Help! Why Won't My Child Behave!

September 25, 2017

Being a “good parent” isn’t easy! When a parent calls me and expresses concern about a difficult child/adolescent with problematic behavior, the parent’s frustration is loud and clear. They are often at the end of their patience or don’t know what else to do. It may even feel a bit embarrassing for a parent to reveal the types of child behaviors that led to calling me. But once asked “How can I help you?” a heartfelt story comes out. For instance, a parent might tell about their child/adolescent displaying unacceptable, resistant, or acting out behaviors at school or at home. In some cases, the parent feels helpless because he/she have sought help at school or from others, or tried medication, but the problem persists or is becoming worse.

Among the behaviors that motivate parents to call me are some common ones:

  • The child/adolescent doesn’t listen, can’t or won’t follow through on directions or follow rules, or maybe finds all sorts of ways to avoid what he/she is told or reminded to do.
  • The child/adolescent may be rude, mean, and/or disrespectful to brothers and sisters and even to parents and other adults.
  • The child/adolescent may argue constantly, push everyone’s buttons, or has unpredictable meltdowns.
  • The adolescent may be using substances, hanging out with a bad group, or engaging in unsafe behavior.
  • Parents sometimes describe the child/adolescent as not seeming to realize or care about what is important for their future, or else the child/adolescent doesn’t understand the gravity of their behavior or how what they do or say hurts others.
  • Sometimes the child’s/adolescent’s behavior is embarrassing, odd, or overly pre-occupied.
  • Parents may describe their child/adolescent as “clueless” socially or observe that he/she can’t make or keep friends.
  • There are many other behaviors.

There are numerous reasons why a child exhibits what is considered non-compliant or unacceptable behavior. Keep in mind that parents and other adults who are responsible for a child don’t always understand or know all that is going on underneath a child’s behavior. Even a well-meaning and experienced teacher may not have enough information to understand and advise. Each child/adolescent, family, and circumstances are unique.

When a parent comes to me asking for help for a child/adolescent displaying difficult behaviors, the goal is to discover the specific set of factors that contribute to the behavior or behavior pattern and also to understand the powerful feelings that are involved. Discovering these factors, and the complex mechanisms that underlie the child’s behavior, and the parent’s behavior as well, can seem at first like navigating out of an endless maze. However, rest assured, by following Dr. Schaerfl’s systematic assessment process, the reasons can be untangled. Then the best possible helpful interventions can be recommended. Dr. Schaerfl can teach skills to children/adolescent’s and parents. Sometimes a referral is needed to a specialist.

The following is a short list of factors that may be implicated in the challenging behaviors displayed by a child/adolescent:

  • Undiagnosed, untreated, or ineffective treatments of child’s psychological condition;
  • Learning or developmental differences;
  • Child is experiencing overwhelming situational, emotional, or physical demands within the home, school, or other environment in which the child spends time;
  • Child medical illness that is diagnosed or undiagnosed;
  • Bullying or abuse/neglect;
  • Parent(s) with psychological or medical condition or other condition or circumstance that is difficult or not improving;
  • Parent(s) who has good intentions but doesn’t understand effective application of principles of behavior management, or is inconsistent with behavior management;
  • Parents who are not supporting each other’s parenting very well, even though they might have good intentions.
  • There are many other reasons.

Once parents and children/adolescents are able to speak about what’s going on, whether it is about school, home, or social situations, the door opens to learning what to do and pro-active change begins. Everyone benefits when effective intervention is applied. Once the child/adolescent and parent(s) experience the positive benefits of behavior change they find it easier and natural to use effective skills and helpful supports. I’ve even heard parents tell me that their child has encouraged the parent to use a skill the child uses successfully. What a role reversal! Some of my favorite moments occur when a parent or child/adolescent tells me with a smile that things are going better! I’ve witnessed dramatic turn-arounds.

Not all cases of child behavior problems are complicated, but some are. If there are easily identifiable and correctable factors, the child’s behavior often resolves positively within a reasonably short time following an intervention plan. Easier to resolve cases often involve less ingrained behavior patterns or a generally treatable condition (e.g., ADHD; anxiety; depression). However, when a pattern of unproductive behaviors and interactions has gone on for a long time or if a child/adolescent has developed problematic behavioral/psychological patterns over some time due to an unknown, untreated, or difficult to treat condition (severe learning difference; psychological condition; medical condition, etc.), then the improvement process may take longer. Also, more assessment information may need to be collected.

The process of changing behavior starts with a thorough interview and data collection. The process is step-by step. I tell parents that I don’t have a magic wand, but, I can offer my expertise and many years of productive experience understanding child/adolescent behavior and motivation, and the most direct ways to assess and intervene.

If you are ready to do the work necessary reaching a solution then don’t waste time. Delaying or waiting for a problem to resolve on its own increases the risk that the problem will become more difficult to modify. The good news is that the plan to improve your child’s behavior and well-being, as well as your own well-being, will make much better sense to everyone once science-based assessment information is gathered to clearly point the way. I always tell parents that changing child behavior means that parents (or other significant child care persons) make behavior changes too. Typically, the change process focuses on developing desired behaviors as well as diminishing undesired behaviors. My goal for parents and the child/adolescent is for everyone to gain knowledge, gain skills, access supports, and gain confidence in using the skills they learn. Interventions and supports might include medication, school and other types of interventions, therapy, and other services.

You may be undecided about your own readiness to start the process of addressing your child’s/adolescent’s behavior at this time. If so, I’m glad you have started to inform yourself. Contact me when you are ready.

Do a broad check of symptoms. Download and complete the “SNAP-IV form” found under my website Clients & Contact tab.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Caroline A. Schaerfl, Ph.D., M.Ed., LSW

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Psychological & Psychiatric Consultants
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P: 216-554-0555   |

CASpsych LLC
5900 Maurice Ave.   |   Cleveland, OH 44127
P: 216-554-0555   |
Convenient highway access:

  • I-77 North and South
  • I-90 from the West
  • Connection to State Route 176 (Jennings Freeway) via I-90
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