Does a chaotic home create behavior problems?

I often read parenting books to check out new or interesting theories on child rearing and recently I’ve been working on “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.”

Alan Kazdin, Ph.D, is the director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic and has some interesting methods for shaping children’s behavior. One tiny aspect of the book that I wanted to discuss today was how much household chaos could contribute to behavior problems.

Here is what he writes in the book:

“Household chaos, believe it or not, has been studied by scientists, who define it as a set of conditions: a household high in noise in activity and low in regular activities, routines and rituals. It’s a matter of degree of course. All households with children in them can feel chaotic at times. So when we talk about household chaos as a condition, we mean a little more movement and activity around the house; a little less knowledge of where everyone is or transportation, and other logistics; a little less predictability when it comes to even the most basic activities.”

He says that chaos cuts across economic and social classes.

“I have learned that you can actually hear chaos over the phone. When I call a parent in a chaos-filled home from my clinic, the experience is almost stunning and more than a little sad. When the parent answers, the background noise is so thick and vibrant that it sounds as if somebody, perhaps the director a new reality show called “Families Gone Wild,” had gathered everyone in the home and instructed to cut loose on cue. There’s shouting, a cacophony of video game noises, rapid-fire requests from a child to the parent to whom I am speaking, a crying infant, an adolescent yelling…. “

“The main recommendation coming out of the research is to develop more routines: regular, repeated, predictable, reliable activities that individuals in the home usually perform as a group.”

He goes on to say they don’t necessarily have to be daily activities. They can be weekly or monthly just as long as they are regular.

And he also doesn’t mean scheduling every second of time in a day. Kids need times to roam in a house and explore their toys or just daydream.

I am a little bothered by his phone call test to look for chaos. I think there needs to be a standard for  HOW OFTEN he calls and finds that the parent can’t talk because of business in the house. Also I think he should have to call at different times – maybe he is hitting in the homework/dinner hour when most house are crazy. I am a little sensitive with this test because I know there are times where I would have failed this test  — but not all the time!

After reading this book, I have tried to institute more routines at home. Lilina used to bust bedtime all the time but now with her being in preschool three days a week, everyone goes to bed at the same time no matter what. Also we’re doing homework as soon as walk in (after a small snack but no TV or computer until homework is done). Our activities are at about the same time each day.

I was trying to institute a two-week dinner rotation just to make things easier on me and simple for them but I haven’t pulled that off yet. I have a hard time locking myself in on meals. But we do serve close to the same time each night.

So what do you think about Kazdin’s theory of household chaos adding to behavior problems? Do you see this in your own home? Would you pass the phone call test? What type of routines do you have? Do you think you have too many?

43 comments Add your comment


August 25th, 2011
7:07 am

Bad genetics. Something about an apple and a tree comes to mind.

They all act like a-holes because they are a-holes.

How exactly does he propose that these “activities” are implemented when in all-liklihood the parents are just as responsible for the chaos as the kids? His reccomendations seem to me like they could only be implemented in a household that was sane to begin with.


August 25th, 2011
8:08 am

Good one Jarvis. Most of the time the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Occasionally, a kid turns out disfunctional all by themselves when the family is very structured and stable. Just like occasionally a child pulls themselves out of the gutter of their family to accomplish great things. But, the vast majority of the time, the apple/tree holds true. Simple statistical bell curve.

But as parents, all we can do is the best we are personally capable of doing.


August 25th, 2011
8:21 am

What’s a two week dinner rotation?


August 25th, 2011
8:39 am

I most definately concur with this. Another thing you will see is no responsibility for family maintainance parceled out to the children (ie no regular, age-appropriate chores), or, occasionally, all the responsibility for it falls on one child, frquently the oldest female.

At school we can tell which children come from this sort of home. These are kids that think “the rules” or the classroom procedures change from moment to moment, depending on who they ask. They fail to understand that things that are not okay on Monday are also not okay on Tuesday, because in their home things vary from day to day and moment to moment.

These don’t have to be single-parent homes, although they are frequently homes where one parent (the mother usually) has too much responsibility for managing everything, and the father is either physically absent or not much a part of the parenthood duo, perhaps with the excuse of “he works hard and has to rest”. Many times drugs or alcohol are also present, and there is frequently a great deal of resentment/anger present.

I guess I am surprised that this is a surprise, but many people believe that the way things go at their homes is the way things go at all other homes.


August 25th, 2011
8:43 am

I agree about the apple and tree but I guess I am thinking in a different mode. Am I missing something?

As a teacher and also consultant, I am all about routines. I was very strict about this when my children were in Preschool and relaxed as they got older. Now, they have to find their own way.

I have seen chaotic classrooms and, to me, they are typically led by teachers who do not understand having a game plan. I often share tips on how to be more efficient in the classroom and to set clear expectations. Children will typically step up to an arena that is shared with a consistent and firm voice. I marvel at some of the ways teachers get their students to respond. It is sometimes very creative!

I work with different children each day and some teachers mention their students are so much better behaved for me. I have also had parents ( while teaching) that were amazed at how their child was so different in my classroom than at home.

Random days on end, can be very frustrating to both children and adults. Children will act out.

I use this analogy…

If you take the same route to work for years ( whether 15 minutes or 1 hour) and you know exactly where to go, then one day the road is closed for construction and and you know you will be very late as you do not know which way you should now go and you are caught up in traffic. What happens? You will get frustrated! Some will curse, some will yell, some will call their employer and complain that it is NOT their fault, some will even cause an accident with erratic driving.


Yes, children need advance notice and something predictable. Adults, who get paid at the same time each month will also fret if they are told, ” I know it is pay day today but we are not getting paid today. You WILL have your check within the next 5 days.” What would you do?

No family is perfect. When mine were small there WERE some phone calls that needed to be taken in the bathroom, as it was close to a circus at our house. Thankfully,this was not often.


August 25th, 2011
8:48 am

JJ…two weeks of meals with a menu of something different every day, then rotate. You know EXACTLY what you have to buy at the store ( no roaming and looking around….saves time) and most likely how much it would cost. You do not have to fret about what is for dinner, as you will know. I do not do this but I know those who like it!

here is a one week example:

tacos, spaghetti, grilled chicken, hamburgers, pork chops, fish, pizza, steak…REPEAT


August 25th, 2011
8:53 am

What does: Lilina used to bust bedtime all the time, mean?
and what is a 2 week dinner rotation?

Obviously this is true, if kids get to be crazy and uncontrolled at home, they are going to be crazy and uncontrolled every where all the time.


August 25th, 2011
8:57 am

@ Peachy…bust…try to break the bedtime rule and stay up longer?


August 25th, 2011
9:01 am

MJG – I am very organized when it comes to planning menus. I have never heard of a two week rotation, by having the same thing twice in two weeks…….I don’t like that.

I sit down every Sunday and plan my weekly menu. I grab the Publix flyer and see what’s on sale and go from there. I have SO many cookbooks and two recipe boxes full of recipes……there’s never any need for a two week rotation at my house. Plus we grill out with the neighbors on Sunday and I usually cook a couple of things for later in the week. Just last night we had leftover chicken rolls we grilled on Sunday. I very rarely serve the same thing twice in a month!


August 25th, 2011
9:16 am

It’s a shame that modern parents can not be more like their parents and grandparents. How in the hell did they manage to have children, educate them, and mold them into adults without having some book to lean on? Geez…


August 25th, 2011
9:22 am

I read about the two week menu thing a long time ago. Apparently, studies show that most families routinely have the same 8-10 meals on a regular basis. I would have said that I don’t but, when I thought about it, I pretty much do. I still never implemented the menu thing, but I think it’s a great idea. Am I the only one who ever walks into a grocery store and thinks “what the hell do I usually cook”? Seriously, sometimes I can’t think of anything to make, even though I cook at least 4 nights a week.

On topic.. this is another…duh.. one to me. Obviously chaotic families will produce chaotic, undisciplined children. Wish I could say that I had one of those households that ran consistently in sync but we definitely have our moments of chaos. Our rules and daily routines are pretty consistent and our weekly routines are very stable. We just get off track when I have to work late. When this happens and the consistency breaks, I can see the effects on the kids and the household.

I’m sure I have failed the phone test once or twice but, I have always worked from home, so my kids are pretty trained to keep quiet if I’m on a “non-personal” call. If they are not I have been known to completely ignore the chaos and let them physically maim each other while I calmly walk outside and take my call. Ever seen the Netflix commercial “Mommy’s making a commercial!!”. That is so me.


August 25th, 2011
9:26 am

JJ…I do not do a two week rotation either but some folks like it and it works for them! From what you have shared, you love to cook and can plan some delicious meals too! I was not criticizing you.

FYI…some people have a two week rotation of clothes to wear to work, with a few extra outfits for dress and casual. Some people are more structured than that….it’s called a uniform and they wear the same thing every day. LOL

I might do well with the two week clothes rotation, as I could purge my closet and get rid of the things I rarely wear but hold fond memories.

How bad is this…I try not to keep stuff but I have my daughter’s kindergarten towel that she used to take naps. She is 19. I got rid of all the old towels and brought them to our dog groomer ( hint they take anything). I cannot do it with this towel. Should I?

Jesse's Girl

August 25th, 2011
9:28 am

I don’t read any of this dribble. I have purchsed one parenting book in my life….the obligatory What to Expect When you’re Expecting. Having kids is crazy. Having mulitple kids….crazier. Having multiple kids with schedules and extracurricular activities…prozac territory. You deal. Some days are better than others. Some days you leave for Publix and seriously entertain the notion of never returning. I am FRIGHTENED of the home and the folks in it that have their kids on an unfailing routine…kids who are always quiet and polite…kids who respect the fact that you’re on the phone EVERY SINGLE TIME….these are the people that give me pause. Sometimes chaos reigns. And its those days that you sit your tired ass down on the couch at 9pm with a glass of wine and thank God no one was killed. Then you try for a better day tomorrow. Screw books…..they play on parents’ insecurities.


August 25th, 2011
9:29 am

My point was that his advice, while the routine make sense, is targeted to an audience most-likely won’t or can’t implement it.

It’s like telling a serial killer, “You know, you can stop killing people if you stop relating sex to physical power.”


August 25th, 2011
9:29 am

@homeschooler…I thought I could put goofy hat on my head when I was taking a business call and tell my kids, ” If I am wearing the hat DO NOT TALK TO ME OR EVEN GET NEAR ME!”
Yes, I have taken a few calls outside too!


August 25th, 2011
9:31 am

I think his basic premise is true. I fear, however, that this could lead some parents to use it to justify running a militaristic household. Routine is good and important. Too much structure, however, can cause other problems.


August 25th, 2011
9:37 am

Amen Jesse’s Girl!!!!

we do the best we can. Sometimes it is chaotic, sometimes it is not.

My theory is that the chaotic times teach our child how to adjust and deal with change. Perhaps those of us who lived thru some chaos at home, are better able to cope in the real world when we become adults. Let’s be real,………life is not on a routine schedule.


August 25th, 2011
9:51 am

@ the teachers on this blog. Do you ever feel that the families with too much structure. Kids who have no wiggle room at all at home, are worse in the classroom? I ask because I see families who are so strict on their children at home, it seems that the kids go nuts when the are not under their parents’ thumb. I visit homes (for DFCS) where the kids are consistently getting in trouble at school but their parents have no behavior problems at home. These are typically homes where the kids are not permitted to get out of line. Usually there is physical and/or harsh discipline in the home that, of course, would never be permitted at school. I also personally know a lot of military/law enforcement families where the kids are very in line at home but seem to be difficult for others (teachers, friends, etc..) to manage. I always said I didn’t care how my kids act at home as long as they behave for others. Basically, I got what I wished for. My kids are usually good for me but are ALWAYS good for others. My grandmother was a teacher and she always said (teachers kids and preachers kids) meaning they were the most difficult to deal with. Are the expectations at home so great that the kids need to just “let it out” when they are away? Just wondering.


August 25th, 2011
10:09 am

@ home… I once had a child who was petrified to fingerpaint. I could not get him to even attempt it. I tried pudding painting and thought he might like that! NO! His Dad was a surgeon and I was told that he was VERY picky about cleanliness.

We are all about having fun and being goofy but my own two know where I draw the line…even as adults. We can be very silly and loud but we can buckle down too. I sometimes meet kids who are overwhelmed with noise ( could be a sensory issue too but not all of them I see). They cannot just let loose and enjoy the enthusiasm of an early childhood classroom with clapping, singing, stomping and wiggling. Perhaps their home life is rigid and quiet?

My Mother always said that she once heard this:
Nurses have the messiest houses and teachers have the worst children.
My sister is a nurse and I am a teacher. That rule did not apply to us. LOL! Not much of what my Mom said did. She also told me I would never be able to keep my own check book and balance it.
HELLO…I have my own business!


August 25th, 2011
10:11 am

MJG – Tried this twice before, maybe it will work this time.

About 2 pounds beef cut into 1″ cubes
1-2 onions – chopped
4-5 potatoes – chopped
1.5 (or more if you like a little heat) teaspoons paprika
.5 teaspoon dry mustard
Little salt
Little pepper
Little flour (for a roux)
Little brown sugar (added with the wet ingredients)
Worcestershire sauce
1 big can diced tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1.5 cups water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Egg noodles

Brown meat with spices
Add onion and cook down
Add flour and make roux
Add everything else (besides noodles) and cook for about 2 hours maybe 2.5
Serve it over the noodles


August 25th, 2011
10:13 am

My mom was a nurse and I can guarantee you our home was NEVER dirty…….that gene was passed to my brother, but I didn’t get the neat freak gene. My home is clean, but I’m not obsessed with it. There are way too many other things that are more important. Like spending quality time with my child…..and my animals and the neighbors, and my girlfriends, etc….LOL…


August 25th, 2011
10:26 am

@Me, what the hell are you talking about? Dr. Spock wrote a parnting book in 1946. It has sold over 50 million copies.

For future reference, every time someone makes a comment on this blog about how different things are now vs. 100 years ago in terms of parenting and children….you can count on me to refute it.


August 25th, 2011
10:33 am

I have read lots of books on parenting. Some are insightful and some are not. Kind of like cookbooks to me…. some recipes will work for us and some will not:

we cannot find the correct ingredients
we cannot afford the correct ingredients
we do not like the correct ingredients
we thought it would ( correctly) look like the picture in the cookbook …but on OUR table it looked very different…maybe it was the dish we place it in….hahaha!

Anyone else?


August 25th, 2011
10:49 am

Homeschooler, I think sometimes when parents are overly harsh/strict, kids learn to behave well primarily out of fear rather than by developing their own desire to be good or please adults. They see no reason to be good when no one is scaring the crap out of them. Kids from a disciplined, but not harsh, home, I think have a better sense within themselves of right and wrong and are more comfortable testing their parents by being brats from time to time than acting up in front of others (much like other embarrassing behaviors, like running around in underwear, that they might do in front of family but not outsiders). They develop their own appropriate internal sense of shame rather than depending on harsh external sources to keep them line.


August 25th, 2011
10:52 am

Isn’t every home chaotic on some days? If not you’re either not living or far too rigid! As with all things, balance is key. Routines DO help kids with behavior and learning, but kids also need to learn to cope (and perhaps even enjoy) when the routine is broken and the day or the class has gone “off the map.” Learning to roll with the punches is a key survival skill!

I can tell a behavior difference whenever we have a chaotic period of time at home -a week where too much got planned or we had several guests and special events and we’re all running around like crazy! Provide the routine that is helpful and workable for your family. For us it’s morning and bedtime. I plan meals, but we like to try new things, so I would never do this two week rotation thing.

Tiger Ochocinco Mellencamp

August 25th, 2011
11:18 am

Ahhhh..the never ending quest for parental validation continues.

You’ve picked apart all the reasons why his phone call test should not be applicable, yet it is still bothers you because you know you would at times “fail” a test you’ve already determined is substandard.

When will you stop looking out to all the “experts” who say how you should be parenting and start looking in to yourself and have the confidence to know what is right and wrong for you and your family?


August 25th, 2011
11:31 am

I grew up with a household of 10 kids, Mom and Dad..There was never any type of routine in our house..My Mom worked (crazy hours) to support us, my Dad was drunk most all the time..So out of six girls, one turned out bad..Out of four boys,three turned out bad..

I have a coworker that grew up in a house packed to the gills with routine..One girl, still lives at home with her Mom, one brother that is a lawyer, two brothers that are mostly wortheless..

So, guess I agree with Robin..We do the best we can..ANd let teh peices fall where they may..


August 25th, 2011
12:22 pm

I think it depends on the kind of chaos. I taught in a low income area for many years and saw the effects of bad chaos on kids. Fighting, moving a lot, boyfriends coming and going, alcohol, drugs etc. is the kind of chaos that causes extreme stress in children. That stress creates behavior problems, learning problems, emotional problems, etc. We focused a lot in my school on creating non-chaotic, stress-free classroom environments for our students to try to relieve some of their stress and get them in the right frame of mind for learning. When they got to school they needed to feel safe and loved and not experience a lot of stressful situations.


August 25th, 2011
12:43 pm

I’ve only taught kids from 2 overly-regimented (in my opinion) homes in these nearly 4 decades (that I am aware of.) They had their problems, but were not scattered and disorganized.


August 25th, 2011
12:56 pm

@Jarvis — refute whatever you wish. I’m quite certain my great-grandmother, born in 1884, probably did not read a Dr. Spock parenting book written in 1946. And, just because the books are written by educated and well-meaning individuals does not a perfect solution make.


August 25th, 2011
1:00 pm

I don’t think this question even needs to be asked. Of course chaos breeds behavioral problems..and those behavior problems bring more chaos. Endless cycle.


August 25th, 2011
1:30 pm

@ me…did most people even own books in 1884? We have so many more tools now but some people do not choose to use them. Toothbrushes were not even available then but I,for one, am thankful we have them today! IMHO there is never a one sized fits all solution but it is good to open your ears and eyes to listen and see what is working. Not always easy for me to do all the time either.


August 25th, 2011
1:53 pm

I wasn’t claiming that anything from the book was credible. I’ve never read it.
But the claim that no generations before the current one read self-help or parenting books is preposterous.

There seems to be this notion that the world used to be smarter,more caring, and harder working than it is today. My guess is that people have been having that exact same notion since the dawn of civilization.

It’s crap. You’re now the people saying, “When I was a kid…” or “Back in my day….” or “These kids today”….

Human nature doesn’t change. Some people just have shorter memories than others.


August 25th, 2011
2:02 pm

Well said, jarvis.


August 25th, 2011
2:34 pm

MJG – see yesterday’s post for some insight on your mac and cheese conundrum.

Uh, motherjane......

August 25th, 2011
2:55 pm

…your “traffic” illustration, while good, is not valid for Atlanta readers, since, if on’e main route is closed here, EVERYONE takes whatever alternate route there is, thus making the “it’s not my fault” excuse to the boss valid. However, if there is advanced warning that the routes will be closed, then it is incumbent upon said drivers to LEAVE HOME MUCH EARLIER in order to takw the necessary detour in order to be on time and not have an excuse for their lateness…

And, I am one of those who rotates their clothes so that I do not wear the same thing during the same week…


August 25th, 2011
2:58 pm

@ jarvis..I absolutely see your point but many things that are being done in classrooms, by children today, were not on the agenda when I was in elementary school. As others have said, if you got in trouble at school, you got in double trouble when you got home. Not happening as much today as the parents will come in and defend their precious and/or blame the teachers…one reason why they have monitors on school buses or at least cameras. We even have a video camera at our neighborhood pool, as some kids were vandalizing the pool and their parents claimed it most certainly was not them ( even though the keyed admittance showed them coming in after the pool was closed and they were the only ones inside the locked gate). Hence…the cameras.


August 25th, 2011
3:07 pm

@ uh…since I go to a different location every day it has happened to me several times. I was talking more about self frustration (for being late) when chaos occurs. Maybe everyone on the interstate is going the same way but I do not think so on the side streets. I have often had to call a school and say, ” Did you guys know _______ road is closed? I did not and am going to be a bit late as I have to re route on my GPS.” Reply, “Really? where are you coming from?”

I have also had to teach myself not to be frustrated over things I cannot control. It is not an easy lesson to learn. Once, I was the second person at a light that was red ( intersection). Before it turned green, a motorcade arrived with a VERY long line for a funeral. Not much I could do as I was trapped. That was a bit chaotic to me and the school where the children were waiting to see me! Of course, I had to simply wait respectfully.

I never wear the same clothes item in a one week stretch. I do tend to wear the same 4-5 outfits out of town each week, when traveling as my clients are all over the map and do not know one another. I take things out of the suitcase, wash and return. Easier for packing! All shoes, socks and underwear too! This is why I have to get retire clothes, as I am sick of them after a season.


August 25th, 2011
3:26 pm

MJG, in 1988 my mom had an eighth grader that was generally disruptive and would talk back to her in class several times often. On a particular day, she’d had enough. She took him to the office to call his father.

Once the father got on the phone, my mom handed the phone to the student and had him explain why he was having to call his father. Upon ending the explanation, the student handed the phone back to my mom. His father promptly told my mother that he was at work, and she was to never bother him during the workday ever again.

This became a very famous story in my house because the student would become a friend of mine in college, and his family had made a lasting impression on my mother.

Dr. Joe Berrigan was the head of the History Department at the University of Georgia when I was there. He had a theory that kids are “turds” by nature. He told us a story about how he and his friends used to go around the houses in the French Quarter in New Orleans when he was a boy in 1940’s and shoot BB guns at the ordimental designs on the gorgeous old houses, and if the BB’s would break the ornaments they’d take large rocks and smash the designs.

Football mom

August 25th, 2011
9:25 pm

Sometimes it has to do with the quailty of the SPERM doner………….


August 25th, 2011
10:33 pm

or donor….

random guy with a kid

August 27th, 2011
12:45 am

I think I prematurely avoided parenting classes. Though my daughter is only 16 months I find what other posters are saying more valuable than this article itself. I will try to better set routines, but I play with my daughter all day, naps at noon to 2:00, sometimes 3:00. Doctors or scientists won’t understand until some time is spent with their child (assuming they have one). I hope Jarvis is wrong and the apple falls from a different tree, otherwise I am in for a real chaotic treat. I am curios when did letting your kids play and make noise become “chaos”? I call that childhood. Not everything needs a scientific explanation; especially when it does not correlate with the real world scenarios.

“Dr. Joe Berrigan was the head of the History Department at the University of Georgia when I was there. He had a theory that kids are “turds” by nature.”

He sounds like a moron to me, what was his doctorate in? What year? This sounds like archaic garbage science. I am glad he is a history major and not a social science one, then I would have lost all respect. I have doubts of posting but, his research if any is flawed.

On a side not I would love to speak to Alan Kazdin, Ph.D personally to be sure he was not taken out of context. I digress, can we raise our children as we see fit, because no matter how well a child is raised, he /she may still end up a serial killer. Nature is not greater than nurture imho.


August 28th, 2011
6:20 pm

Yes, human nature DOES change. Unless, of course, mean are still whacking women on the head with clubs and dragging them back to their caves…