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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

The Case of Mary

Mary, the daughter of a single mom, is tearing her room apart. She’s been in a fight with her mother on and off all day. Sent to her room, she is now upping the ante. She just threw a chair at the full length mirror her Mom gave her as a special present last week for her twelfth birthday. Mom is hurt. How could she do that? What happened to her once delightful child? “No wonder no one likes you,” Mom yells at the closed door. “You’re an ungrateful, horrible girl!”

This is an example of a revenge cycle. Mom and daughter are hurting each other and putting more and more distance between them. There is probably no way to know what it is that is hurting Mary so much she is willing to hurt her mom and sacrifice something she values to do so. Difficult as it is to recognize in the instant that she is being outrageous, this is a hurting girl. She doesn’t believe that her mom really wants her around. And, truth be told, her mother sometimes gets so frustrated and hurt that she starts thinking about whether it’s time for her daughter to go live with her dad.

In dealing with revenge, it’s important to not take misbehavior personally. When you are so hurt by a child that you want to get even, it is a signal that the child is hurting even more than you are. Especially as children get older, the behavior may or may not have anything to do with you to begin with. Peer relationships and events outside the family are also powerful. Simply stopping the cycle at home will help a lot. Mom could interrupt this cycle by saying something like “We could really get going and hurt each other so let’s take a moment to cool off. Then we can figure out what you need.” Of greatest importance is maintaining a relationship so that Mary and her mother can work on larger problems over time.

The Case of Thomas

Thomas, age 16, spends far too much time in his room with the shades drawn. He hasn’t done well in school since he hit high school and this year is the worst. He loves basketball but isn’t good enough to make the team. His parents have had numerous visits with the school to try to figure out how to give him some successes but nothing seems to work. He’s been moved to less and less challenging classes. Instead of helping him do better, he does less and less. Once friendly with the artistic crowd, he is now spending more and more time alone. His mom seems as discouraged as he is. Both parents feel sorry for him. He is missing out on so much that their friends’ kids seem to be enjoying.

One question that needs to be asked in situations like these is whether the boy has gotten caught up in drugs. A change in behavior and peer group often spells drug trouble. But even if it is drugs, did he become depressed because of drugs or is he using drugs because he is so depressed? Drugs are seductive because they do make people feel better and using them often provides an instant group. Drugs or no, this boy has lost all belief that he can belong and be successful at home or at school. This is the saddest and most difficult cycle of all. His parents are losing faith in him and he has lost faith in himself.

It takes enormous persistence on the part of parents to refuse to give up on the Thomases of the world yet this is exactly what needs to happen. It is essential that he not be left alone or he will sink further and further. Thomas’s parents would find it helpful to get involved with other parents who are going through similar struggles, both for information and for support. Outlining how to intervene when a teen is drug-involved is beyond the scope of this article. For some help, see the more detailed article, Teens and Drugs: What a Parent Can Do to Help.

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If a teen is depressed but not drug-involved, the most important thing parents can do is to keep trying to find a way for the child to have some success, any success, at connecting with others. Thomas’s parents could go behind the scenes and enlist other adults who know him to help. Kids his age often value feedback from other adults more than from their parents. Maybe the basketball coach would be willing to use him as a manager or scorekeeper. They could ask the art teacher to ask him for help with some younger students or an after-school program. Is there a relative or friend who would be willing to mentor him in a job? Teachers need to be told that he has done well in the past and that they should expect the best of him.

Another resource for Thomas’s parents is counseling, both for themselves and for their son, to help everyone move out of their discouragement and develop some strategies for change.

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.