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The Plain Truth about Children and Teens

Are you concerned about misbehavior in your child or teenager? Do you ever want your child to behave differently? What you are about to read is the key to understanding how to change a child’s behavior. A word of warning, you may not like what you are about to read, but keep reading because there is hope.

If you are experiencing behavioral problems with your child you may have the idea that it is within your child somehow to change her behavior—it isn’t. In order for a child’s behavior to change the behavior of her family members must change first, especially the behaviors of her parents. That is because a child learns from who she is with and responds to who she is with. Simply insisting that she change her behavior does not work. She will respond differently when her family treats her differently.

I began my career teaching junior high school students. Our school used a homeroom system in which each homeroom moved as a group during the course of the day to different teachers for their different subjects. That allowed different teachers to teach the same group of children. What I observed was that the same homeroom behaved differently according to which teacher they were with. One teacher would say, “They behave for me,” while another would say, “They’re impossible, they’re so bad.”

Any principal in hiring a teacher looks for a person who can control the behavior of students in a classroom. For the most part the principal holds the teacher responsible for student behavior. That is because students respond to how a teacher acts. And your child is responding to how you act.

Every child is born with her own temperament, but her family shapes her attitudes and behavior patterns. How her family members interact may also be significant psychosocial stressors that negatively affect her mental health. She observes the behaviors and attitudes of those she lives with and from those observations she makes conclusions about her world and herself. She has been doing this from the time she was an infant. Many of her conclusions are about her own self-worth. All these conclusions have become part of her belief system, and her belief system is the force that directs her behaviors—good and bad. She is profoundly influenced by her family, especially her parents. Her parents need to be good role models, because she learns by what she sees modeled in them.

Typically, when people talk about behavior they think in terms of actions—they think of behavior as what someone does. But behavior is much more than what a person does. What a person does is controlled by what he thinks. So when we talk about changing behaviors in a family we mean changing attitudes as well. It is the attitude of a parent that affects the behavior of the child. If we ask the child to change her attitude while the parent’s attitude remains unchanged, the child’s behavior will either not change or it will worsen. A parent’s general attitude toward his child is called a parenting style.

Parenting style alone does not tell the whole story of parental behaviors that influence how a child behaves. There are other important factors influencing a child’s behavior, such as sibling interactions and the parent’s use of emotion. A parent’s attitude about how his child’s siblings treat her is an influencing factor on her behavior. Her relationship with her siblings contributes to her mental health. Because parents are the responsible adults in the family they exert the most influence on sibling relationships. Also a parent’s use of emotions affects his child’s behavior. When a parent is without a rational plan for responding to his child’s misbehavior he may resort to raw emotion in an attempt to control his child’s behavior. Yelling, screaming, caustic remarks, and threats all contribute to emotional problems in a child.

Some parents want a quick fix, or a magic pill that will cause their child to behave better. There is no quick fix and there are no magic pills, but there is something that works. That something is an enhanced parent-child relationship. It takes more than love to be an effective parent; it takes skills—skills for establishing a healthy relationship that nurtures good behavior in a child.

The first step in changing your child’s behavior is to accept that you are responsibility for your child’s behavior. The second step is to accept that your child probably will not change without you or another family member changing first. Keep in mind that “a child changes when her family changes.”

But what do you change? Where do you start? What if you make a wrong change? These are important questions. Any changes you make should be carefully considered and calculated to bring about desired results. Most parents are not in a position to begin making such strategic changes without the assistance of a therapist who helps families.

I see a lot of children and teens in my office for therapy. It has happened more than once where a parent had brought his child to me and said, “Fix her.” And with those words the parent expected me to sit in therapy alone with his child and somehow fix his kid. Well, I am confident that I can establish a good relationship with his child, and maybe ever the child will like me, but unless her parent changes I do not see any way that I can make her stop being angry with her parent. And a child that is angry with her parent is not likely to cooperate with that parent. My work as a therapist is to redefine the problem as a family problem and help the family fix their interactional behaviors that cause and maintain misbehaviors in children.

Some parents mistakenly believe that their child’s behavior is the responsibility of the other parent. At times the parent will pressure the other parent to take action to correct the misbehavior of their child. Parents absolutely must work together when it comes to child discipline. They need to agree about disciplinary measures and support one another. Beyond this each needs to understand that a child behaves according to the adult she is with. Therefore both parents need to have good disciplinary skills. Whichever parent is supervising the child is responsible for the child’s behavior at that time. Again, a child responds to who she is with.

The therapy of choice for helping children with behavior problems is family therapy. Family therapy and parent coaching give parents both insight and new skills. Parents then use these skills at home for changing behaviors in their child. A therapist may see a child for fifty minutes a week, but parents live with her—they become the therapy. The single most effective and therapeutic instruments in a child’s life are her parents.

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