‘Bad’ Kid or ‘Bad’ Behavior and How It Shapes a Child’s Self-Esteem

GoodTherapy | 'Bad' Kid or 'Bad' Behavior and How It Shapes a Child’s Self-EsteemI was talking with a new client and he was telling me about his temper when he gets mad and what consequences he receives. As he was talking, he stated, “when I’m bad…” and continued the conversation about his consequences. When he was done, I asked if he thought he was a “bad” kid. He said no. I was glad to hear that because I think overall, we are inherently good. Yes, there are people out there who would fit more in the “bad” category, but that is not what is being addressed.

As parents and disciplinarians, we try to shape our kids to make wise decisions so the negative consequences can be few or needed when necessary. When a kid gets angry and has tantrums and it happens over and over, it can be very frustrating to deal with. When the kid understands the consequence of his behavior but continues to still get angry and throw tantrums, parents may not be sure of what else to do. Parents slip. Teachers slip. The slip is telling the child that he is “bad” even though the behavior that he is doing may be more the focus of “bad.” I do not think that parents or even teachers slip on purpose and telling the kid that he is “bad,” but we are human and make mistakes, and it happens. Repeating this slip impacts the child’s self esteem. Over time, these children may see themselves as “bad” because they keep repeating the “bad” behavior, receiving the consequence, and having parents become frustrated, and a negative self-image begins to form. I know that is not what we as parents want for our kids. We want them to have a good sense of self and know what is “bad” behavior. So, how can this happen?

Here’s an idea: How about getting away from “bad” and “good” behavior. I know it’s hard to do because “good” and “bad” has been around for a very long time; it’s habitual and creating a newer way can be difficult.

What I am suggesting is to name what is “bad.” For example, your child is hitting a younger sibling because the sibling did not want to share a toy with the child. Instead of saying, “that’s bad,” point out that “hitting is bad.” Tell the child, “It’s not okay to hit when you are angry.” When we point out the behavior that is not okay, it helps us to not get into the “good” versus “bad” cycle. Another example: When your child is sitting on the floor and waiting patiently and you tell him “good boy.” Point out the WHAT that he is doing: sitting and waiting patiently. When he knows what he is doing that makes him a “good” boy, he will be able to associate that behavior in other areas and he will know he is doing well.

Objectifying the behavior takes away the “good” or “bad” titles, which decreases the opportunities for us parents to accidentally say that the child is “bad.”

Remember when your child was a baby and you were telling him what type of person he was going to grow up to be? If not, it’s okay. What I am getting at is when a kid is younger, parents may encourage the child a little more than at an older age. We encourage young children to try new foods, feed themselves, and use utensils, and we teach/show them how to do it then praise them for what they learned, even if it may not turn out well. Somehow as the child ages, the cycle of “good” or “bad” begins or replaces the encouraging aspect of parenting. Yes, kids do need to know right from wrong AND they still need to know that they are capable of doing great things.

Objectifying the behavior can help start a different way of helping your child to know how to make healthy choices. Continuing to encourage your child to try new things or to keep trying something can also help. Asking children what they think about their behavior and maybe what they could have done instead to not receive a consequence can also help. The asking can help your child learn how to see the cause and effect of a particular behavior. This can be a great learning and shaping tool for preparing the child to see more cause and effect as he or she ages and matures. Reminding the child that he or she is a wonderful child, has great possibilities, and is loved unconditionally can also reinforce a positive sense of self, regardless of whether the child has made a mistake or chooses wisely.

The goal of parenting is to help shape a child to have a good sense of self, to know how to behave appropriately, and to be able to self correct or recognize when he or she does not make a good choice. When the “bad” behavior is directly addressed, it takes away from parents accidentally slipping and saying that the child is “bad” when the focus needs to be more on the actual behavior.

It takes awareness and practice to create a new way of responding. Hopefully, this article will enlighten and small steps can be made to get out of the good/bad cycle and help the child to still have a good sense of self, even when he or she makes a poor choice.

Related articles:
Temper Tantrum Behaviors
Building Self-Confidence From the Ground Up
Adolescent Consequences, 100% Natural and Organic!

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kelly Sanders, MFT, Child & Adolescent Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jason Frosty

    July 30th, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    Negative attitudes at work and at play can drive consequences that manytimes are irrelevant to our current situation. I have witnessed coworkers that are labeled as poor performers become just that poor performers. I have seen kids labeled as bad that take on that same attitude at church and in the community. I think many times we accidentally label children and adults as bad or other names and then they actually become those names.

  • eliza

    July 30th, 2012 at 11:46 PM

    It can really make a child feelw orthless when you call him bad instead of a behavior.The negative tag is being associated with an individual and the individual is bound to feeel low about it and especially so beccause he is a child.

    It only makes sense to help our children mend themselves and not to treat them like offenders who need to be tagged.

  • Jason Frosty

    July 31st, 2012 at 6:21 PM

    I agree with you eliza in that I think that we need to respond more positively to kids and to adults, I think that would improve our society dramatically.

  • eyePod

    July 31st, 2012 at 7:03 PM

    If theres 1 thing Ive learnt its that u never cal a person bad,always say the idea is not good or the act was not good.preserve human relationship n theres a better chance the person wil improve than if u call him bad!


    August 1st, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    Wow,this is some approach!Its never right to tell a child he is bad but there will be a lot of situations where the child has done wrong.SO I think pointing out in this manner can isolate the behavior from the individual(the child) and hence give him hope that he can be GOOD even after having made a BAD choice.

  • razer

    August 5th, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    So much of what we believe about ourselves, and how good we think that we are, comes directly from how our parents treated us when we were kids.
    If they always chastised you and told you how bad you were being, then guess what? That’s probably the kind of adult that you will become!
    The tricky part is not creating someone who thinks that he is always making bad choices or that always has to have constant praise and attention to think that they are doing something good. Neither way is particularly good for a psyche.

  • Tina

    September 16th, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    Being a parent is tiring and frustrating in between the beautiful moments. It can be hard to be understanding when things get loud with yelling or crying or hitting. It’s true, we do need to notice the “good” things our children do which I find are usually the quietest and hardest to catch.


  • jennifer

    March 14th, 2018 at 12:01 PM

    Thank you very much for helping me doing this to my child.

  • Nancy F.

    October 9th, 2018 at 10:21 AM

    my future has taken offense at me pointing out the term of calling my 13 month grandson bad,whenever he does not do a thing she deems good or well . what should i do?

  • Rossco20

    October 15th, 2018 at 9:17 PM

    When I was a kid my mother continually told me i was bad. Perhaps because she didnt like me , perhaps because i had a twin sister who was her only daughter in a family of 5 kids,I dont know ,but labelling a child can often stay with the kid for years-it did for me . She was often violent with me and my only response was to rebell against that because of the resentment i felt that built up . She died some years ago .I never went to her funeral and in thirty five years prior to that i saw her maybe 5 times .It was kind of like pay back to her.
    All because she got this bee in her bonnet that as a kid i was bad .
    Discipline is good for all kids but constant nagging and negative treatment will cause them to depart from you in more ways than one.
    Love conquers all ,but picking on a kid can leave them dysfunctional , lost and confused and angry at the world for years
    Be careful what you say to your kids -it most assuredly has consequences for them and you

  • Kathleen

    April 22nd, 2020 at 11:49 AM

    I read the article and I agree that telling a child they are bad is not the right way to approach them if they have done something wrong. We need to let them know what they have done wrong and what they could of done instead. An example of asking the children to sit on the carpet and only a few of them do it. Then you can say I like how so and so is sitting on the carpet quietly instead of how good they are. That way they know what they did was the right thing to do.

  • Matthew

    November 9th, 2020 at 7:56 AM

    I’m not a bad boy yet I spent the majority of my childhood getting that from parents, teachers, priests and siblings and then when I found the right psychologist at 58 who was there to help me with my childhood trauma told me I have ADHD. So I got a double whammy that I can now start getting help from. Mom did apologize for what happened but at that point in my life it was rather a bit too little too late.

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