For Parents of Teens: How to Change Your Child’s Behavior

Father: “Hey, son. I thought I asked you to clean and put away the tools after you use them.”
Son: “Oh. Right.”
Father: “Well, the tools you used last night are still on the bench. Why didn’t you put them away?”
Son: “I don’t know. I guess I forgot.”
Father: “I told you if you want to use the tools you have to take care of them.”
Son: “Sorry.”
Father: “I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to take care of the tools. And keep the work area clean.”
Son: “I’ll take care of it.”
Father: “Am I being unreasonable?”
Son: “No, Dad. I’ll put them away. I’ll try to remember next time.”
Father: “I don’t want you to try. I want you to do it. It’s not that hard, son. It’s about being responsible. Now go do what you should have done last night.”
Son: “Okay.”

In this familiar scenario, the father is frustrated and angry because he feels his teenage son has let him down again. His son didn’t do what he agreed to do. The father feels justified, and he considers himself a good parent because he’s holding his son accountable for being responsible and organized.

But actually the father handled the situation poorly. Not because he’s a bad parent. His intentions were good. It’s because he’s trying to change his son’s behavior, and he doesn’t understand how behavior change works.

You can tell a child to do something differently. He’ll hear you, understand you, agree with you, and even promise to do it that way.

But that doesn’t mean that he’ll start doing it that way. In fact, just the opposite is more likely to happen. He’ll probably forget and do it the old way.

The reason is that most behavior is habit-driven, not decision-driven. His old way is his habit. The new way is not. Yet.

A habit is a behavior that is physically wired in the brain. The wiring happened because the behavior was repeated many, many times. His brain is physically wired to do it the old way.

For him to regularly do what you asked him to do, he’ll have to create a new habit. He’ll have to rewire his brain.

This will take time and persistence on his part, because he’ll have to try hard to consciously stop himself, remember what he agreed to do, and decide to do it that way. If he succeeds, many, many times, he can rewire his brain. Only then will behaving the new way become automatic.

But even if he’s motivated and making an effort, at first he won’t succeed very often. The old habit will kick in, in spite of his good intentions.

He’ll need your understanding, encouragement and support—not criticism, shame or lectures. These familiar reactions will just erode his self-esteem and self-confidence, which will make it even harder for him.

If the father had understood this, he might have handled it another way:

Father: “Son, you forgot to clean and put away the tools last night.”
Son: “Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll go do it now.”
Father: “It’s hard to change a habit, isn’t it?”
Son: “It is. Believe it or not, I’m trying. I just forget sometimes.”
Father: “I know. That’s normal. The key is to keep trying. Will you try harder?”
Son: “Sure, Dad.”
Father: “I know you will. I appreciate it. Keep trying and after a while, you’ll forget less often.”
Son: “Okay.”
Father: “Thanks, Son.”

Not many fathers or mothers understand how behavior change works. But now that you’ve read this far, you do. Now you can try to change your own habit of reacting with impatience and anger when your daughter leaves her clothes on the floor, even though she promised to take better care of them.

Good luck! If you forget and lose your temper anyway, don’t get down on yourself. It’s always hard initially to act differently, no matter how much the new behavior makes sense. A little forgiveness and persistence go a long way. Keep trying and eventually it will get easier.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom Schulte November 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Great Advice, Denny! I will absolutely try this! Thank you for writing this :)


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