3 Tools to Stop Your Child’s Challenging Behavior Before it Starts


A friend asked me,

Just curious how I should handle a child who acts out in order to get “time in” with me. When she wants my attention she will act out so that she gets to be near me.

Our kids are always speaking to us, sometimes with words, and quite often with their behavior. When my child is disrespectful, dysregulated, or disinclined to be pleasant (I had to add one more dis- word), he’s speaking a language I need to understand.

So, how do we respond?

1. Run Ahead to Meet the Need

If I know my child always falls apart after dinner, it may be she needs some mom or dad time as she transitions from the busy day to bedtime. This may only take a few minutes of focused attention – a few minutes rocking a little one, lingering at the dinner table with an older child and listening. Her need to be heard and loved can be met which will ease her toward bedtime.

2. As Soon As – When/Then

A positive way to motivate a child is to say “as soon as” rather than “not until.” For example, “As soon as you’re ready for bed, I’ll read you a story.” So often we take a negative approach, “I won’t read you a story until you’re ready for bed.” It’s a subtle but significant shift.

Another option is to use when/then rather than “not until.”  “When you’ve finished helping clean the kitchen, then we’ll watch an episode of your favorite show.” The negative alternative is, “We won’t watch an episode of your show until you’ve cleaned the kitchen.”

These words tell the child we know he’s capable of completing the task, and there will be a sweet reward of intentional time together when it’s done. It’s far more pleasurable to read a book to a child or watch a show than give attention for disrespect or worse yet, raging and disrupting the entire family.

3. Tell Me What You Need

I remember the first time I heard Dr. Karyn Purvis talk about asking a child to tell her what she needs. She modeled, “Tell me what you need and I’ll move heaven and earth to meet that need.” Of course, she is more amazing than I am, and I’m usually in the midst of dealing with several kids at once, all while cooking dinner, transferring laundry, and helping with homework.

Yet, I’ve found this to be helpful. When my son starts to get agitated, I can say, “Use your words and tell me what you need. I’ll do my best to help you.”

Sometimes this works like those big switches on train tracks. The direction we’re headed, which is no good at all, can be switched to a brand new track taking us right where we want to go.

These tools are tried and true at our house. When they fail, it’s often because I’ve forgotten to even try implementing them.

Please add your thoughts and ideas – let’s share our experience and combined wisdom. I always love hearing from you.

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Tina
    October 29, 2018

    I’m so glad I finally opened your last email and found the link to this post. I’m sure that I’ve red it before, but it was what I needed this morning. Thank you.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 29, 2018

      I’m so glad to hear that, Tina!


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