In parenting, it can be difficult to figure out what to do when your child behaves in ways that you don’t like, or can’t seem to accomplish what you’ve asked of them. Difficult is one word for it—maddening may be more accurate. Based on my family therapy work with kids of all ages, I am going to share with you the singular best piece of parenting advice that I know. It works across age groups and with many different problems that parents encounter. It’s less of a specific action parents need to take, and more of a mindset, one that allows you to approach your children in a calmer, more effective way. Are you ready to hear it?

Here goes: The key to good parenting practices is to set the stage for the behaviors that you want your children to engage in. Instead of focusing only on the end result (whether or not they clean their room or wake up for school on time or whatever you’ve asked them to do), think of yourself as the producer of a play or movie—you bring all the pieces together, but it’s up to the actors (your kids) to execute the show.  Instead of constantly worrying about the outcome, carefully consider the process that you’re using to get there. Put your energy into helping your kids succeed, and giving them the space to make the right choices. This in turn allows you to focus on what you can control in this situation (the tools you give your kids to succeed) rather than focusing your energy on what you can’t actually control (the choices your children ultimately make). So how do you do this?

Get Curious

Often, when parents first bring kids into family therapy, they express concern that their child or teen won’t talk to me. The truth is it is extremely rare for a kid to actually refuse to talk to me. And this isn’t because of some Jedi therapy trick, it’s mostly because I actually listen to them. Often, I think parents believe they’re listening to their children, but in reality they’re speaking for them or trying to force a response, or endlessly lecturing. Instead, when a child seems to be struggling with completing a task you’ve asked of them or has difficulty demonstrating a behavior that you expect, ask them why they’re struggling with it and actually listen. Encourage them to think the problem through, which is a key skill they need to develop for the long term. Even young children often have ideas about why they haven’t been able to do what you’ve asked. You may very well be surprised when you listen to your kids’ answers.

Get on Their Level (i.e. parent the kid you have)

Much like we bend down to talk to someone small, we also have to ensure that our expectations of kids’ behaviors have adjusted to match their abilities. When your child repeatedly fails at a task or a behavior that you have requested of them, despite appropriate consequences, this is a signal to you that they cannot do it on their own. This could be a school aged kid who fails to get their homework done, or a teenager who can’t seem to make it home by curfew. Regardless of the age, their inability to do what you have asked is an indication they are not ready for the responsibility of getting this task done in the current conditions. Get curious with them (see above), and then consider what structure needs to be put in place to help them accomplish what they’re supposed to do.


Get Their Buy In

Let’s face it, virtually no kid wants to clean their room or do their homework or keep their hands off candy in the grocery store (frankly, many of us adults struggle with these same tasks!)  But as much as possible, encourage your child to take ownership of whatever the problem is. You can do this by setting clear expectations and consequences, and then encouraging them to figure out how to get there.  In other words, taking into account their age and ability, avoid laying out every single aspect of how they should complete a task or behavior–give them a bit of space to figure it out on their own.  Encourage them to talk it through with you.  This helps them feel that sense of ownership, as opposed to feeling you are simply exerting your will on them.


As a parent, you want to help your child be successful, both at home and outside it. Ironically, however, getting stuck on the end result of their behavior can cause us to lose track in how to help them get there. Instead, turn your attention to the process, set the stage for them to succeed, and encourage them to take ownership in their choices.


Want more great parenting tips?  Check out the Confidence Club, our social skills group for kids!