Discipline for Bad Attitudes – One Way to Address the Heart
Attitudes can be good or bad, and they’re inherently interwoven into everything we do. Attitudes often rest just below the surface and are sometimes difficult to read or understand in adults, let alone our children. Billions of dollars are spent each year to create or change attitudes in you toward certain products or activities.
Furthermore, attitudes are highly contagious. As a parent, you know that children can develop a whole outlook on life based on the latest TV show or by spending time with a particular friend. Attitudes affect how we view life and respond to it.
Taking Note of Attitude Not Just Tasks
Attitudes become a problem when negative emotions affect behavior and relationships. It’s not wrong to feel bad, but when you act out because of those negative feelings then people get hurt. One of the ways parents see bad attitudes in kids is when children are given instructions they don’t want to do. Those kids may obey, but they demonstrate a bad attitude in the process.
When an attitude takes place, it’s usually non-verbally communicating disgust, frustration, or disappointment. One practical way to address attitudes is to try to unpack the non-verbal cues. Don’t let them go by unchecked. “Wait Son. It looks like you’re communicating a message there that you’re unhappy. Do you think I did something wrong by asking you to clear the table? Are you mad at me? I’m not sure what you’re trying to communicate there.” Addressing non-verbal cues as communication can go a long way to either stop the attitude or open doors for deeper communication.
Often a bad attitude comes from an angry heart. Imagine an onion with various layers. As you peel off one layer you see another and another until you get to the center of the onion. Anger is like that. The most obvious sign of anger is physical violence. Hitting, slamming, kicking, and biting are all ways that anger is demonstrated.
As children learn to control their anger not vent it physically, they peel off that layer, revealing the next one: hurtful words through sarcasm, teasing, and cynical remarks. These less physical but deadly weapons are another symptom of anger.
Layer after layer of angry responses can be removed until you come to a very significant one: the bad attitude. Children don’t want to go to bed, clean up their rooms, leave the computer, or get on their shoes. You’re interrupting their lives by giving an instruction or by correcting or by saying no. Thus you get anger revealed in a bad attitude.
Using Honor to Address Attitudes
One approach for dealing with bad attitudes is to use the concept of honor. It’s important to teach children what honor means in very practical terms. One mom defined attitude as “the heart of how you do something.” Obedience is revealed in actions. Honor is revealed in the attitude that goes along with those actions.
Many times parents simply focus on the behavioral component of the bad attitude. They say things like, “Stop giving me that dirty look,” or “Come back here and walk down the hall without stomping.” Keep in mind that to deal with bad attitudes from a heart-based approach you’ll also want to look at two more components of an attitude: emotion and thinking errors. Both of those ingredients reside in the heart. Children need to process their emotions without having a bad attitude.
Challenge Underlying Beliefs
Furthermore, many children believe strange things about life. Those beliefs are things like, “When my brother is annoying I have the right to punch him,” or “Chores are Mom’s work.” When children believe those kinds of things, it’s no wonder they have a bad attitude. Take attitudes apart and work on them using a multi-faceted approach. You’ll then see more significant and long-lasting adjustments.
By identifying bad attitudes in your children you’ll take the first important step toward change-you’ll see the problem. You won’t be content to allow a bad attitude even if the job is getting done. You might say to your son, “Wait a minute. Your attitude here is a problem. You need to sit down for a bit and settle down and then let’s look for a better way to respond. When you’re ready to try a different response then come see me.”
Explain to your children the value of a good attitude and the danger of a negative attitude on the job or in school. A good attitude is important and your interaction at home is a great place to start working on it.
Unfortunately, some parents excuse bad attitudes in their children. We’ve all heard them.
He’ll grow out of it.
She’s so cute.
At least she’s doing what I asked.
He’s just going through a stage.
She’s better than other kids her age.
That’s the way kids are.
She’s a teenager.
He’s a two-year-old.
He’s a boy.
She could be a lot worse.
Each of these is an excuse for not disciplining and often represents a missed opportunity to teach or direct a child on a deeper level, understanding that correction is a gift. Remember, we aren’t just trying to help children change on the outside to develop nice, neat behavior. We’re trying to help them change their hearts. Attitude is a window into a child’s heart.
Jesus described the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” He was describing the fact that they focused on behavior instead of their hearts. The same thing is true with children sometimes, and your responsibility is to teach children that their hearts are important as well as their actions. Honor is important, but children can’t just show honor externally. They must also demonstrate that honor with a positive attitude.
Attitudes Reveal the Heart
Attitudes are one way that children can reveal that their hearts are in the right place. One mom put a sign up in her kitchen that read, “Three Opportunities for a Good Attitude: when given an instruction, when corrected, and when given a no answer.” She was trying to motivate her kids to recognize the danger arenas and take appropriate action.
Helping children deal with bad attitudes isn’t easy and requires insight from parents into the hearts of their kids. Sometimes you’ll want to deal with an attitude on the spot and other times you may want address it later. See Keeping discipline positive by affirming approximately right behavior. Whatever you do, make sure that you address bad attitudes or they’ll get worse over time. Sometimes parents believe that their children will grow out of bad attitudes. Unfortunately, the reality is that if attitudes aren’t checked children grow into them.
This idea comes from the book, “Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes, in You and Your Kids.” It’s a book all about the biblical concept of honor and how it contains the success principles God designed for life. That’s why kids need to learn honor at home.
Feel free to interact with this article. I’ll be happy to respond and answer any questions you have, even personal ones about your own family situation. –Dr Scott Turansky
Michael WheelerPosted at 05:37h, 14 February
Hi, I am the director of ministry for a Christian school. I am preparing for next year. I am looking for some Bible study materials fir students of all ages. Do you have anything like that?
scott turanskyPosted at 09:26h, 14 February
Hi Michael, It’s nice to meet you virtually here. The answer is yes. We have 3 Children’s Curricula for ages 3-12. They are reproducible and have instructions for the teacher or for use at home. Each one has a Bible story and then there are activities, craft ideas, etc for each lesson. They are the Kids Honor Club, Treasure Hunters, and Hero Training Camp. You can find them in our web store at biblicalparenting.org. It looks like I’ll be speaking at a Christian School Administrators Conference in June, 2020. I’ll be teaching about a heart-based approach vs behavior modification to maximize change in children. I’ll also be sharing about our Biblical Parenting Coaching Program and our Christian School Initiative. We have a lot for Christian Schools. If we might assist you, give us a call. –Scott Turansky
AnonymousPosted at 13:30h, 14 February
How do you help an adopted 13 year old son who was never disciplined properly, and has an attitude that stinks. He’s irresponsible and can be verbally abusive, as well as physical, with his mother, because she can’t defend herself. Like striking her feet or tickling them. After that will say I love you. ??? Really? He will apologize after a while usually. But in the meantime it needs to stop. Angry at his dad for getting on him, etc which isn’t really handled the best. ??? I love him dearly. Please do not put my name on here.
scott turanskyPosted at 15:01h, 14 February
Wow. I’m sorry. It sounds like we have some patterns going on that are more than just attitude issues. Thank you for your service through adoption. That’s a gift and I call it home missions. It seems like this might not be your own family? If so, pass on the thanks to the parents. In a challenging situation like this we start working on the heart with vision meetings, practice sessions, movement toward a goal. We set up a personalized, individual action plan that involves firmness and training. The reality is that God has some great things available for this boy but he needs some training in order to be ready for them. Now, at 13 is an excellent time to do the hard work of undoing some unhelpful patterns, changing some of his bad thinking patterns, and adjusting the heart. It’s never too late but it is a lot of work. Check out the biblicalparenting.coach page to learn more about how we have amazing success in these kinds of situations.
K DavisPosted at 19:04h, 14 February
My son will be 18 in 2 months. He’s a good kid, but has a bad attitude with correction and instruction. . He struggles with anger as well. Over reacts often. I don’t know how to help him.
scott turanskyPosted at 19:16h, 14 February
Thanks for your comment. I have a lot of ideas for you but let’s just start with one. regarding his bad attitudes since that’s the focus of this post. When you see a bad attitude it must contain some nonverbal negative communication. Each time you see that you can stop and say something about the nonverbal message. You might say, “Wait a minute. Your tone of voice says something. Are you saying you’re angry with me? Or I’m being unfair? What’s the message you’re saying to me?” By this you are not allowing attitude to go unchecked and you’re not allowing nonverbal messages to go by without some kind of statement.
Having said that, there are a number of other things that likely nee to take place in this young person’s heart to improve his treatment of you. Looking for ways to strengthen relationship is paramount. Emotionally connecting with him is important. Then, if we need to, we can move forward with some kind of limits tied to his disrespectful messages. But you have to raise the awareness of those messages first using a strategy like the one I suggested here.
Kevin MoffatPosted at 09:12h, 15 February
Hi Scott, I hope you’re doing well. Our two adopted children are 12 and 13 now, and the biggest problem I find is the demeaning comments our 13 year old son says (especially when he thinks no one can hear him) all too often to knock down his sister’s confidence. Quite often he thinks he is being “funny”, but I do not. He has a bad habit of putting her down for no apparent reason other than some sort of possible sibling rivalry, but it borders on bullying, and our son knows what it’s like to be bullied (a child at his school has since stopped bullying him after my wife and I intervened). Now, our daughter sometimes instigates conflict as well, but she really looks up to her brother, and we feel that if he treated her well, a mutual love, peace, and respect would develop between them. I’ve tried to reach his heart multiple times by explaining how we’re trying to be a Christ centered family and that we’re to love each other with the same sort of loving treatment as we’d like for ourselves. I’ve also talked to our son about how in later years of his sister’s life, she may feel that this sort of poor treatment is acceptable from all of her future male relationships. Our son knows which buttons to push to cause conflict and bother his sister. My wife and I show a loving and respectful example toward each other, we’ve never spanked or mentally abused our children, and our son treats other children differently with a much more loving and godly example and/or attitude. Please include in your answer some examples of how I should be directly responding to this type of behavior other than having them apologize, seek forgiveness, and give the other a hug. Have a blessed day.
scott turanskyPosted at 00:42h, 17 February
Kevin, thank you for your honest question. I do believe that one of the things that grieves our hearts the most is when our children fight with each other. It looks like you’re using several good tools already. You are teaching. That is, you’re using dialog to try to convince and persuade your son that what he is doing is not right and not wise. You’re also modeling. That is, you’re trying to set a good example of a wholesome and loving relationship. Furthermore, you’re using correction and apology. All those tools are good but they don’t seem to be having the desired effect in this case. So, I would recommend that you continue those good things but add some training. That is, practice sessions that focus on positively relating with his sister. You might start with a meeting that says, “I know that your sister is sometimes irritating or invites an unkind response from you. But one of the life skills we want to help you develop is the ability to be kind and loving even when your sister is annoying or when you’re tempted to put her down for any reason, even just thinking it’s funny.. So, here’s what we’re going to do. “Romans 12:10 teaches that we should ‘honor one another. That takes practice. So, every day, twice a day, we are going to require that you find some way to honor your sister. That means to value her. You can do that in words or actions. I’ll have you at a set time, maybe 8:00 am and 4:00 pm stop, think of a way to honor your sister, tell me in advance what you intend to do, then go do it and then report back. Most of the time you and I will both know that you’ve been successful by her response.” Then you do it. Your son needs honor therapy. You’re the best counselor for him if you have a good plan. His heart lacks some skill and this kind of approach takes advantage of the training aspect of parenting that practices the right way to think and act. It’s much more positive than correction which by its very nature focuses on the negative. Training is much more powerful than correction alone. You’ll still have to correct, and when you do, I would suggest that the consequence be additional training exercises in honor. For more on honor including how to apply it to sibling conflict, I recommend our book, “Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids.” –Blessings, Scott Turansky
EmilyPosted at 22:30h, 16 February
Hey Scott! Thank you for this article! Do you have any practical suggestions for helping a smart and very verbal 2 year old understand the importance of a good attitude. Our daughter is very moody and will often refuse to be pleased by anything. We’ve talked to her about the importance of having a “light heart” which is thankful and happy and that we can only do it with Jesus’s help. She definitely understands the Concept but wondering if I should be going further or deeper?.
scott turanskyPosted at 00:48h, 17 February
Emily, yes, you should go further and deeper because your daughter isn’t getting it with teaching alone. It would be best to start in the Getting Things Done department of life. That is, she needs to practice following instructions, coming when called, and doing small tasks that you tell her to do, all with a good attitude. I would suggest you explain that coming when called is important and then practice it 20 times the first hour. This isn’t just about teaching children a task to come on command. This is about the heart. Just imagine what takes place when a child has to stop what they are doing, disengage from an activity, exert effort to come to you. That exercise works a part of the heart that builds obligation. Your daughter, even at two years old, needs to wrestle in her heart between I NEED TO and I DON”T WANT TO. That’s obligation vs desire. As you practice, first you’ll see resistance likely. But then that resistance will decrease and as it does you’ll even be able to work on the attitude. Practice sessions provide greater opportunity for heart change to take place. For more on this idea, the Parenting is Heart Work Training Manual gives specific ideas for building heart qualities in the everyday activities of life.
Shantal ArtiedaPosted at 09:23h, 04 March
Hello! I serve the Lord as a missionary in Peru. My oldest son is 11 years old, he displays a lot of anger constantly even though he is being raised in a Christian home and my husband and I are constantly working on this issue in his life. He goes to a Christian school but feels bullied by his peers, mostly because he is not as “grow up” as they are… meaning, they are allowed to watch and do things he is not. We try to explain to him that we are protecting him, but he wants to be more like them to fit in, so he acts like them and sometimes bullies his younger brothers around too or talks back at me and my husband and does things with a bad attitude. We are raising him with biblical values and continuos talk about what the Bible teaches us about having a good attitude, having self-control, etc. and he himself realizes his struggle and sometimes can’t even understand or deal with his own emotions. We are really trying to help him to not be so angry… How can we continue to peel the layers when he already knows but he himself feels he can’t change?
scott turanskyPosted at 10:59h, 04 March
Shantal, First of all, thank you for your service to the Lord in Peru as well as in your home. Both are important mission fields. Adolescence is a strategic time for young people. They face differences at every turn and often don’t have the wisdom to address them. Those differences are with their peers, parents, siblings, and even God. Helping children know how to address them instead of allowing them to generate conflict is maturity at its best. I teach young people that they have three life skills they face each time they experience a difference: Gracious communication, Creative problem solving, and emotional management. In your case I would try to separate his desire for independence and belonging to friends from his treatment of you. If we can separate things a bit then we can target them more effectively. Since this article is about bad attitudes, I would start with the ideas presented in the article and in the comments. You can then work out from there to some of these other important issues.
Ashley FrenchPosted at 14:42h, 04 March
I’m in the same boat Shantal. Hoping Mr. Turansky will post a reply here!
Kendra BierbaumPosted at 17:34h, 18 February
Hi Dr Turansky, I love your ministry and outlook on parenting, it got us through the first 7 years of raising our very active and headstrong son. We have a daughter who is almost 9 and we recently moved to another state. She has always been the easiest child of our family and submissive, well behaved, motivated and responsible. With this move (and a little before it) though she is becoming someone we don’t recognize. She has a condescending attitude toward everyone and is constantly annoyed and on edge. She does feel lonely and feels like her siblings have all found friends their age but not her (although I would say she has two friends that are boys her age, not sure what to think of that either). She is very introverted all of the sudden and it just feels like we’re living with a teenager already! I’m not sure how much grace to give her, I do not want to make excuses for her, please help!
scott turanskyPosted at 18:17h, 18 February
Kendra, It looks like some things are going on in your daughter that are going to require some work now before she heads into adolescence. It might be good for us to have a talk. You can sign up to talk with me on my website at biblicalparenting.coach There’s a link in the first panel that says Schedule Your Call. It’s free and I’ll help you lay out the roadmap for change in your daughter. I can then recommend books or even our coaching program and show you how they might help. But the answer is definitely yes, we can help you.