I hear from many parents who have a child who antagonizes siblings, rebels against them, or otherwise makes life difficult. I have six strategies for turning your troublemaker into a terrific child.Listen to the podcast
#1 Look for positive traits and praise them.
The first strategy and perhaps the most important strategy is to look for the child’s positive traits and praise them. Often I hear from exasperated parents who tell me that finding something positive is very, very difficult. I used to hear the same thing from teachers who dealt with difficult students in the classroom. So much of the parent’s or teacher’s time and attention is focused on dealing with problem behavior that it’s hard to see anything positive that is happening. So in order to find the positives, we may have to shorten the time frame. Here is what I mean. For example, perhaps every trip to the grocery store involves a child having a tantrum over something. If your standard for positive behavior is no tantrum at the grocery store, you’re both likely to be frustrated. Instead, look for your child’s good behavior in the first few minutes in the store and praise it.
One problem I see with many parents who have a more perfection-driven personality is that parents are afraid that praising small behaviors will convince the child that there is nothing that needs to be changed. This is simply not the case. As long as you are praising truly positive behavior or attitudes, your child will be motivated to repeat them.
#2 Assign new labels publicly
The second strategy for dealing with a troublemaker is to assign new labels publicly. You don’t want to call your child the troublemaker. The only reason I am using that word here is because it communicates effectively the type of child that we are discussing. If you call your child a drama queen, a terror, or any other negative label, your child will seek to live up to the label. We are all very vulnerable to how we are described by others, but children are especially so. We might label a child in anger or frustration, not really meaning it, but our kids are likely to take on the label. To counteract that, we need to give our kids positive labels, especially in front of other people. So tell your child you’re so thankful he is responsible while you’re having people over. Compliment your child’s persistence in front of friends.
One of our family traditions is on a child’s birthday, the entire family takes turns saying what they love about the birthday boy or girl. This is a way of assigning new, positive labels. I highly recommend it. Assigning new labels works hand-in-hand with looking for positives to praise.
#3 Use positive coaching
Next, you will want to use positive coaching. Before a situation in which your child has a history of behaving badly, tell your child you are confident that she can behave admirably in the situation. Remember to use those small steps in your coaching, too. So tell your child that you know she can walk quietly with you into the grocery store’s produce section. I would follow that up with other evidence you have seen of positive behavior traits. You might say, “You are such a good helper. I know you will do a great job of helping me pick out fruit that has just the right amount of ripeness.” Express your belief in your child’s positive traits and your child will believe it too.
#4 Exercise trust with responsibility
The next step in turning a troublemaker into a terrific kid is to exercise trust with responsibility for that child. After you’ve begun regularly looking for positives in the child and praising him, when you have assigned new labels, and you have begun using positive coaching for difficult situations, you are now ready to put your trust in your child.
Here is what I mean. If you have a child who has had a habit of causing squabbles with siblings, put that child in charge of making sure the kids are behaving while playing a game. Give specific guidelines about what the rules are and allow your child to supervise. If you give that responsibility publicly and then leave the kids to their playtime, you have given your child a new label, you’ve done positive coaching, and now you’ve put real responsibility on your child to behave in an appropriate way. The child can’t claim that you were playing favorites or you weren’t being fair because you have put your child in charge. Give your child the opportunity to exercise self-control and prove that she is capable of making good choices, and your child is likely to surprise you both.
#5 Use rewards rather than punishments
Sometimes when you have a child who consistently breaks rules and gets into trouble, a parent’s natural tendency is to want to increase punishments. The thinking is that we will finally come upon a punishment that will be so negative that the child will stop the misbehavior. I have no problem with using negative consequences for misbehavior. In fact, I think it’s required for good parenting.
However, when you have a child who has gotten into a cycle of misbehaving and being punished evermore for each incident, you have to do something to break the cycle. In this type of situation, I recommend using rewards rather than punishment. So when your child does well in the situation that you have coached her for, or when your child has risen up to the responsibility that you have assigned to him, give that child a meaningful reward. If you aren’t sure what kind of reward to use, I suggest you read Motivational Mistakes Many Parents Make. Reward your child for good behavior and at least for the time being, drop punishments. Remember that not earning a reward is a punishment too.
#6 Study positive role models
Finally, if you have a troublemaking child in your family, I recommend that you study positive role models as a family. In no way should you call the child out for being a troublemaker, but instead attention should be drawn to the fact that each of us is a sinner and capable of behavior that displeases God.
My favorite strategy for this is to read books about difficult people who change. In the Bible, we have the apostle Paul. It’s hard to be worse in your behavior than the apostle Paul who was murdering Christians. I do recommend that you read that account and discuss how not one of us is a good person apart from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit indwelling us. The next book that I love on this topic is the biography of George Mueller by Youth With a Mission. George was a real stinker. Yet he became a great and generous man. Augustine, the Farmer’s Boy of Tagaste is another great true story of a troublemaker who changed. We want to communicate to our kids that we are not putting our hope in them because then we would have no hope at all. Instead, we are putting our hope into the Lord, who is the only one who can change hearts.
You can turn a troublemaker into a terrific kid by looking for the positives in praising your child. If your child responds to physical touch, give your child a pat on the back or a hug when you do this. Next, you want to assign new labels publicly. Praise your child’s positive traits in front of siblings, other family members, and even friends. You want to use positive coaching with your child. Talk about the tempting situation and your confidence that your child can manage himself well. Pray with your child for the Lord’s help, but pray a believing prayer. Next, you’re going to want to exercise trust in your child by assigning responsibility. Give your child the chance to show you that she can manage her behavior well in a previously difficult situation. You are going to want to emphasize rewards to motivate good behavior rather than punishments. You want to break the vicious cycle of a child believing that he can’t do anything right. And finally, you want to study positive role models as a family. Look in the Bible and consider YWAM biographies, many of which talk about a true transformation of a troublemaker to a terrific person.
Let me know in the comments which of these strategies you’re going to try first.