How to Help Someone Else’s ‘Bad’ Kid (or Yours)

Childhood is a pivotal time to shape who a child will be for the rest of their lives. If you have a kid in your life and/or child’s school that is “bad,” there could be a variety of reasons why. Whether it be something going on at home or they simply are struggling in general or possibly suffering from something like oppositional defiant disorder, there are ways you can help this child have a shot at a positive future without detrimentally being labeld at a young age. Breezy Mama turned to Child and Family Psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish for tips on how to help with behavior modification.

How dangerous is it to label a child as “bad”. In other words, can this shape the choices they make for life?

When you label a child “bad” it is not only dangerous, but a sure-fire path to trouble. Your child’s self-esteem is penetrated. He will certainly feel he is a bad person and is likely to act-out and do “bad” behaviors. Kids do not have to be told directly that they are “bad” to get that message. When Mom or Dad consistently yells, screams, and gets angry at the child he inevitably comes into my office and declares, “I am a bad boy.” Research studies show that emotional abuse is equally as damaging as physical abuse.

I feel often times when a child acts out at school, one reason might be something that’s going on at home. Before labeling them the “bad” kid at your child’s school, how can other parents be a positive influence on this child’s life?

You are correct that marital stress and fighting is one top reason why some kids act out. There are other reasons — I see many acting out kids whose parents are either at odds on how to discipline or have faulty discipline techniques.

Before labeling them the “bad” kid at your child’s school think and refer to this child as still learning how to be “friendly”. At age 3, kids go to preschool and hear about making friends. An example of what to say may be, “Johnny is learning how to have friends. He is learning not to grab toys but to ask for a turn. You already learned what Johnny is still practicing.”

The problem with this child may be because some parents say all the right things but are unable to follow-through with an action plan. For instance, Mom may appropriately say, “Five minutes until bath time” while her youngster continues to watch a DVD. Mom may find herself repeating the directive 3, 4, even 5 times as her patience wears down. Finally, she screams and yells. Taking an action step is giving your child the 5-minute warning once. Then, when 5 minutes is up Mom should say, “Show Mommy how you can turn off the DVD or Mommy will help you.” Mommy should wait a silent count to two and then click off the DVD. This usually triggers your child’s temper. He may have a tantrum. Your job is to walk him into the bathroom where his next responsibility takes place (bath) and settle/calm him down with empathy narration. An example is for you to say with compassion, “It’s hard to stop when you want more. You got mad at Mommy and I’m the kind of mom who really wants to hear you tell me when you’re mad.”

Let’s be honest, it actually could become dangerous for your child to be friends with a child who might be prone to violence quickly. Without ostracizing the “bad” kid, how can you keep your own child safe?

Kids who are aggressive with sudden outbursts of screaming, biting, hitting, and kicking often do not get invited for play dates. Your responsibility is to keep your child safe at all times. Many parents are afraid to risk it. If you are open to it, invite the other child to your home for a play date. Be sure the child’s mom or dad stays with the visiting child and stays close by like a shadow to your child’s guest. Keep the play date short (one hour maximum) to build success. Keep the play date structured. For example, buy prepared cookie dough and let each child cut (with plastic utensils) cookie shapes onto a greased pan. While the cookies are baking the children can color, do puzzles, or you can read them a storybook with pictures. Then, the children and moms can drink milk and eat their own baked cookies. That concludes a successful play date.

Simple changes in a child’s life can affect their behavior. For example, perhaps their parents are fighting more than usual. How can parents reduce the stress in their own child’s lives?

All changes and transitions affect people, especially young children. Let me answer your question directly. No parental fighting is allowed in front of kids. Period. It is the number one complaint from kids in my office. A sure way to raise your child’s anxiety and aggression is to fight in their presence, so Moms and Dads, respectfully, please cool it. In addition to marital stress, moving residences, losing or changing a nanny/babysitter, vacation, school change, transitioning from crib to big-boy bed, Mommy returning to work, or the birth of a new baby are all examples of changes that affect children. I can list hundreds more. In order to reduce the stress in your child’s life keep their schedules simple, routine, and predictable. Don’t overbook them with too many classes, lessons, and activities. Children can get overwhelmed and overstimulated. The most important key is for parents to learn how to talk about these things directly and empathically with their kids. This helps your child feel seen, acknowledged, validated and accepted by you – flaws and all!

If you suspect there is something going on in a “bad” kid’s home that is illegal or dangerous, how should parents go about reporting it?

The key word in your question is “suspect”. If you suspect abuse or any danger to the child in her home report it to your local Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS or DFS). It is not up to a mandated reporter of child abuse (doctors, teachers, pediatricians, psychologists and social workers to determine if abuse is actually occurring. Nor is it up to you, a well-meaning parent. If you have a reasonable suspicion that the child is in danger make the call. DCFS will send a social worker to the child’s home to evaluate the situation and ensure the child’s safety.

For the good-hearted folks out there that are well meaning, often times reaching out to the “bad” kid doesn’t go so well and this child may back talk or even be insulting. What’s a positive way to handle this behavior without further lodging this kid into feeling they are “bad”?

The best way to handle a child, yours or someone else’s, who insults or talks back to you is to empathically reflect out loud what you think they feel and want. Say something like, “Sounds like you may be feeling angry. I’m the kind of lady who is ready to hear you tell me about your mad feelings right to my face. I really appreciate when people tell me how they feel.” You are validating the child’s feelings and sending him a message of acceptance – warts and all.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Yes. When, if, and how should a parent suggest to another parent that they seek professional help for their acting-out child? This one is tricky and exquisitely delicate. It very much depends on the level of openness in the other parent. Do you feel the mom will become defensive, collapse into a river of tears, or lash out at you? Worse yet, might she harshly punish her child when they get home? These are questions to ask yourself. Sometimes, it helps to suggest that the parent observe and participate in the school classroom. In many instances, the mom doesn’t have an accurate measuring stick to assess her own child’s behavior against the norm. Sometimes, seeing your child interact within a group setting the child’s need for help stands out more clearly. Remember, you can’t rescue everyone. Your main objective is to keep your child safe, protected, and healthy.

For more tips, be sure to check out Disciplining Someone Else’s Child

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Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her current book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.

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