What To Do When Your Child Acts Out (GUEST Episode 252)
Why do kids act out? How do you eliminate battles and toxic behavior? Do you know what to do when your child acts out...or how to prevent the battles to begin with?
I'm thrilled to have had a special guest this week who is an expert in this arena - Kimball Lewis:
James Lehman was a therapist and child behavior expert who developed the popular parenting program of the late 2000s, The Total Transformation program. The Total Transformation was the instruction manual giving step-by-step solutions for the most challenging parenting problems: disrespect, arguing, severe defiance, motivation, and more. At the peak of his popularity, James Lehman suddenly passed away. It was a devastating blow to all those who worked with him and used his programs to change their lives.
5 years ago, Kimball Lewis, a parent of 2 teenage boys, an admitted self-help junkie, and a technology executive, abruptly quit his successful corporate career and bought the company that produces The Total Transformation in an effort to keep James Lehman’s Total Transformation parenting tools available for struggling parents.
As owner and CEO of EmpoweringParents.com, Kimball Lewis had transformed The Total Transformation from a set of books, CDs, and DVDs into an online learning system accessible to parents worldwide. In the process, he has learned to be a better parent and gained an appreciation for what it takes to parent kids with challenging behavior problems. He loves to share his favorite James Lehman quotes and discuss their meaning and application for parents in homes with disrespectful, obnoxious, or abusive kids.
Watch the full video interview:
Why Do Kids Act Out?
As Kimball states, most acting out occurs because a child has a problem they are trying to solve, and they lack the tools to do it. This has become a solution for them, and, typically, they'll keep it up as long as it's working for them. The older they get, however, the more serious the consequences can be for acting out, so it's important to help them with tools to navigate as soon as you can.
There are three areas where children typically act out:
- Emotional - when they are dealing with their everyday emotions (frustration, sadness, anxiety, etc) and may not know how to express them.
- Social - do they understand social cues and their impact on others? Are they clear on appropriate behavior?
- Functional - have responsibilities been broken down into easy steps where they are able to function independently? Do they have a grasp of time management and organization, and how to navigate if they are completely scattered/unmotivated?
This isn't just the battle in the heat of the moment. It's the child who always balks at washing dishes, so you don't feel like a battle and resign yourself to do them vs. argue. They have figured out how to get out of it. Acting out is not an effective problem-solving skill. Yet kids have found it does solve problems with parents when it works.
Nipping It In the Bud Early
So of course there is the question of how to prevent this from happening! These three areas for acting out (or lack of problem-solving) are, again, emotional, social and functional. The older your children get, the more complex behaviors and emotions are arising, hence the more they need to navigate. And the go-to problem-solving technique is to act out.
Be careful about not coming in and fixing the problem for them. Like I mentioned above acting out works even if it's not in the heat of the moment. It's the battle you're too tired to have so you just cave in and do it for them.
The earlier you can address this and coach your children into better problem-solving skills than simply acting out, the less issues you'll have moving forward. Turnarounds are always possible, however. It takes showing up and doing the work.
And, it's actually much easier for us to step into our parenting role and coach a child who has been shown other ways to navigate. When you have the tools at your fingertips, it's more about picking and choosing what works vs. trying to invent something in the heat of the moment. Be proactive about talking about problem-solving solutions that fall into the emotional/social/functional issues so your child knows other tools beyond just acting out.
The Constant Argument
One of the ways kids act out is arguing with you. It drags you down to their level, and wow, can it wear on you (at least it does for me)! As much as I challenge parents to show up and be proactive with their kids, that does not mean you have to show up for every argument and follow it through.
You don't have to attend every argument you're invited to.
Especially if they have a pattern of arguing, you can quickly fall into the trap of arguing just for argument's sake and losing the whole point. Yes, you want to validate your children and ensure they are heard. And, that means you can state things once and confirm they've heard it, and you've heard them. After that point, continuing the argument can be more about a battle to create an exception to a rule, or even keep you distracted from it just as a way to wear you down.
I know in my own home I have some rockstar negotiators that can argue a point to obliteration...where we no longer even know the point and are just lost in the argument. It's not worth it! State it once, and let it go. No need to belabor the point.
Explain yourself once and move on. Whether they choose to understand and abide by it is on them.
In the interview, this was an "ah-ha" for me, because I talk often about really explaining to our children the "why" behind things. Yet the truth is, I can explain until I'm blue in the face, and sometimes a child is either a) not mature enough to fully grasp it, or b) not really interested in understanding as much as the argument itself.
If there is a true argument - and they know because you've already explained why the rule or responsibility is in place - pay attention to when you allow it to happen. Not in the heat of the moment when your child needs to clean up their room. Nip that argument immediately and let them know they have a responsibility. However, if they have a true issue with it, they can take it up with you at 6am the next morning, as long as they can bring it to you with maturity and respect.
This switches the responsibility to them to come prepared for that argument with reason and logic, or not to show up at all.
You're not to blame
Don't take responsibility for your child's behavior. Your responsibility is to set and enforce the boundaries that help them thrive. It's up to the child, however, to decide how much they follow it. All you can do as a parent is set and enforce the rules.
When things are escalated, logic and reason may take a back seat. That's why it's so critical to work with your children on problem-solving skills proactively vs. just reacting and trying to find a solution when they are maxed.
We as parents often take the blame for our children's behavior. And yes, they are often modeling after you, so take that as your first check - and make sure you aren't modeling the acting out you're seeing in them. If so, it's time to look for better problem-solving solutions for you both.
Unfortunately what happens when a parent feels guilty, is they try to fix it for them vs. letting their child deal with the natural and logical consequences of their behavior.
Give your children the respect of accountability. THEY are responsible for their behavior, not you. And their behavior will elicit for them different results, based on their actions. Like Kimball stated in the interview, you can go to the gym and work out every day, but that's not going to get your child into shape. It has to be them.
The #1 Rule for Consequences
"You cannot punish your child into good behavior." The last thing you want to do is end up on a power struggle with your child. And oftentimes we can get trapped in this because the punishment is drawn out too long.
If we go back to why kids act out - it's to problem-solve in some way. So if their acting out doesn't give them the right consequence they want, that is the biggest motivator to shift. When you look at the right consequences - natural and immediate, they can motivate your child to more healthy behavior. And, this puts you back in the position to be able to teach your child how to problem-solve for better and better outcomes, or consequences.
We are asking for a shift in our child's approach - we're asking them to navigate a change process of shifting their behavior to one that isn't productive to one that is. And that takes time and grace. We're looking for our children to see the need to comply with the change process, because what was working isn't getting them the results that are going to allow them to move forward.
When we talk about effective consequences, they are not extreme and drawn out. You don't make them heavier and heavier; you simply repeat ad nauseum until they get tired of that consequence and see the merit in the change. Yes, you can expect they will err in the process, just like we all do in our growth. Until they have learned and internalized better coping skills, they are going to go with the lowest hanging fruit that has been easy for them in the past. Be consistent - not extreme. Think of a coach on a field who continues to coach and support, even when the player missed a ball. It happens.
Be careful about setting your child up for failure. You want little wins that build on each other. Don't fight with your brother for a week and you'll get your phone back is pretty unrealistic, especially when they are just learning how to navigate disagreements with maturity and grace.
Setting and enforcing limits and demanding compliance communicates belief in the child through expectations. When you don’t hold your child to a reasonable standard, they start to suspect that there’s something wrong with them. That they can’t behave properly.
View behavior as a performance issue, not a moral issue. Limits and consequences are not focused on thoughts and feelings, but on actions and behaviors.
So when we talk about natural consequences, here are some key features to really make them work for you:
- Task-Oriented - make them related to a task, not another person they may take any frustration out on.
- Time-Specific - be realistic on time and don't drag out a punishment for weeks. Have a clear end with redemption.
- Related to the original behavior - if a child is vegging out on video games and you want them to socialize more, don't ground them from social events for playing too many games - it doesn't make sense, and negates the goal of what you really want for them.
- Make Consequences - A natural consequence for a child screaming at you would be to disengage and walk away from it - they don't get your attention when they are screaming. A consequence for not bringing shoes in the car is we don't get to go stop in at that store (this might be a common one in our household).
- Don't cancel special events - now, if this is a natural consequence, like a child snuck out a week before a concert, and now they don't get to go to it since you aren't sure when they come/go, that's one thing. But cancelling Christmas because one child is acting out is a consequence everyone suffers from.
If a child doesn't study for a test, the natural consequence is letting them fail.
If a child throws their phone across the room and breaks it, they don't get a new phone. They earn the money to replace it.
When you break something, it's broken now - it's not a quick replacement. They may have to wait, to work to earn the money, or try and repair it themselves.
Unfortunately, natural consequences aren't always that easy to find, which is why Kimball stressed effective consequences. They are short term and pack a punch for course correction.
Kids get stuck in patterns, and it takes time to shift those. The key is in the consistency, not the severity of the consequence.
If you take their phone away for a week, and they do something tomorrow, you have nothing else left to take away. If you bankrupt your kids on consequences, they have nothing left to lose- you don't have leverage anymore.
It's better to take their phone away for a day and have a task for them to complete to "earn" it back. It's the consistency, not severity, and you relate a task as a part of the consequence.
Create a Culture of Accountability
You want to create a culture of accountability in your home. And, since a natural consequence isn't always enough or easy to come by, this task part of a consequence can be super valuable.
For example, if a child is swearing at you, an effective consequence could be to take away entertainment access (where they might have learned to swear), and have them write you a letter - stating what rules you've set in your home on swearing, and what they'll do differently next time.
Not only are you giving a consequence, you're solidifying what rules are in the home, and coaching them on other effective ways to navigate the situation next time.
Don't expect remorse and a complete turnaround right away. You're not looking for perfection. You're creating a consistent reinforcement of what is appropriate in your household. And that takes time.
Your child may roll their eyes and think it's ridiculous.
This is pure business - it is what it is. You swear at me, you lose your phone until you write me a letter stating that you understand what is not okay in this household, and what you'll do differently next time. Just like our kids can wear us down, it gets old if you end up writing letters every day. Sooner or later, they are going to get tired of doing that. and look for those other solutions - and break that habit.
A consequence isn't just about punishing; it's an opportunity for redemption. It allows them to course correct and seek other solutions for the future.
Be Proactive with your Praise
You don't have to bring in the marching band singing their praises. It can be a simple word of gratitude or appreciation for what you saw. There are times our kids are acting out to get our attention. We live in a society with 30-second attention spans. How often are we looking up from our own distractions and being aware of our kids and their actions?
Do you find yourself constantly on their case? Take an inventory of your interactions with your child. Are you ever catching them in the act of something that is positive? Something that is going right?
If you want to see a shift in them, get very intentional with what you notice, and highlight what IS working, and not just what isn't.
The Trickiness of Blended Families
There is no way to sugar-coat it. Parents who aren't on the same page is hard. It can be extremely helpless-feeling when your child goes off to the other parent and everything you've worked hard on is thrown out the window. You have to be truthful with what is truly in your control. And the truth is this:
You don't make the rules in that household. You make them in yours.
While that can be a tough pill to swallow, it's imperative you keep the focus on what you can control. That is, what is okay in your home. That is not even your child's behavior.
If you are blaming your other co-parent for your child's behavior, you've given your child an out. There is only one person responsible for their behavior, regardless of where they may have learned it from. Don't undermine your child's ability to fix their own problems by pinning it on the other parent.
Even if you don't like what's going on in the other house, the goal is to enforce in your child that they are the ones accountable for their behavior, and that goes beyond just in that household.
The best case scenario for blended families is for both parents to come to agreement - even if that's just that there is a behavior problem. If you can at least get on the same page that there is a behavior issue and the goal is the same - to help your child thrive/succeed beyond that - then there is hope, and opportunities to work together...or at least respect one another's turf.
Focus on your household and what is within your control.
Don't Take It Personally
The last point Kimball left us with in his interview was for parents not to take things personally. Remember, kids acting out are typically due to them lacking the tools for more effective problem-solving. So a kid saying "I hate you" can sound horrible - and we can carry that hurt with us. And when we take it personally, and hold on to that resentment of those hateful words, we create a wedge between us and our children that can last even after they've figured out a better way to navigate.
If you take it personally, it's going to be that much more difficult for you to offer grace and forgiveness when they inevitably turn things around, and you don't want to have that held over them. As they learn how to better use their words and behavior, you don't want to hold that against them - that will hurt your relationship with your child.
Don't take it personally - view it as a behavior problem.
Take a hard look at where your focus is. Are you focused on a co-parent's influence on your child, or their peers? Are you focused on all that is going wrong?
Shift your focus. Look at your child as a developing adult who will need to learn both accountability and their impact in this world.
Take a hard look at what support you are truly giving your children - not in kissing their boo boos and feeding them, but coaching them through basic life skills and building on their independence.
Have you equipped them with tools to -
- navigate their emotions?
- understand social cues and their impact on others?
- manage time effectively and stay motivated even when it's hard?
Parenting is hard. Yet it doesn't have to be drudgery where you hate the whole process. If you're willing to show up, be aware, and do the work right alongside your kids, the more enjoyable it can be in the process.
If you're fully at your whit's end and looking for a comprehensive approach on how you're interacting with your child, you can learn more about Kimball and the Total Transformation Program HERE.
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