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How can I help my son with his behavior issues and defiance?


​My son is 9 years old and having some behavioral issues. He refuses to go to school, do his work, curses, calls me and his grandmother names, hits me, has pulled a knife on his grandmother, etc. I have him in weekly counseling, and he is on medication for depression and anxiety. All he wants to do is play video games. He doesn't want to leave the house, and his hygiene is terrible. I just don't know what to do. I am a single mom who works fulltime and right now I have him doing online learning. My mom is helping him but that is a nightmare, and it is not a long-term solution. I have him seeing a counselor, psychiatrist and the school guidance counselor as well as his pediatrician. They are all aware of what is going on with him. He has not been officially diagnosed with anything. He has been tested for ADHD. I just don't know what to do. I am afraid for him, afraid for my mom and afraid of losing my job. COVID and not being able to be around people has been terrible for my son's emotional well-being. Any advice, resources, suggestions, etc. you can provide would be greatly appreciated. I am holding on by a string here.


boy on ipad

Thank you for emailing in today. You are right. This has been a very difficult year with the pandemic and other issues that have rocked our nation. It has affected adults and children alike. The emotions your son typically deals worth certainly may have intensified during this period. It does sound like you have a plan in place for him, but nothing seems to be working. If he is posing a physical threat to you or your mother or anyone in the household is in imminent danger, a call to 911 would be appropriate.

If he has been working with a counselor for a long time and you have seen no improvement, you might ask his counselor if he or she feels like your son needs to be working with a behavioral therapist. If he had a diagnosis, often a more specific treatment plan can be developed and put in place. Without one, it can be hard to determine if it is a child's behaviors and choices that are the problem or if there is an underlying mental health issue. Your son's early history can even play a part in his current behaviors.

You've identified refusing school, refusing homework, cussing, being physically aggressive and not taking care of his hygiene as some of his misbehaviors. Other than the outside professional help, we do not know what strategies you have tried at home with him. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to pick out the two most concerning misbehaviors and work with him to get in the habit of changing those behaviors by making privileges based on good behavior.

Identifying a gaming unit as something he often plays with shows it is meaningful to him. Those games are a privilege, and they can be removed if he is refusing to participate in school/homework or take a shower. Not being able to have access to the gaming unit might motivate him to change his behavior. There does not need to be an argument, raised voices or discussion about it. Ahead of time, share with him what those two misbehaviors (let's say you choose school and hygiene) look like now, what your expectations for positive behavior are going forward and stress to your son that these positive behaviors are what can earn him playing time on the game unit – and that misbehaviors will lead to not being able to use the game unit. 

You can make up your own list of expected, positive behaviors but here's some examples of what you might include for the two behaviors:


  • Wake up 30 minutes before school starts
  • Eat breakfast, brush teeth and get dressed
  • Be at your desk with the computer on and ready for school on time
  • Engage in class and participate
  • No outside electronics during school hours
  • Homework must be done, reviewed and submitted to Mom by a certain time


  • Shower every night after dinner
  • Use soap and water on full body
  • Use small handful of shampoo on hair
  • Rinse body thoroughly
  • Dry off
  • Put dirty clothes in laundry
  • Brush teeth
  • Check-in with Mom

If you would like to discuss additional options or are looking for Boys Town services, please do not hesitate to call the Boys Town Hotline at 1-800-448-3000. Any of the Crisis Counselors would be happy to visit with you or look for local referrals for you as well. Boys Town's nationally known parenting classes are now being offered online too. The service is called Common Sense Parenting® and is full of tips and suggestions in dealing with adolescents and helping to change misbehaviors.