Positive parenting expert Kelly Bartlett shares common behavior challenges parents face with older kids and positive discipline tips for handling them effectively.
Your children may be past the age of tantrums and biting, but as they grow, behavior challenges certainly don’t go away. Your child’s brain won’t reach full maturity until long after childhood.
The average age is about 27 years old, which means your child still has a lot of growing to do!
The neural pathways that connect the emotional center of the brain with the logical center brain are far from efficient just yet. There is plenty of miscommunication as children learn how to balance strong emotions with rational thought and self-control.
But the frustrating behavior you see from your growing children is only the tip of the iceberg, and taking a positive discipline approach with your older child can help.
Common Behavior Challenges with Older Kids
There is more going on than meets the eye, and you can help kids develop valuable long-term skills by addressing what’s really going on.
Here are a few of the most common behavior challenges parents face in the older years and some tips for handling them effectively.
“My child’s attitude is pushing my buttons!”
There can be many reasons why children may show disrespectful behavior by talking back or having “an attitude.” They may be feeling a sense of powerlessness and trying to gain some of it back.
They may feel a need to assert their autonomy with their words and tone.
They may be feeling disconnected in their relationship with a parent.
Or, they may simply be having a hard day. It is important to understand that although backtalk may push your buttons, there is a message behind it. If you can get to the root of the attitude, you can respond to your child in a constructive way.
Positive Discipline Tips for Working With Attitude
Make sure your relationship is on track. Typically, when a child is behaving in a way that makes you want more distance between the two of you, what she actually needs more than anything else is a renewed sense of closeness. Take a deep breath and remind yourself of what you love about her. Spend some regular one-on-one time together and dedicate that time to listening and understanding her. When your child feels like you “get” her, she’ll communicate more respectfully.
Look beneath the surface. That is, be willing to look past the rude words or tone of voice to discover what might be driving the behavior. You seem frustrated; did you have a rough day? You’re very upset right now; let’s both take some time to calm down before we talk. Being able to remember that behavior stems from more deeply rooted feelings (and is not intended specifically to drive you crazy) will help you keep your cool and not add fuel to the fire.
Give opportunities for more power. Verbal pushback in the form of attitude or backtalk may come from a child’s feeling a lack of power. Find opportunities for your child to take control over more areas of her life. Give her more say in how her homework gets done, her extra curricular activities, chores, or clothing choices. Ask more questions instead of giving more directions. What do you think we should do? Do you have ideas? What do you think about this? Amy McCready, author of If I Have To Tell You One More Time says, “The more positive power you give kids, the less they’ll try to get it in negative ways.”
“My child is so angry!”
Kids will always get angry about the things in their lives that aren’t working, but occasionally that anger doesn’t subside. Sometimes, what looks like an expression of anger could even be other difficult feelings that a child has been fending off such as grief, loneliness, fear, or powerlessness. Bottled up long enough, these emotions may be expressed as chronic anger. To help a child who seems angry, try these important steps:
Positive Discipline Tips for Working with Anger
Allow the anger. While you may not enjoy your child’s angry behavior, it is important to communicate that you accept him, angry feelings and all. I can see you are upset about something. Let me know how I can help. It’s OK to be mad. I’m here if you want to talk. Make sure the message of acceptance gets through.
Give your child tools for anger management. Jennifer Patterson, an elementary school principal in Oregon, finds the Zones of Regulation a helpful and intuitive tool to teach anger management. Students in her school learn to identify their emotional “zones”—green zone means a child is feeling “good to go,” yellow zone is the “warning zone” of emotional frustration, while red zone is a sign of overload and an indication to stop.
“The zones serve as a universal language for understanding normal human emotions,” says Jennifer. “They help kids build an awareness of self-regulation.”
Children identify specific action steps they can take in each zone to help them process anger and get back to feeling “green” again. Taking time to calm down (a positive timeout), deep breathing, physical exercise, and stress release balls are all helpful ways of releasing the initial onslaught of anger in order to be able to restore a child’s brain chemistry and communicate effectively.
Identify the source(s). Sometimes anger can come from an immediate situation. Maybe their headphones were broken by a younger sibling. But sometimes it can manifest as a compilation of difficult feelings that have added up over time.
Challenges in school, losing a pet, or relationship struggles can all be factors in a child’s outward display of angry behavior.
Try to help your child identify the frustrations in his life that may be contributing to his unhappiness. Encourage him to vent and cry to help process strong emotions. “When a child no longer needs anger to defend against difficult emotions, the anger evaporates,” says Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.
“My child seems so anxious.”
It is not unusual for older children to develop anxiety. The pressure they face at school, managing their activities and schedule, making friends, as well as the realization that they are growing up may trigger feelings of stress and nervousness.
As Dan Siegel writes in his book Brainstorm; The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, “When the mind tries to predict what will happen next and everything is new and unfamiliar, it is natural to feel nervous and uncertain.” So, feelings of anxiety are normal. But what to do when a child’s anxiety has taken center stage and their feelings of worry become overwhelming?
Here are a few things that will help:
Positive Discipline Tips for Working With Anxiety
Build confidence through small successes. Confidence is a child’s ability to know that he is capable of succeeding. And it is needed most during times of uncertainty. You can help your child strengthen this by finding small ways to help her experience success.
Enlist her help in making dinner. Let her take the lead in assembling a new LEGO set. Even something as simple as helping you hang pictures by hammering nails into the wall can provide a boost in confidence.
Encourage her by drawing out her own sense of pride in her accomplishment. You did it! Thank you, that was a huge help! You put a lot of time into this and your effort really shows. You want your child to find it within herself to be able to say, “I can do hard things.”
Help your child feel a sense of security. Reassure him that no matter what, your relationship will always provide a secure base. Schedule regular dates as opportunities to keep your connection strong.
These dates will allow him time to talk about whatever may be on his mind. They will also give you time to listen reflectively. Children will feel more capable in handling the parts of life that make them nervous when they know they have a safe, supportive family environment.
Develop your child’s sense of resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and recover from failure. A fear of failure can often be a trigger for anxiety—many children feel afraid to make mistakes, be wrong, or that they might disappoint in some way.
One thing that helps a child overcome this fear is to join him in stepping outside his comfort zone and trying a new activity together…perhaps even making mistakes along the way!
Take an art class together. Put on a dance show for your family. or travel to a new place and find your way around hand in hand. You can cooperatively experience new things as well as the mistakes that come with them and provide a powerful example for your child on surviving failure.
Behavior challenges don’t require doing to, they require getting through. These positive discipline strategies will help you stay close with your growing child and get through challenging times together.
The skills you teach will last them a lifetime. And so will your relationship.