Change a Child’s Difficult Behavior by Addressing the Heart

Scott Turansky

Dr. Scott Turansky

When eight-year-old Jordan says to himself, “I’m no good. No one wants to be with me. I’ll never get it right,” he’s repeating negative things in his heart. Rebecca feels good in her heart because she refused to join those who were disrespectful to the teacher. Jason’s mom can see a heart problem because he scowls and complains whenever she asks him to do something. In each of these situations, the heart is at work.

Jordan, Rebecca, and Jason are all illustrating the fact that we say things to ourselves in our hearts. We read in Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD.” What people meditate on is important because those thoughts take place in the heart and eventually come out in actions.

It Starts in the Heart

The heart is where we wrestle with things. When experience, teaching, and values need to be integrated into life, it happens in the workshop of the heart. Information comes into our heads on a regular basis but much of it just stays there. Only when it moves down to our hearts does it become part of our lives.

When as parents we use a heart-based approach we take advantage of this wrestling inside a child. We can encourage right thinking, contribute praise for growing character, and comment about the helpful and unhelpful internal dialogue as it makes its way out through behavior.

Jesus knew that the teachers of the law were struggling inside with the fact that he forgave the paralytic in Matthew 9:4. He says, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?” When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus realized that their surprise guest was Jesus, they reflected on the experience by saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Create Heart Moments

Look for ways to create heart moments in your child. Andrew was disrespectful to his dad, yelling and saying mean things when Dad refused to buy the latest computer game that Andrew’s friends had.

Dad decided to correct his son but wanted more than just lip service. He wanted to touch his heart. First Dad had Andrew sit in the hall and settle down. That took over an hour as Andrew continued to seethe and pout. When Andrew finally returned, Dad explained to him that the temper tantrums were unacceptable and that he, as a dad, had a responsibility to discipline his son to try to help him. Therefore, Andrew would lose the privilege of the computer altogether for a while.

Of course, that news threw Andrew into another bout of ranting. Dad refused to join into the anger scene and sent his son back to the hall to settle down again. This time it took a half hour before Andrew returned wanting to know when he’d get his computer privileges back. Dad calmly explained, “I’ve not set a time on it. I want to see some improvement in the way you handle correction and a no answer. Also, I’d like to see you come to me and ask if there’s any way that you can help. I’ll give you some jobs. Over the next few days if you can show me that you are trying to change the way you relate to me, then we’ll try going back to the computer.”

Then Dad waited. Would his plan work or would it need some adjustment? Dad knew what he was looking for. He wanted to see a sense of cooperation and self-control in his son. Over the next few days he saw the heart moments he was looking for. Andrew volunteered to help and had a good attitude. Dad told Andrew “no” on a couple of occasions and Andrew, although disappointed, was obviously trying to respond better. Dad gave the computer privileges back to his son but only after they talked about the positive changes that were starting to occur. Andrew is still learning and growing and complete change will likely take several years, but Dad corrected with an eye on the heart and felt like he made significant progress in that one incident.

Heart Moments Go Deeper

Too many parents focus only on behavior, things like getting jobs done around the house and completing homework. Although those things are important, the real work of parenting is done in the heart. Be on the lookout for heart moments. They may surprise you at times. Be ready for them because they don’t come as often as you’d like.

Jesus often took advantage of heart moments. He told the expert in the law that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” And went further to tell him what he needed to do by giving his possessions away. Jesus challenged him on a heart level. (Matthew 22:37)

Here are just a few more examples of heart moments you might relate to:

  • Sarah made a nice card for her Dad for Valentine’s Day. It obviously took a lot of love and care to put it together. Dad realized that it was not just a gift of a card but it was a gift of his daughter’s heart. He spent some extra time enjoying the card and his daughter, further encouraging her love and compassion.
  • Caleb made a comment about something he learned at Sunday School. Mom asked some more questions and discussed the issue with her son, realizing that it was a heart moment. She talked further with Caleb, helping him develop the truth so that it had an even greater impact on his thinking.
  • Jim realized that his daughter was hurt by a friend at school. Instead of telling her to just stop crying about it, he comforted his daughter, realizing that it was a heart moment. She obviously appreciated her dad’s love and care, and just his presence with her for several minutes helped her to work through the issues in her heart.


A Spiritual Battle

Every morning when you get up, pray for your kids. Ask God to reveal opportunities for heart moments with them. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes in your family. Proverbs 20:5 reminds us that,

” The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” A heart-based approach to parenting isn’t easy but it’s where the significant work is done in a child’s life.

A heart-based approach is more than just talking to your kids. It often involves firmness and action. Some kids learn best by experience and your parenting can provide just the experiences necessary to challenge their internal dialogue. If you’d like to learn more about how to implement a heart-based approach to parenting you’ll want to look at the Parenting Power Pack. It’s loaded with ideas and solutions that influence the way you parent. Learn more here.

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