How to Change Your Child’s Frustrating Behavior

When you're not okay with what they're doing, try this.

You can stand firm without getting angry.

Sometimes, your children behave in ways that are just not okay—because they’re harmful, or because they’re not supportive to your family culture. You are the parent. And you are not powerless. Here’s what to do.

In this episode, Carol and Anne share examples of difficult behavior and tips to help you move forward when your children try your patience.

This week’s Parenting Practice

This week’s parenting practice is four steps. First, identify the behavior that is not okay. Second, determine the consequence. Third, stand firm. And fourth, acknowledge the good behavior, with an emphasis here.

Transcript of podcast episode

Carol: The turn of events here is very dramatic. This is getting serious. I’m paying attention. 

Welcome to “The Child Whisperer Podcast.” I’m your host, Carol Tuttle, author of the best-selling parenting book, “The Child Whisperer.” I’m with my co-host, Anne Tuttle-Brown.

Anne: This week’s question comes from a Type 2 mom. “I have four kids. Three boys and a brand-new baby girl. The three boys are nine, Type 2, age seven, Type 4, and age four, a Type 1. The boys argue all the time, and sometimes will take turns partnering with one brother and ganging up on the other. They say things to each other like, ‘I’m gonna kill you,’ and call each other names. It really makes me, as a Type 2 mom, so sad that I don’t know what to do about it. How can I encourage kindness between them, even when they’re angry with each other?”

Carol: Well, I like this question. I think her Type comes into play here. Because I have, honestly, observed this in you while you’re all just…

Anne: The truth comes out. Say it to me straight.

Carol: Well, we were in the car on Saturday, having a fun outing, and Katie, your Type 3 daughter, had reached her limit.

Anne: She wanted to go to In-n-Out instead of the restaurant we were planning to go to.

Carol: Well, it was after that, even. She was done and she just wanted you to take her home. And she wouldn’t give it up.

Anne: Oh, that’s right. She wanted to go home. And we still had some stops to make.

Carol: Yeah. And you kept trying to coerce her into understanding. You were very patient. “I hear you. You wanna go home right now.” But she kept going and going. Her goal was to break you down and just finally get you to a point where you’d say, “Fine. I’ll take you home,” because you were tired of hearing it. But you were very kumbaya in your Type 2 parenting style of, “As I continue to be kind to my daughter, she’ll stop.” And I’m thinking, “You’ve got to draw the line here,” you know? You’ve gotta bring out the, “I’m the parent. I’m done listening to this.” So I would’ve…In retrospect, would I have known to do this in your particular phase of life, I don’t know, but as an observer, I’m thinking, “Pull the car over. Tell grandma to get out.” Say, “Mom, will you please step out? I need to speak with Katie.” That’s gonna, like, break state. All of a sudden, “Whoa, my mom’s pulling the car over,” “Whoa, Grandma has to get out of the car. The turn of events here is very dramatic. This is getting serious. I’m paying attention.” That breaks state. That creates a, “Katie…”

Anne: Gets her attention.

Carol: Yes. “Here’s the deal.” And then you have to pull in the consequence and say, “We’re going to complete these errands. We are not going home. If you continue to repeat this, we’re going to go home stressed.”

Anne: She wanted to go home so she could go on the play set. So, the consequence could have been, “If you…”

Carol: “You’re not gonna play on the play set. I’m gonna take away the reason you wanna go home. Deal? That’s just the way it is right now.”

Anne: So, you’re offering an alternative to yelling. Because sometimes I’ve done that where it’s like, “Okay. I really want you to listen to me. Because you keep asking, I’m gonna get louder and scare you.” I mean, as much as much as I can as a Type 2, you know, I think that’s maybe a tendency even for other types of moms too. And so, you’re offering a suggestion that I like where it’s like, “This is serious, I’m gonna be very direct and end up pulling the car over. I know what you’re asking…”

Carol: “I’m getting your attention.”

Anne: “And this is what I’m saying, and I’m serious about it.”

Carol: So, what I’m looking at this question, see, there is the issue is certain behaviors your children are exhibiting. Telling each other, “I wanna kill you,” calling each other names.

Anne: She’s not okay with this behavior.

Carol: She’s not okay with this behavior. It makes her sad. Well, you’ve gotta do behavior modification here. There’s an opportunity to say, “My children are exhibiting behavior that is not supportive to our household, to their relationships. I need to step in as the parent and do some behavioral training.” Some disciplinary action that’s behavior modification that you have an ability to influence this.

Anne: So, what are the two sides of it? The kumbaya, “Guys, come on, be nice to each other. Don’t call each other names.”

Carol: Yeah, well, the other type is a Type 1 and a Type 2 will resort to finally blowing up. And Type 3s will yell at their children to modify their behavior. Type 1s will eventually blow up. They’ll feel worse about it. So, what are your current tactics? The Type 4 will try and reason with their child to get through to them that…

Anne: A lecture?

Carol: Yeah, more of a lecture approach. And so, what are you currently doing to help influence behavioral changes that’s not working? That’s actually pretty true to your nature. But it’s not getting through to your kids.

Anne: Like, maybe, I was thinking, “No, I’m going to be patient. I’m going to hold my tongue.”

Carol: Yeah. And I’ve been watching. I did say to her finally, I said, “Katie, do you think if you keep mentioning this and persisting that you wanna go home, your mom’s finally gonna change her mind?” And she says to me, “Grandma, this is not your conversation.” I thought, “Well, if a six-year-old can say that to me, then you could go bigger on this one.”

Anne: No, really. Like you have to meet your child. I’ve noticed that. Like, honestly, I feel like I have to put on my football helmet and my pads and be like, “Okay. I am standing my ground,” and this just takes energy. It takes consistency. But that’s the Type of child I’m dealing with.

Carol: And she is chipping away at your energy, though, by not doing it. By going on and on and on, and you’re not stepping in to say, “This behavior’s not okay right now. It’s not okay.” So, let’s get back to the question. What about this mom? These boys are aged nine, seven, and four. I would either meet with them as a group or meet with them individually. I’d, first of all, make it real clear, and I think you need to bring Dad in on this. This is like two parents talking to their kids saying, “We’re noticing some behavioral patterns that we do not support in our family. Saying, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ is not okay. Violent references are not okay. Calling each other names when you’re upset at each other is not okay.” Now, what’s provoking this? You’ve gotta get to what is the setup that’s taking them into this behavior. Maybe there needs to be correction there.

Anne: Are there certain videogames they’re playing, or certain times a day where they’re tired and they’re in each other’s faces? Maybe they…yeah.

Carol: Yes. Why are they getting on each other?

Anne: Notice if there’s a pattern that’s repeating, where this is recurring. What can you do to prevent it in the first place?

Carol: Yeah. Where they go to that space. Now, if they get to that space where there’s upsets, there’s just very clear, “That’s not okay.” It’s healthier to say, “I’m really upset at you right now.” Then they need to learn how to work things out. They’re at that age where learning to talk through their issues, work together in getting to a healthy place.

Anne: Such a valuable skill. I’ve even used that with my two-year-old and my daughter who’s six, and they’ll be just kind of butting heads and there’s a lot of just noises. I say, “Guys, use your words. Talk it out. No one said anything. What do you want? What do you want?” And I’ll help coach that, facilitate that. But then, they’re talking to each other and they’ll come up with solutions together even at that younger age.

Carol: Yeah. Are they’re spending too much time together and they need to be separated? Is it an issue with nourishment and sleep? There’s physiological things going on that can set children up to have these upsets. What you’re seeing, though, is a pattern developing. By allowing it, you’re basically, by not intervening, you’re saying, “This behavior’s acceptable.” Because you’ve not clarified that it’s not acceptable. And so, every parent will deal with behavioral modification with their children. Every parent. Her story just happens to be about the verbiage they’re using and the way they’re getting on each other. And so, you have to correct that and set up a correction plan. Like, a tip for this mom would be, “What’s your next step to correct this behavior?” rather than, “It makes me so sad, I just wish they’d get along.” It’s like, “What are you doing to correct the behavior?”

Anne: So, first, identify the behavior that’s not okay? Then determine the consequence, what will happen when that behavior is done, and agree on it as a family. Make it very clear. Not in the moment of that happening, but like you said, have a conversation as a family. “Okay. When that happens, this will happen. Got it?”

Carol: And certain things to me aren’t discussion items. Like, “How do you, children, feel about saying…do you think,” you know? If they all say, “I think it’s okay to say I’m gonna kill you.” Like, well, no. You’re the parent. You get to just say certain things are not okay in our family culture.

Anne: Some things can be discussed and you can come up with ideas together. And some things you just gotta say, “This is the way it’s gonna be.”

Carol: Yeah. Like, in the car with you, there really wasn’t a negotiable outcome. You needed to get just, practically speaking, with your schedule, it made more sense for you to finish the errands before you went home. You aren’t going to change. That was not negotiable. But you were allowing her to continue as though it might be. Because she didn’t stop because her… you look at, “Why is my child doing this?” “They’re doing it because they hope I’ll change my mind. They’re trying to wear me out. So, I’ll finally say, ‘Okay. I’ll take you home.'” But you knew it wasn’t negotiable. I don’t think she knew that clearly. Doing something more to break state, like pulling the car over, having me step out of the car, would’ve made it like, “Whoa, we’re getting serious here.”

Anne: I think what is supportive for me is I need to decide that’s how I’m going to respond ahead of time. In the moment, it’s very stressful for me. Like, “How am I handling this situation? I don’t know what to do. Okay, I’ll try this direction, that direction. Nothing’s working.” Like, as a parent, identify these situations that aren’t working, and then what will your response be so you just know where you’re going in that moment. And it will take less energy. Especially, as a Type 2, I’m just like, “Okay. I wanna be kind. I wanna…” you know? Yeah, I don’t think it’s kind to hurt you.

Carol: Tough love doesn’t look like not being kind. It looks like being firm. You can be kind and firm.

Anne: I guess it’s just making that acknowledgment that it doesn’t have to be yelling or getting louder or angrier. It’s just being firm and very clear. And I think that’s really supportive for kids to be firm, clear consistently. They know what to expect. They know the boundaries to play in.

Carol: When parents get to that point where they’ve had it, they’ll resort to yelling to correct the behavior, while they’re instilling fear in their child. And they’re like, “Whoa. I gotta, like, change what I’m doing because now I’m scared because my parent’s screaming at me.” That’s not healthy behavior modification, you know? Because you’re not stepping in sooner to correct behavior and being firm on what really you’ve made a decision to correct and say, “This isn’t okay, and this is how it is.”

When I wrote The Child Whisperer, there was a television show that was super popular, that’s still very popular, called “The Dog Whisperer.” And I watched that show and go, “You know, children aren’t really that much different when it comes to behavioral training than training a dog.” You absolutely do not support misbehaving with your dog, and you can really reward, really point out, highlight, spotlight the good behavior. The emphasis is on the good behavior. Are you pointing out to your boys when they’re getting along, when they’re cooperative, when they’re kind to each other? Is that getting a lot of attention? There are studies that show that reinforcement of good behavior will ultimately drop the bad behavior out of the experience, by that emphasis, over and over and over on the good behavior.

Anne: I’ve noticed that works like a charm with my kids. That I will point that out to them, what they’re doing that’s great. And then they’ll point it out to themselves later on. I’ll say, “You’re making your brother happy. You’re helping your brother. That’s so great. You’re a great big sister.” Or even things that she’ll do on her own. “You’re so responsible. You’ve got yourself dressed.”

Carol: Like, you could’ve said to Katie, “I know you’re capable of supporting mom. And that’s what I want right now. I want your support and that would look like this.” And then you mention, as you now proceed the rest of the afternoon, “Thank you so much.” You say it three or four times. “I really appreciate the support you’re giving me, Katie. Thank you.” You now emphasize what you asked them to change, right in that moment. You flood them with the acknowledgment. We tend to think that rewards always need to be tangible in some way. They can be words. They can be verbal rewards that our children are so grateful for.

Anne: Those will go a lot farther, in my opinion. They stay with you. Your mom’s voice will ring in your head, of those good and bad things that she said to you, and those positive things will go a really long way.

Carol: Have you ever told your children? I think that, in and of itself, is, “What I want is this. That would be supportive to our family,” you know? “Our family is our most supportive system. Let’s create it to be.”

Anne: This week’s parenting practice is four steps. First, to identify the behavior that is not okay. Second, determine the consequence. Third, stand firm. And fourth, acknowledge the good behavior.

Carol: With the emphasis on the good behavior. And staying firm on what’s not okay with a consequence. And your children will change their behavior and understand that just because you want something and you wish certain things would happen, they may not. They need your parental influence to help the behavior change. That one of your biggest roles as a parent is teaching healthy behavioral skills.

Thanks for listening. For more support, go to where you can purchase the book, subscribe to our weekly parenting practice email, and find the transcription and audio of “The Child Whisperer Podcast.”

Anne: If you’re listening on iTunes, thank you for leaving a review. If you have a parenting question, please send it to [email protected].

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