“My child misbehaves so much that I don’t even know where to start!” This is one of the most common things we hear on the Parental Support Line, and it’s an understandable problem. Many parents tell me they feel overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious when dealing with their child or teen’s acting out behavior; they wonder how they’ll be able to tackle so many issues at once. But here’s a secret: thinking about the problem in this way will only make you feel defeated before you even start.

James Lehman says: “Start where your child is and coach them forward.” In other words, build on your child’s strengths and keep your expectations reasonable. We also recommend that you not try to tackle everything at once, but pick one or two behaviors you want to change and then move on from there. Remember, your overall goal is to see your child make improvements—it’s not simply to have your child do what you tell them to do.

If you feel completely overwhelmed by your child’s behavior problems, here are 8 tips to help you focus on changing your child’s behavior, step by step.

1. Try to Have Reasonable Goals

I think that many times instead of trying to make gradual changes, parents expect that all the inappropriate behavior will stop immediately. The truth is, you might see certain behaviors stop right away, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will never act out again. It’s not going to be instantaneous, and it will take just as much practice on your part as it does on your child’s part. Change takes time. It’s not just you who needs time practicing new techniques. Your child also needs to practice so he can learn by repetition. The reason you want to ask for reasonable change is because your child cannot make major changes all at once.

2. Coaching Your Child Forward: Know What His Strengths Are

It’s important to have a good idea of what your child is capable of doing. Here’s an example: Some kids have an issue like ADD or ADHD. It’s important to get a really good understanding of what ADHD looks like in your child. Is it hard for him to focus and stay organized? Maybe he daydreams when he’s supposed to be working. Every child is different, and it’s important for you to modify your expectations accordingly. It’s also important for your child to know what his strengths and weaknesses are so he can recognize when he’s getting off track and learn how to get back on. After determining what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, understand that he will make improvements from that starting point.

I’ve seen kids who are defiant or oppositional completely throw in the towel because they’re not capable of doing what you’re asking, particularly in relation to school work. That’s why it’s extremely important to find out what your child’s abilities are and begin right there. That’s one of the most important steps in making sure your expectations are reasonable.

3. Keep in Mind That Your Child is Working Toward a Goal

Accept that your child is working toward a goal. In other words, your child is probably not going to be able to stop his inappropriate behavior on a dime. If your teen is in the habit of getting his way by intimidating others in the family with his angry outbursts, understand that this behavior is not going to go away immediately. Work with him on making small steps toward good behavior. You might say, “You need to give me your cell phone for the next two hours until you can behave and talk appropriately.” The key is that during that time, your child is practicing this new skill. You’re not saying, “That’s it—you’ve lost your phone all day.” Many kids struggle with punishments that last too long and end up giving up halfway through. Instead, you want to have short-term goals throughout the day. Work toward short-term accomplishments and successes all day long.

4. Pick One Behavior to Work on at a Time

When I ask parents what they’d like to start working on with their child, many say general things like, “I just want my kid to listen to me,” or “I want my teen to do what I ask him to do when I ask him.” I think it’s very important to pick a specific behavior to start with and a time of day when it should be accomplished. When you’re just beginning to use the techniques in the Total Transformation Program, it’s important to put some structure in your child’s schedule or else you’re too likely to get into a power struggle with him each time you ask him to stop what he’s doing and do what you want. Choose a concrete behavior, such as doing homework daily, or being home at curfew, instead of working on your child’s attitude. You might feel concerned because you’re letting other behaviors slide when you focus on just one, but realize that your child is actually learning skills when he changes one behavior at a time—skills that he will be able to use in all situations going forward. Primarily, he is learning how to do what he doesn’t feel like doing, and that there will be a consequence if he behaves inappropriately. Make no mistake, a lot is happening when you choose one behavior at a time and work solely on it.

5. Start with Physical Behavior

Many parents ask, “Where do I start?” I always recommend that you begin with physical behavior first. It could be a safety issue, like your child sneaking out of the house at night. Many parents will say that back talk is the biggest thing they’re dealing with. It’s really hard for them to tolerate, and that’s natural. But if your child is not coming home at night, I suggest putting backtalk aside for a bit and focusing on making sure he’s safe and complying with house rules regarding curfew.

Physical behavior can also apply to kids who act out and are destructive or abusive at home. If your child is punching holes in the walls or intimidating his siblings physically, you want to start there. We recommend that you adopt James’ philosophy of, “There’s no excuse for abuse” in your family. Let your kids know there will be stern consequences for their actions and follow through on them.

A lot of parents will avoid tackling these big issues because it’s easier to pick something small than it is to address the big scary things. But if it’s a health or safety concern I don’t think you have any choice—that should always come first.

6. Can’t Decide Which Behavior to Tackle First? Get Some Help

There are some instances where you may be forced to deal with two behaviors at the same time. Let’s say your child talks back to you while you’re trying to help him complete his homework assignment, and you’re not sure which behavior to address first. This is where the Total Transformation Parental Support Line can be really helpful. We can help you determine, based on your child and what his overall behavior is like, what the best issue is to address first. We can tell you what technique to really focus on and which ones to set aside for later—and we’ll help you come up with a practical strategy.

7. If Your Child Doesn’t Seem to be Making Enough Progress…

A common stumbling block for parents is when they feel as if their child isn’t making enough progress. But remember, the goal is that your child improves—not that they will listen to you 100% of the time. It’s very different.

Sometimes you can change that by changing your parenting techniques and the house rules. Power struggles between you and your child will usually cause him to dig in and not cooperate. Putting more structure into place is sometimes necessary. You might say, “You have to do your chores Saturday morning if you want to go out Saturday night. Get started at 10:00 a.m.”

At other times, your child might be having real difficulty making improvements. James Lehman says we have to “parent the child we have and not the child we wish we had.” He reminds us that our kids are unique individuals. This brings us back to the importance of determining your child’s capabilities—again, be sure that what you’re asking of your child is reasonable.

8. Don’t Take It Personally

Many parents also get trapped in wanting their kids to feel a certain way. They want their kids to care about cleaning their room or to care about the effect doing homework will have on their future. The truth is, it’s not your child’s fault; he’s really not wired to feel that way yet. The important thing is not that your child cares, it’s that he learns how to do things even if he doesn’t feel like doing them. This is a huge life skill.

When you’re working to have your child’s behavior change, try to pay attention to what it looks like rather than what your child is saying. James says to ask yourself, “What would I see if I were watching this on television with the sound turned down? What would my child’s behavior look like right now?” I think this is a really good way to visualize what behavior is when you’re having a hard time separating it from what your child says or feels. Just ask yourself, “What is my child doing?”

Let’s say the sound is turned down and you see your teenager fighting with you, then he’s stomping off to clean his room. He may be sullen and have a bad attitude, but he’s also doing what you asked. Work on the behavior first, and the attitude will come. James says, “Don’t feel your way to better behavior; behave your way to better feelings.” And that’s exactly what you want your child to do.

Sometimes in parenting, it really is “two steps forward, one step back.” But remember, even if that’s the case, you are still moving forward. Yes, your child will challenge you. He’ll come back and test you to see if things have really changed; he’ll see if he can get you to go back to the way you used to be, particularly if he was calling all the shots. But stand your ground and eventually his behavior will change. One way to stay encouraged is to remember where your child started and compare it to the progress he’s made. It’s also important to encourage your child when this happens. Keep saying things like, “I know you can make improvements because you have already done it. Keep at this.”

My Child’s Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin? is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents.

Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.