Are You Responsible for Your Child’s Bad Behavior?

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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Does your child misbehave in a way that can be traced back to something you do? Is your teen’s rebellious attitude similar to yours? Your kids’ behavior isn’t your fault, but sometimes it means you have work to do.

After one of my kids misbehaved, I remember being a little smug because I observed a similar behavior in my husband. Phew! I was off the hook. But then I remembered all the times I’d done the same thing. And it left me wondering: Am I the one messing up my kids? Am I a bad parent? Most parents have been there, wondering what a toddler’s tantrum, an 11-year-old’s rude comments or a teenager’s rebellious streak says about us.

We all make mistakes, of course, but after 30 years of working with parents from different walks of life, I can tell you that there are very few parents that I would define as “bad” — those who consistently hurt or encourage immoral, dishonest and illegal behavior in their children. While some misbehavior is natural and expected, and some is simply unrelated to moms and dads, if we honestly examine our parenting, we’ll better recognize the ways in which we have a negative influence on our children.

Ordinary childhood behavior

As parents, too often we expect our kids to model adult behavior long before they’re mature enough to do so. So it’s important, through every stage of childhood, for parents to understand that there’s a big difference between ordinary, expected behavior and actual misbehavior.

A screaming infant is, of course, not misbehaving. He’s trying to get parents to pay attention to a need. Likewise, in the toddler years, a child’s favorite word is often no. That’s not necessarily defiance. She may be reminding herself of the boundaries you have set to keep her safe.

As kids start school and experience other caregivers, teachers and coaches, they begin to figure out which places and people can be trusted. This requires discernment, learning to be assertive and sincerely questioning authority. Asking why certain rules are in place is not rebellion by itself, although if a child asks those questions with disrespect and derogatory comments, parents do need to address the issue. Of course, questioning rules doesn’t mean it’s OK to break them. But it is a good opportunity for discussion and reflection on the reasons for these boundaries, especially at home with parents.

Tweens and teens face their own natural stage of questioning. Older kids have more freedoms to make their own decisions with less parental supervision. To our children, these freedoms are welcome and scary at the same time. Their behavior shouldn’t be viewed as irresponsible unless what they’re doing is harmful to themselves or others.

Behavior copied from others

As parents, we often assume that everything our kids do is somehow related to us. This way of thinking, though, discounts a child’s individuality, the negative influence of peers and our larger culture.

I remember the first time my daughter smacked another child on the arm when she wanted a toy. A mom nearby, who didn’t know I was her mother, nudged me and said, “Well, you can see what’s going on in her house.” I chuckled a little, even though I knew there was no hitting going on in my home. I privately thought it was quite out of line for this mom to be so quick to judge.

I’m not sure what caused my daughter to behave poorly that day. It may have been from behavior she witnessed or just good old-fashioned selfishness. Whatever the cause, my husband and I sat down with her later that day and talked about the importance of sharing and refraining from physical attacks. The next time she saw the child she’d hit, she ran to her, hugged her and said, “I’m not going to hit you again — ever.” The little girl responded by shrugging her shoulders and said, “OK. Let’s go play with dolls.”

If a young girl sees that when her teacher yells at her classmates, the teacher seems to be able to get her students to do what she wants them to do, she may try yelling for similar results. Or if a teenage boy finds out that his buddy was able to get a new video game by nagging and whining to his mom, he may resort to using that same tactics on his own mother. If being super aggressive is encouraged by a child’s basketball coach, we shouldn’t be surprised when that aggression transfers to our child’s behavior at school or home.

But seeing misbehavior doesn’t mean we should copy it. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). In other words, all of us are influenced by behavior in the world around us, and our children need help to discern what is and isn’t consistent with God’s will and healthy family life.

Preventing copied behavior

One of the tasks we have as parents is to determine when and where our kids might be or have been pressured to behave in negative ways and respond with intentional parenting that encourages better behavior. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Recognize good behavior you observe in your children as often as possible. Let them understand that you see a lot of good in them so they can understand your concerns about poor behavior.
  • Be present at school, church, social, athletic and other special events in order to observe what your child is exposed to.
  • Inquire about a concerning behavior without sounding overly judgmental. “I noticed you and your friends ditched Chrissy last night. What happened there?” Be honest about your concerns, and ask kids to consider how their behavior might have impacted others.
  • Coach your child to seek better ways to behave in the future, setting a related and reasonable consequence for future misbehavior.
  • Limit harmful influences. You can’t protect your child from all negative influences, but it may sometimes be necessary to pull a child from a group or activity if the negative influences outweigh the positive ones.

When parents model bad behavior

Just as kids observe peers and teachers, they observe their parents and learn good and bad habits from them. The child who hears his parents expressing gratitude on a regular basis is more likely to be grateful. However, if he sees a parent disrespecting family members or gossiping about the couple that just joined the church, he will learn that discounting others is OK, as is gossiping.

The first step is to be honest about when a child’s misbehavior is a reflection of what he has seen in us. That recognition stings, for sure. So we have to be intentional about clearing out the raw emotion before talking with our kids about behavior problems. It’s most helpful to approach these interactions with an attitude of humility. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6). With the mindset of humility firmly in place, here are some ideas for making positive changes in yourself and your children:

Be honest

Drop the façade of being the perfect parent. Honesty with kids goes a long way toward changing behaviors and repairing problems that are a result of our parenting mistakes. Most children respond very well to honest apologies and appreciate seeing their parents make efforts to improve.

State the offense, why it is wrong and what you will do. For example, “I disagreed with the pastor’s comments this morning and was rude to him as we left. That is not how we handle disagreements with others. I will go and apologize to him, and in the future share my concerns in a constructive manner.” This teaches your child that recognizing, apologizing and trying to change is the right path toward better behavior.

Get support

Identify helpful, supportive friends and family members and tell them what you are working on as a parent. Then find a friend who is doing well in the areas where you are struggling. Ask for insight, suggestions and accountability. I have found that sharing my struggle with a caring, godly friend has made my own challenges much easier to deal with. There is power in Christian fellowship.

Find additional resources for parenting challenges at FocusOnTheFamily.com. Also, look into churches or schools that offer classes on effective parenting skills. Often these classes are offered for a very small fee or free of charge. Counseling is recommended for people who are experiencing significant struggles with their past, or with character traits that negatively impact their kids. Focus on the Family can give you a free consult with one of our licensed professional counselors. Call 855-771-4357 (weekdays between 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mountain time) or go to FocusOnTheFamily.com/counseling.

If your child misbehaves and you can trace that behavior back to you, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It means that, like all of us, you have some work to do. We can all learn more about ourselves, be cognizant of outside influences and make changes when necessary.

Like our children, we are still growing.

Copyright © 2019 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT

As the current Director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and licensed mental health professional.

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