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How to Problem Solve a Problem Child

Do you remember the 1990 movie, “Problem Child,” starring John Ritter and Michael Oliver? It was a comedy about a couple who adopt a boy, only to find out he’s terribly troubled, dysfunctional and even destructive to others. The film sparked two sequels, as it hit home with so many viewers.

It’s a story that hits home with us because it’s a problem that we see often. Even if we don’t have trouble with our kids, chances are good that you’ve seen a problem child in action: a violent reaction against mom in the grocery store, an entitled kid who can talk their parents into anything, or the unsettling experience of hearing foul language coming from a child who isn’t even allowed to cross a street. I’ve seen them all, and I’d be willing to bet you have too.

Is it just me, or do we hear more stories about troubled kids today? I’m sure they’ve always been around, but it seems I meet more parents who are at their wits end, trying to love, lead, and discipline their kids through mental and emotional difficulties. I am not talking about the normal challenges parents have, like getting kids to eat their vegetables, take the trash out, not cheat on tests and not throw a tantrum when they don’t get the latest iPhone the day it’s released.

I am speaking about a child who is particularly difficult to raise or educate, especially due to a pattern of a lack of self-control or disruptive, anti-social behavior.

What Can We Do to Lead a Troubled Child?

While the reasons for troubled childhoods range from chemicals in their body, to temperament to conflict, I suggest the following steps as a helpful path to resolution:

1. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally.

They are “acting out” and almost anything can trigger their outburst. Be sure to lead as objectively as you can. Act don’t react. Meeting emotion with emotion is like fighting fire with fire. It doesn’t solve the crisis.

2. Establish a neutral emotional environment before addressing the issue.

You may need to remove both you and your child from the current context, so as not to make a scene in public. Sometimes, onlookers who stare only make things worse. Before you attempt to resolve the issue, let some time pass and get into a new location.

3. Prioritize the issues.

Neither of my two adult-children were “problem kids,” but we did endure a phase of their life that was troubled (one in elementary school; the other in middle school). We learned to not sweat the small stuff and to focus on what was most important and urgent. Be a “river” not a “flood.” What’s their key behavior change?

4. Explain the outcomes of their choices.

Put the issue in terms of what they most want. If they are crying or angrily arguing for something, help them see that their current mode of operation isn’t effective in reaching their goal. Talk in terms of equations (i.e. “If you do that, this is the benefit or the consequence . . . ”), rather than in terms of rules or regulations.

5. Establish healthy boundaries.

Don’t make empty threats in which you won’t follow through. Let them know, however, what the behavior boundaries are. My son showed all the signs of ADHD in elementary school, but we set firm boundaries and stuck to them—such as noise level, running around and treatment of peers. To be fair, we all followed these boundaries.

6. Convince them you are their ally.

The easiest trap to fall into in troubled times is to form an adversarial relationship. It’s me against you. Sometimes we become more concerned about how the situation looks rather than your relationship with your children. Find a way to relay to them that you are on their side. You want what’s best for them. You love them.

7. Seek connection—not control.

Research tells us something remarkable about dealing with problem children. It appears that the better we get at building a flourishing relationship with our kids, the fewer problems and challenges they exhibit. Control is a myth. In the long run, seeking connection is the best way to reduce conflict.

8. Get some time apart.

Sometimes, both you and your troubled child need time apart. We become more objective and honest when emotions subside and triggers are removed. While a stronger relationship should be the overall goal, often a little time apart helps. What’s the saying—absence makes the heart grow fonder?

One more thought. We’ve created Habitudes® as conversation starters between mentors and students. Check them out and see if they might help you connect.


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