Reacting to Undesirable Behavior

When your child starts to talk back or get out of control, try to remember not to get caught up in quick reactions to the behavior. Step back and give yourself a few seconds to assess the real problem.  Once you figure it out, FIX IT.  Do your part and change the way you react to the behavior.  If what you are doing isn’t working, then holy cow, CHANGE IT!

So. In order to change what you’re doing, you need to assess your current approach.  If your current strategy is not ideal, you need to switch gears.  In this chapter you’ll get more detailed help in punishing bad behavior, reinforcing good behavior, and creating a more positive environment.

Punishing Undesirable Behavior

As we discussed earlier, the consequence is what happens after the behavior.  It’s all up to you.  Your reaction determines if the behavior escalates, stays contained, or stops altogether.  Of course, you also provide a consequence to the behavior.  This is what most people consider, “Do this or else.”  But we need to step away from that line of thinking.  Kids don’t respond to threats.  They respond to action.  So think of consequences as our actions to decrease the unwanted behavior.

  • Consequences involve stopping the argument before it starts, redirecting the behavior, and making sure we do not reinforce the nonsense or escalate the episode.

For example, when we refuse to argue back, we stop the argument.  Simple as that!  We hold our ground, make sure the child does what is asked, and stay firm and calm.  This way, we do not reinforce the unwanted behavior. We also keep the situation from turning into a screaming match.  It’s our job to keep their little brains from winding up, escalating, and going into overload.

We do this by, in a sense, throwing a mental bucket of cold water on them.  They start up the complaints, arguments, and back talk, so we step right in, creating a wall.  Nope.  Stop right there.  It goes no further, little dudes and dudettes.  About face, soldier.

If two kids are arguing, literally turn their bodies away from each other.  I once had two high school girls in an all out screeching match.  I gently put my arm around one, physically turned her in the other direction and put some space between them as I told her that we needed to walk to the counselor’s office. She yelled at me, “But she called me a terrorist!” I calmly and firmly replied, “I didn’t ask what happened.  I said we need to go to the counselor’s. So let’s go.”

See?  You don’t start talking about what happened, you don’t answer questions and you don’t start in on the lectures as to why they shouldn’t act that way.  Stop the escalation and redirect to the task at hand.  Consequences are YOUR action only. The consequence is simply, “You will do what is asked.”  Period.  Make the kid do it.

Traditional Punishment” versus ABC Punishment:  Most people consider punishment as the consequence to bad behavior.  The kid typically gets spanked, grounded, phone or game privileges are taken away, no dessert at dinner, etc.  This is appropriate to a degree.  Sometimes a kid does something that you can’t undo, and they need to understand that bad things happen when they make bad choices.  So if they try to drown the neighbor’s cat, sure, they need a punishment that reminds them to make a better choice next time.  I’d never recommend spanking because I just don’t think it’s effective, but the rest of it, I understand.

But in terms of the ABC Guide, punishment simply serves to deter a behavior you don’t want to see. It’s not some lengthy, drawn out course taken as a consequence to a behavior.  In the ABC Guide, punishments are an immediate choice of action by YOU.  The kid does something you don’t like, so you have two choices.  You can punish (P) the behavior or reinforce (R).  Punish means you chose the path of stopping the behavior.  Reinforce means you chose a reaction that trains the kid to act that way again.  Most of the time, we reinforce bad behavior without even knowing it.  Wrong!  We need to reinforce good behavior, not bad.

Let’s do another ABC example and draw out the P a little more. This example shows how to deal with arguing when you’re trying to choose the right consequence but the child keeps talking back to you:

A = The kids are eating dinner.

B = Joey tells Harold he’s stupid.

C = You can:

  • R = scold Joey and send him to his room
  • P = Ask Joey, “Was that a nice thing to say? Apologize to your brother.”  This is a P because you are not letting Joey get away with being rude to his brother.

But now suppose Joey starts to smart mouth or argue? The backtalk is a new B. Here are two examples of what to do:

B = Joey replies, “Yes, it was nice.”

C = Cut Joey off immediately. Say, “Wrong answer. What’s the correct answer?”


B = Joey replies, “But he just. . . “

C = Again, cut Joey off immediately. Say, “I didn’t ask what he did. I asked you if that was a nice thing to say. Yes or no.”

In both cases, keep cutting Joey off until he gives you a “no” answer.  Then make him apologize to Harold.

In the above example, notice that scolding falls under R.  Scolding is pretty darn useless.  So give it up and cut it out. The kid could care less and you are reinforcing the behavior. You’re training him that the behavior is okay.  So what if he gets sent to his room?  Big darn deal.  He probably wants to get away from the dinner table and all the nagging anyway.

Instead, he needs to ANSWER YOUR QUESTION without arguing or explaining why it was okay to call his brother stupid.  Using the ABC model, in order to punish the back talk, you need to calmly hold your ground and make him understand that it’s a simple “yes” or “no” question.  Answer it and apologize.  That’s all there is to it.  That is a true behavioral deterrent because he’ll realize that it does no good to argue with you.  You will cut him off and demand he answer your question.

Or Else: When it comes to discipline for school-aged kids, there is no place for threats of, “You will do this or else!”  “Or else,” does not belong in our vocabulary!  The kid is going to comply, and that’s that.  They may not be incredibly cooperative about it, but the action WILL take place.  If your  kid absolutely, hands down, flat out refuses to cooperate and you have to threaten “or else,” you’re in hot water. Five to twelve-year-old’s should respond to authority. If they don’t, it means they’ve been getting away with the cockamamie bull-crap for way too long.