How to Speak to Your Children When They Misbehave

Young girl makes a face and rolls her eyes as mother warns in the background
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"How many times have I told you to ... ?"

Are you taken by surprise when your children do the same negative behaviors or have the same attitudes every day? And are you shocked when the same explosive responses tumble from your lips?

It's the ongoing cycle of parenthood — knowing there's a better approach yet falling back on old patterns. But if we can identify those recurring trouble spots as they happen, we can often have a better response.

We can't always say the right things, but it's important to avoid repeatedly saying the wrong things. And if the same old words of correction don't bring a change, we likely need to try new words — thoughtful, prepared responses that can actually help correct our kids' recurring misbehavior.

By crafting wise responses beforehand, we can communicate with our kids more effectively and guide them toward lasting change. Let's look at some common parenting scenarios and identify some key words that can help us address these situations with greater wisdom. No script fits every family, but these suggestions can inspire your own words and give you a few foundational parenting principles.

When kids aren't content

Age & Stage: Young children

Scenario: One evening you're driving home after a great day together at the fair. You've eaten dinner already, but your children have it in their heads that you're going to stop for milkshakes. As you drive past the shop, the children voice their protests.

It's an ongoing theme with your kids. They rarely seem to be content with the good things you've provided.

The Script: "Let's think of all the great yeses we've had today. Yes to the fair, yes to cotton candy, yes to the petting zoo. But right now I'm giving you a no. I know your heart can be all right with that because it is full from all the other yeses we've had today."

The Point: When children are discontent and always want more, we can help them be more content by joyfully recounting what they already have. It can be hard to lovingly and carefully choose our words in these moments when kids seem full of ingratitude. But we must continue to speak positively, even when they're pushing for more.

Can you tell me all the blessings you've already had today? Ask this question often enough and your children will be able to answer on their own. And isn't that the goal? We walk children through their blessings so they have the skill to do the same on their own one day — because contentment is a character trait that doesn't come naturally. It must be learned.

When kids disobey

Age & Stage: School-age children

Scenario: It's an age-old parenting dilemma. Your child stands before you, caught in disobedience, deception or defiance, and you resort to nonsensical statements like, "Why don't you listen to me?" or "When will you ever learn?" You know these kinds of questions only serve to convey your frustration and disappointment, and you believe you're losing the opportunity to reach your child's heart with calm, thoughtful words.

The Script: Parent: "What happens when we disobey?"

Child: "Things don't go well."

The Point: Though short, the meaning behind these words is filled with profound truth. As parents, we need to be on the lookout for ways that our kids receive a blessing from obedience — and be quick to point out those benefits to them! On the flip side, when they shun our instructions, things certainly won't go well for them. If we have given clear expectations, our kids will know the fallout.

Consequences should be loving, logical and limited. For example, if young kids value an object over their relationship with a sibling, and they fight and argue over it, let them lose the privilege of having that item. If a teenager stays out beyond curfew, he understands that trust needs to be re-established and a few more boundaries will be put into place, lessening his freedom. The goal is for our kids to be so used to thinking about the impact of their actions that they grow into adults who instinctively evaluate their choices instead of being mastered by their desires or emotions.

When kids take the easy way out

Age & Stage: Tweens

Scenario: Your kids often exert the least possible amount of effort to take care of basic tasks and responsibilities. Laundry on the floor instead of the hamper. Shoes and backpacks strewn around the front door. You want your children to become people who are faithful in the little things — practicing basic discipline in everyday matters — so they'll one day be prepared for bigger responsibilities.

The Script: "The hard thing is often the right thing — and we can do hard things! In life, we don't avoid doing what is right just because it's a challenge."

The Point: When we equip our kids to develop a strong work ethic in the everyday tasks, we prepare them to establish a strong spiritual ethic, too. Never has this been more important than in a culture that is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. Many parents fear their children will someday take the easy way out when it becomes a challenge to hold on to their faith. So while they're still at home, training them to show fortitude in the small things helps prepare them to stand strong in their faith later in life.

We teach them to put their socks in the laundry basket not just because we want them to be organized but because we want them to be characterized by integrity and a willingness to go the extra mile. And we can teach them this without nagging or yelling. Whenever they settle for mediocrity, we can gently coach them to be faithful in little things and challenge them to persevere through hard things.

When kids are irresponsible

Age & Stage: Teenagers

Scenario: A child struggles to get out of bed and get ready for school on time. He's always late, and you're always making a second trip from home to school after dropping off his siblings at school. Discussing the issue rarely changes his behavior. You're worried he's going to get suspended from school.

The Script: "I love you, son, and because I love you, breakfast will be ready at 7:30. I will be leaving the house at 8 to take the others to school, and I won't be making a second trip back to the school anymore. If you would like a ride to school, I'll trust that you can be in the car at 8."

The Point: Make expectations clear, and then stick to them. If your child protests, show sincere empathy, continuing to express your belief that he can do better next time. Swooping in to rescue a teen from every challenge only serves to undermine him later. While a suspension from school isn't great, it's better than getting fired from a job later in life because he never learned to be on time. Better to experience the natural consequences now, when the stakes are low, than to flounder when he is grown. Natural consequences may seem to go against our nature as kind and loving parents, but they allow kids to take ownership for their choices and feel the weight of responsibility.

When kids don't own their own behavior

Age & Stage: Young children

Scenario: You're hanging out with good friends, and all the children have been getting along great. But then the little children storm into the room, wailing that they're never playing with the bigger kids again. You ask what happened, and the little ones explain that the game they had been playing with the other kids had unfair rules, and they kept losing. Frustrated, they kicked the game over and stormed out.

The Script: "There's only one person you can control. I don't doubt others have been unkind to you, but you can't make them be kind. You can only make you be kind. Let's focus on what you did wrong and how you can apologize for that. This doesn't mean everything was your fault, but it does mean you need to recognize your own mistakes, which is what big kids should do."

The Point: There's a grand order to parenting. First we disciple our kids with words, then we discipline them with consequences, and finally they grow to be self-disciplined.

The tendency for many parents is to start and end with discipline and wield it inconsistently. But inconsistent discipline, without consistent discipleship, lacks power. Discipline needs the foundation of discipleship. So we get down on our kids' level, explain how they are responsible for their own behavior and give them strategies for doing that.

That discipleship gradually transitions to discipline. Whether through natural consequences or timeouts, discipline reminds kids of our expectations. When used consistently, discipline will one day no longer be needed. Our kids will have learned self-discipline.

Amber Lia and Wendy Speake are the authors of Parenting Scripts: When what you're saying isn't working, say something new.
This article first appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Words That Work." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2018 by Amber Lia and Wendy Speake. Used by permission.

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