heart feels she must see to it that these children are valued. She silently prays for them and with them each morning that she is there. Thank you ever so much for your willingness to give good counsel to this serious need. God bless you, Sir.

  30. Ritu permalink

    Hi,sir i m an indian women ,my problem is my son who is very good sometime ,but sometime he behave like wwe stars ,he starts fighting with me and go serious i dont know why he react so badly with me….i dont understand my child….plz help me….i will be oblize if u….Ritu

  31. Nor permalink

    My parents never told me that they loved me, but it was clear that they did. And if anyone had ever taken my face between their hands, gently or otherwise, I would have been creeped out. Everyone has their own style.

  32. Esther Short permalink

    I agree while heartedly! Way too much technology! Not enough physical connection!
    I have raised 5 of my own kids and continue as a foster parent.

  33. Vicki king permalink

    Good article

  34. Sandra permalink

    As I read your article, I found myself visibly nodding and audibly agreeing with you. How I would change my parenting if I could go back in time! I was a better teacher than parent, I fear, and spent 30 years supporting other people’s children. During that time, teachers connected with students throughout the day. However, at the end of my career, that freedom had gradually been removed. Textbooks, library books, and oral/paper tests were removed and iPads/ laptops issued to every child. Recess was limited to ten minutes a day, and lunch was 25 minutes. My feeling of ineffectual guidance was overwhelming. Hindsight can be painful; one can only hope that the wisdom of the elders will be heeded by the movers and shakers, although that hasn’t always played out in history. Thank you for being a voice in the wilderness. I pray your practical steps toward rectifying the societal pressure on parents (and grandparents!) will be a positive influence!

  35. Karen Vinoverski permalink

    I appreciate so much all that you share in your article. I couldn’t agree more!!!
    I have raised two children who are both happily married… our oldest son (35 years old) has three children & our daughter (32 years old) has two children. We still have a son at home who will be 16 in July.
    It amazes me how much has changed in the years of raising our two older kids compared to raising our youngest. However!!! What hasn’t changed is our love & attention we have always poured into our children💜.
    My husband & I have been blessed with amazing children who are respectful, responsible & loving adults!

  36. Sherry Geraci permalink

    Oh how wish I could bring back the sixties. Each day of my life I recognize drastic, long range and painful mistakes as a loving mother that have damaged our family. I cannot change one mistake spoken in outrage and anger that continues to haunt me. I have seen many physicians but seem to still have anger issues in split seconds. Medication, hospitalization forty five years ago, panic disorder. I have a strong faith and continue to help others, but also the pain of the past cannot fix the hurt from so long ago. Others are suffering physically and emotionally because of this.

  37. Krista permalink

    Gary,
    Thank you for this direct and thought-provoking article.
    I feel that our family is deeply connected, and our children have been raised to be accountable for their actions, I found your article a great reminder for me. For me to, put the phone down, not work on family time and keep the communication lines open for healthy connection & dialogue.
    Keep posting these great articles!
    Krista

  38. Rose Cutting permalink

    Wonderful if u would be interested in speaking at a foster parent group in the near future ?

    • Yes – would be pleased to discuss doing this.

      Foster care can be quite challenging. The foster parent never really knows much about the child until on board. I refer to this as the surprise package.

      Knowing how to integrate the child into the home and deal with matters arising can be helpful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: