Focus on the Family

How to Speak to Your Children When They Misbehave

Effective parenting scripts to employ when responding to your child’s misbehavior

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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