Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

How to Help Your Child Change His Behavior

Dear Joseph,

For the past four years, my son has been training in martial arts and loves it. In the past few months, he has gotten called twice on his “bullying” behavior. The instructor has told us that if there is one more instance of bullying, he will not be allowed back. We don’t want to diminish the importance of respectful behavior or sound like we don’t think this is important. However, we think the instructor sees our son as a “bully” and not as a person who lacks skills and needs training. We want people in his life who will hold him to a high standard—something he can’t get if the answer is just to kick him out.

We are having crucial conversations with our son. He understands why his actions were perceived negatively even though that wasn’t his intention. He wants to keep trying. How do we help the instructor see that our son needs skills and not expulsion?


Dear Expelled,

I’ve got a few thoughts for you regarding my experience with martial arts schools near me. Please understand that I am limited to only the information you have shared and may draw some erroneous conclusions. However, my intent is to be helpful—both through encouragement and challenge.

First, I’m going to make an assumption that a martial arts instructor would not use the term “bullying” if the behavior was subtle. I’ll assume it involved physical aggression of some sort. I’ll also assume the class is relatively small—as most martial arts classes are. You say he has been called out twice for the behavior. If it is a small class that would mean most of the kids would likely have witnessed the behavior on both occasions.

  • 1. Consider Others. I would encourage you to care as much about the other students as you do about your son. Given that the bulk of your note argued for the interests of your son, I worry that you have given less thought to the feelings of the other students and parents who are affected by your son’s behavior. The martial arts instructor has clearly attempted to consider both—otherwise he would have expelled your son after the first instance. He is exposing the other students to the bullying behavior for a third time. You will have little influence with the instructor if your sole interest is the prerogative of your son and not the psychological and physical safety of the rest of the class. I am not suggesting that expulsion is the only right answer. I am simply suggesting that if you want others to care about your interests, you must be willing to commit to securing theirs.
  • 2. Think about what you really want. You seem very focused on ensuring your son does not get kicked out of class. Is that what you really want? Is this about helping him learn about life and consequences or staying in a specific martial arts class? You state that hurting others was “not his intention.” You may be right—but life is not about intentions, it is about actions. And if his actions hurt others, life is about accepting consequences. It could be that the best life lesson to help him become a compassionate and responsible man is for him to lose this opportunity. Are you willing to consider that? If not, then your motives might not be what you think they are.
  • 3. Let him own his own problems. Once again, if your goal is to help him become compassionate and responsible, I suggest you stop trying to solve this problem for him and let him solve it for himself. Having been a martial arts instructor myself, I can tell you I would be far more impressed with a remorseful student asking me how he can regain my trust than with a persistent parent pleading that I overlook his threatening behavior. The best way to help him increase his empathy skills is to let him connect personally with those he has wronged—both the teacher and the other students. Don’t rob him of this growth opportunity by trying to engineer an easy outcome.

I can tell you care deeply about your son. Nothing is more difficult or uncertain in life than determining how best to influence another human being. I wish you the best as you make this important decision.


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19 thoughts on “How to Help Your Child Change His Behavior”

  1. Ralph

    Such a spot on reply. One of the things a good martial arts program does is to teach is to not be a bully because you have a skill that could be used for that purpose. One scenario may be that it’s not a good program which means changing to another school (if that is possible) is an option for consideration or the son is not internalizing the philosophical part of the program where the instructor is already teaching the non-bullying skills that the son is not learning and may not until he suffers the consequences of his actions.

  2. John Shoucair

    The student has been in class for four years, but has been involved in bullying for “the past few months”. I understand the philosophy of your response, but wonder whether there needs to be a root cause analysis to determine a reason for an apparent sudden change.

  3. arie tzvieli

    Dear Joseph,

    I always enjoy and appreciate your responses. Much love to you.
    For the parents – obviously they need to fix themselves first before thinking of fixing the child. And this includes understanding that force is almost always the wrong tool. There is this wonderful story of the person who brought Akido to the us about a skillful response. Find it and read it well.

  4. Doug

    This is one of those letters and response you read that you die to hear the outcome! Great response. Regardless of any assumptions you might make, the feedback is right on track.

    This could turn out to be a great life lesson for the son if he/they follow through.

  5. Bruce Funk

    A core teaching of any martial arts program is control – control of self first, then of someone else if so needed. It sounds like either the son has not learned this (in which case martial arts could be used by him in a very inappropriate way and the parents need to pull him out of this instruction), or has not been taught it (in which case another martial arts instructor is in order). I hope the parents are successful in getting down to the gut issue here – and consider all sides of the issue.

  6. Betsy

    Joseph- You can tell you put a lot of thought into the response and it was written in a very respectful way towards the parents, but with some ideas and thoughts to make the parents think outside of the box. As a parent I agree, it’s hard to sit back and let your child “fight his/her own battles” sometimes, but in the end it is a win for both parents and child if he/she does.

  7. Jan Cohen

    My question is: Is your son a bully in the martial arts class or outside of the martial arts class? It would seem that in the MA class there is someone who could stop (physically) that behavior. Outside of the MA class, such as school, he could be a bully because he has no one that can stand up to him, physically.
    A good MA instructor will know what is going on outside of the DOJO, and be disciplining your son for his life outside of the DOJO.

  8. Rick

    We all live an our worlds of meaning, not a single objective world. So, the first step is to indicate to the instructor that you want to partner with him in the development of your son into a great man. Then ask what specific behaviors he is engaging in that the instructor perceives as bullying and ask for desired behavior choices that would indicate the calm situational awareness and excellence he is looking for.

  9. Heather Kauer

    I am reading your article right after receiving a call that my adult daughter is being kicked out of her living situation because of a series of choices she has made that involve an abusive ex-boyfriend. I have rescued her a couple of times from this young man and she hasn’t seemed to have learned her lesson. I feel like letting her face the consequences of her choices could lead to her living on the street or being killed. Would your response to me be different?

    1. Ann

      If there is a shelter for battered women you might try that. Some of them have counseling and support from other women that might reach her where your advice may not. She’d be safe but not enabled.

      1. Heather Kauer

        Thanks Ann – she has already been in a domestic violence shelter once. The boyfriend was sent to jail and now he’s out. She still thinks there’s a chance he could have changed. How many times will he need to beat her up before she leaves him for good? It’s that kind of situation. And watching her continue that pattern knowing that often these kinds of situations lead to the woman being killed…what do I do as a parent?

        1. Ann

          Sad to say you can only provide a safe living space get her into counseling (if she’ll go) and hope the next time he beats her he won’t kill her but she’ll realize he could have and cut the connection. Hope things go well for her and you.

        2. Shawnda Behrns

          Heather, to me, reading this paragraph is like you’ve written a paragraph for my personal memoirs. As a previous victim of DV, I can unfortunately tell you that all you can do is make yourself available if she ever decides to leave.

          If you try to push her into leaving him, you’ll likely only push her away. DV is an incredibly complex problem and it’s never as easy as “why doesn’t she just leave”.

          I went back to my b/f after the courts put him in jail after an altercation with me. I can’t tell you the guilt I felt about him going to jail “because of me”. I know now that’s not the case, but in that time, I felt I had let him down.

          The emotional and psychological impact of being in an abusive situation is overwhelming at times. Many people tried to help me and get me out of the relationship, but until I truly believed in my soul that he was going to kill me if I didn’t leave, I kept trying.

          I did get free, it was the best decision of my life and I know for a fact I would have died had I stayed. I say this not to further frighten you about your daughter’s situation, but maybe to help you see that sometimes, we do see the truth and find the ability to break free.

          I encourage you to do as much research as you can into the psychology of abuse victims. I know it’s frustrating to watch a family member make horrible and dangerous choices over and over again, but all you can do is provide unwavering support and do your best not to judge.

          1. Heather Kauer

            Thanks Shawnda. I’m sorry you went through that and the fact that you got out of it is encouraging. My question in this context is about providing consequences, especially financial ones. If she keeps asking us to help her pay for emergency housing or food or transportation as a result of her choices around this, what should we do? On the one hand, DV can isolate you so you don’t have many friends. Her family may be the only ones she can turn to in the end. But, she is in need of emergency resources because she keeps making the choices she makes. Are we enabling her to keep making those choices? Is enabling defined in the same way when you’re dealing with someone who is addicted to substances vs “addicted” to another person? It’s a real moral dilemma for me because allowing natural consequences to take their course could mean death. Death could be the “natural consequence.” And if that’s the case, tough love doesn’t seem to be the right approach.

  10. Mark

    We raised a very bright but ‘difficult’ son through many trials. He was expelled from band, which he loved dearly, his tennis team, also dear to him, and was finally sent to alternative school after being threatened with it year after year. Knowing our son as we did, we always connected with the teachers and coaches to let them know we we’re doing our part, but also that we understood their dilemmas. Our son learned something from each of these trials, especially the last one and has started his senior year in college. He is growing into a well adjusted young man and we couldn’t be more proud of him. Sometimes the hard lessons are the ones that stick.

  11. James Brown

    Even though Joseph correctly points out that there are things the parents need to consider as they attempt to help their son, as a martial arts instructor married to a middle school teacher I would like to applaud the parents for thinking of a crucial conversation as a good tool. Too many parents are not willing to see that their child did in fact bully others. While these parents have got some work to do at least they see that there is a problem – the question didn’t ever say that the son was falsely accused or some other excuse. As a parent you can do a lot worse than to be willing to ask Joseph for some assistance.

  12. JoAnn Grif Alspach

    Terrific reply to what sounds like a hovering parent attempting to rescue a child whose behavior likely needs correction. I appreciate both your direct address of issues as well as your candor and agree that helicopter parents deprive children of fine opportunities to learn and mature. I don’t know the boy’s age, but hope it is young so he has not yet learned that behaving badly brings no negative consequences.

  13. Leigh Anna

    Really enjoyed the response – perfectly crafted without assumption while taking a look at the full situation. Having 2 teens, it has me reflect on some of my decisions and dealings with my kids.

  14. Dani

    This is the best response to one of these questions that I’ve seen. As a parent I know I’d have a hard time taking this advice, but I totally agree that children have to learn that bad behavior (whether intended or not) has consequences and making excuses for them essentially ensures they will never learn that lesson.

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