Is It an Adolescent Phase or Out-of-Control Behavior? Part II: 8 Ways to Manage Acting-out Kids

by James Lehman, MSW
Is It an Adolescent Phase or Out-of-Control Behavior? Part II: 8 Ways to Manage Acting-out Kids

In part two of this series, James discusses eight ways to challenge acting out behavior in kids today—from disrespect to breaking curfew to alcohol and substance abuse—in order to start changing your child's behavior tomorrow.

I think it’s important for parents of acting-out teens to ask themselves this question: If your teenager is abusing you verbally, calling you disgusting names and punching holes in the walls, what kind of husband or father do you think he's going to make? Unless something dramatic happens, people stay on the course of the lives they set in motion in childhood and adolescence. And if the course of your child’s life is petty criminal behavior (starting with stealing from you), using drugs and alcohol, and intimidating everybody at home, know that this is not going to change on its own. Make no mistake, this is not a phase—rather, it’s a sign that your child is developing unhealthy behaviors that may stay with him his entire life.

You should always try to have a conversation that solves problems, not a conversation that lays blame—because blame is useless.

I do service work at a prison and I talk to the guys there each week. You know what they were doing as teenagers? They were stealing from their parents, staying out all night, getting high and drinking. If anybody gave them a hard time at home, they acted out. They intimidated everybody in their family and at school so everybody left them alone. On visiting day in prison, you can see all the parents going in to visit their kids—but now they're in their twenties and thirties. That is the harsh reality of ignoring or not dealing with a child’s out-of-control behavior. So as a parent, I think you always have to ask yourself, “Where is this behavior headed? Where does this go?”

Picture a frog who goes out to a rock in the middle of a pond every day. He sits on the rock and a fly comes by, so he eats it. Now he's full and he goes back into the reeds. That frog will do that until the day he dies, because it works. He's happy, he's done. I think we're all kind of like that frog. People don't change if something is working for them and they're getting away with it—especially adolescents.

How to Hold Your Child Accountable: 8 Practical Steps for Change

1. Stop Blaming Yourself for Your Child’s Behavior:
I very directly tell parents who blame themselves to cut it out. Remember, it’s not whose fault it is—it’s who's willing to take responsibility. So if you're looking for answers in Empowering Parents, and otherwise trying to improve your parenting skills, then you're taking responsibility. Maybe you messed up in the past, but let's start here, today, with what you are willing to do for your child now.

The next step is to try to get your child in a position where he becomes willing to take responsibility for his behavior.

2. Avoid Confrontations:
I always tell parents that they don’t have to attend every fight they’re invited to. Don’t let children suck you into an argument when they slam their bedroom door loudly or roll their eyes at you. I think the best thing to do is say, “Hey, don't slam the door,” and then leave the room. Give your child a verbal reprimand right there on the spot, and then leave.

3. Use “Pull-ups”:
I think it’s also a good idea to be very specific with instructions in order to avoid a fight later. You can say, “Hey listen, when you put the dishes in the dishwasher, rinse them off first.” That’s called a “pull-up,” because you're actually just giving your child a boost. It's like taking them by the hand and helping them get on their feet. You may need to do ten pull-ups a night, but that's okay. There are no hard feelings there. You don't hold a grudge, you don't cut him off when he’s talking, you're not saying, “I told you so; I warned you about this.” These responses—blaming, speeches, criticism—all cut off communication. And I think if you can have a relationship with your adolescent where you're still communicating 60 or 70 percent of the time, you’re doing pretty well.

4. Don’t Personalize It:
If you get angry when your child stomps off to his room or doesn’t want to spend time with you, you're personalizing his behavior. That gives him power over you. I understand that this is easy for parents to do, especially if your teen used to enjoy spending time with you and was fairly compliant when he or she was younger. But I think if you take your child’s behavior as a personal attack upon you or your values, you're overreacting. Your child is in adolescence; it's his problem and it's not an attack on you, it’s where he is in his developmental cycle. Your teen is not striking out at you—believe me, teenagers will strike out at anybody who’s there. Put a cardboard cut-out of yourself in the kitchen, and most teenagers will yell at that. I’m joking, but my point is that there is so much going on in your adolescent’s head—he’s also so self-involved at this stage in his life—that he doesn't see things clearly. Adolescence distorts perception.

So if your teenage daughter comes home late, don't take that personally. If she told you she wasn’t going to do something and then she did it, don't personalize that. It’s not, “You let me down.” It’s, “You broke the rules and here are the consequences.” Just reinforce what the rules are and let your child know she’ll be held accountable.

The only time I think you should take something personally is when a child is being verbally or physically abusive. If your teenager calls you foul names and is destructive to others or to property, you need to respond very strongly.

5. Run Your Home Based on Your Belief System:
I believe parents should run their homes based on their own belief system, not on how other people operate, or how it appears families on television do things. It doesn’t matter if “Everybody’s doing it.” You need to tell your teen, “Well, I'm not ‘Everybody’s’ parent, I’m yours. And in our family, this is not allowed.” So if you believe it's not right for 16-year-olds to drink beer, then that's what you believe—and you need to run your home accordingly. If you believe that lying and stealing are wrong, then make that a rule in your house and hold your children accountable for that behavior if they break the rules.

6. Be a Role Model:
If you tell your child the rules and then you break them, how do you think your adolescent will react? Do you think he’ll respect what you’ve said, or do you think the message will be, “Dad says that I shouldn’t lie, but he does sometimes, so it’s okay.” It’s imperative to be a good role model and abide by the rules you make yourself—or risk having them be broken over and over again by your children.

7. Try Not to Overreact:
Believe me, I understand that it's easy to overreact to normal teenage behavior. They can be really annoying, and they are often unaware—and don’t care about—other people’s feelings very much. But I think some objectivity on the part of parents is vital. So if your child makes a mistake, like coming in past curfew, you don't want to overreact to it. Don't forget, the idea is not to punish—it’s to teach, through responsibility, accountability and giving appropriate consequences.

I think you should always ask yourself, “What does my child need to learn so he doesn’t make that same mistake next time? What can I do about that?” When a teen fails a test, the question should be, “So what are you going to do differently so you don't fail the next test?” You may hold your child accountable, there may be a consequence, but you should always try to have a conversation that solves problems, not a conversation that lays blame—because blame is useless.

So let’s say your child went to the mall without your permission. You hold him accountable and give him consequences for that breach of family rules. Then you should say, “What can you do differently the next time the other kids say, ‘Let's go to the mall’ and you want to be cool and not ask me if it’s okay?” Then help your child look at the range of options. They could say, “No thanks.” Or they could say, “I have to call my mother, she's a pain in the neck, but I have to check in.” I actually used to tell kids to say this. It’s a great way for teens to follow the rules without looking weak or childish. When they say, “My mom is a pain,” all the other kids nod and shake their heads, because their parents are pains in the neck, too. Sometimes kids just don't know what to say in a sticky situation. Part of solving that problem with them is coming up with some good responses and even role playing a little, until it feels comfortable coming out of your child’s mouth.

8. Physical Abuse, Substance Abuse and Stealing:
I believe if your child is stealing, being physically abusive or destructive of property or using substances, you have to hold him accountable, even if it means involving the police. The bottom line is that if your child is breaking the law or stealing from you, you need to get more help. I know parents who say, “I can't do that to my son,” and I respect that—it’s a very difficult thing to do. But in my opinion, you're doing your child a favor by telling him that what he’s doing is unacceptable. He is not responding to parental authority or to the school’s authority, so you have to go to a higher level. Your child has to learn how to respond to authority if he's going to go anywhere in life. You may worry about your teen getting a record—but if he's under 18, I think you should worry more about him not changing his behavior.

I think that all children, but especially adolescents, have to be held accountable for their behavior. Ideally, we teach them how to behave. We model it ourselves and then we hold them accountable through giving consequences and helping them learn problem-solving skills.

Whether your child is a normal adolescent or he’s an out-of-control teenager, you need to hold him accountable. That means you tell him he’s responsible for his behavior; he’s making choices. And I'm going to tell you something: kids who are getting high, stealing, shoplifting and acting out are making very bad choices that may affect them for the rest of their lives.

Accountability creates change. It doesn't guarantee a complete inner change right away, but it sure forces behavioral change. And here’s the truth: nobody ever changed who wasn't held accountable.



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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


One problem I feel is happening with children is everyone is to easy on them. People don't make them accountable. I had one daughter that use to say, "I hate you."I just looked at her and say,"Good that means I'm doing my job, you are suppose to hate me at the age (she was a teenage). If my child slammed there door to much i would just take it off the hinges. Fight over!!! Debbie

Comment By : happymaker

I read everything you send me, even though my acting out teen is now 27 years old and in trouble more than ever. It's so sad and tragic when a bright young man's problems are because he refuses to take accountability for his own actions. I pray everyday that he gets to the other side of the mess he's created for himself.

Comment By : A caring and deeply concerned Mother...

As the parent of a 15-year-old son I find this information extremely timely and beneficial at an age when limits are being tested on nearly a daily basis. Thank you.

Comment By : Treec

Excellent article and right on the mark. It's not easy being the parent of a teenager and your no-nonsense guidance is always appreciated! We taught our son the "mom's a pain" years ago and he has used it many times. He told me it's a relief to have something to fall back on. Many thanks!

Comment By : supermom

I believe if a parent holds themselves accountable, then they will hold the child accountable. The biggest point I believe should not be overlooked is the parent being a role model!! For example with my children, I explain to them "Do you know why I follow through on my promises?" "Because it is the hope you will follow through on your promises." A real challenge is for parents to recognize some of the behaviors their children have are in fact learned from them. It's a hard reality to swallow sometimes, it's hard to look in the mirror at times. And finally, I have seen where parents expect more of their kids then they do of themselves, kids see that as hypocritical and this makes them even more rebellious, angry and escalates the defiant behavior.

Comment By : Leland Bartlett

I really appreciate this article. My son is only 10 and already showing some of these behaviors, mostly the acting out behaviors. I am trying to hold him accountable now before he enters his teens. He becomes very angry very quickly. Keeping control of myself and not letting him get the upper hand is very difficult, but I'm trying. Thank you for reminding me of several things, especially how important it is to get this under control now.

Comment By : sams_mom

I love your newsletter. You are always right on and always helpful. God bless you!

Comment By : God's Child

I thought when I read this you were in my home watching my son, it's like this article was based on him! He has punched holes in the walls here where we rent, I called police, but my spouse was concerned we'd get kicked out and did not want to notify the landlord and wants to repair the holes. He steals, he also stole our vehicle at night often and I bought a safe to lock the keys up in, and I pressed charges on him for taking our vehicle and they didnt even give him probation out of it, only fines and fees. also he uses substances, I told him if I catch anything in my house here where we rent I am and WILL call police. He is 17, and we are getting counseling right now. He doesnt attend school, has a sleep disorder so he is up at night and goes to bed all day, no job, we said we will NOT be paying his fees and fines so he better start looking for a job soon. oh and he got his license revoked for taking our vehicle. this article is helpful, very helpful and in time of need!!! thank you so much!!!

Comment By : fedupmom

You always lead us in the right direction and I want to thank you for that, the only problem I have is that in the heat of the moment it is hard not to yell when you know that they know what they are doing is wrong.

Comment By : Eva

A generally useful article, but I wonder HOW exactly one holds an extremely volatile 16yr old (with learning disabilities) accountable??? He is in trouble with the Police, verbally & physically abusive to his mother & younger brother, unable to interact calmly much of the time, swears continually & has a 3mth old baby with his 17yr old girlfriend. So now he's considered to be an "adult"...but has no job, has no way of being independent & always blames others for any slight thing that goes wrong. Seems to me that his Mum is struggling hard already & unable to instigate change successfully...Limited income makes using rewards difficult as his preferences are expensive & beyond the family budget. Your thoughts/comments appreciated.

Comment By : Awillingparent

I just have to say that TT has really been a blessing to me, a single mom of 3. Shortly after divorcing due to an abusive marriage, my then 15 year old son became extremely angry, violent, and abusive. It was SO hard to deal with, and without anyone to help me, there was damage done. What made it even worse was when I took him to counseling and the lady told me "he's a good kid" and practically reprimanded me for calling the police a few times. I called the police because he broke windows and spit at me and destroyed my cell phone, just normal stuff any "good kid" would do-ha! So finding this program and using the call in support line and doing the interviews after the blow ups REALLY helped. Also,I give God the glory, of course, because there were many prayers sent up. So we survived and now he's 17, a junior, and has not had a major blow up for a long time. He even now plays guitar in our church youth group. I must say that if you have a supportive church family, don't be afraid to ask for help. That's just my 2 cents. Thank you God and TT!

Comment By : Lisa A.

Awesome article. Our 17-year old son is kinda going thru this although he is not verbally abusive, does not steal, is respectful of us as parents, is home when suppose to be home BUT has been using pot and drinking. We have done the grounding (he ran away) he does not have access to a computer, no texting. What do you suggest we do w ith the grounding part? He already is saying he cannot stay home all the time. I'm sure it is a threat to us not to ground him or he will run again. I really don't want him on the streets again. Don't know how far to go with the consequences.

Comment By : troubled mother

My son is 11 and starting to be very disrespectful...rolling his eyes, raising his voice, etc... Just doing homework is a chore. He says he hates school and doesn't know what the point is and it's stupid and I shouldn't bother him with it. He says all the time he wishes he was grown so he could do whatever he wants. I just laugh and tell him that when he's grown its not school he'll have to worry about but getting a job and paying the bills. The other day...I found out he had a project that had been given to him a month ago and his teacher said he still hadn't turned it in, (due last week). I told him that once he was home from school, the only thing he would be allowed to do was the project and until it was finished, no phone, no tv, no friends over, no going outside etc...once he realized I wasn't playing around and took his phone from him, he actually sat down without a word and did the project. I was amazed how well it worked. Thanks again!

Comment By : frazzled at times

So what do you do when you state you "will" call the police when the teen gets physcially abusive and teen says, "yeh? well I'll tell them it was you??!!! hmm...I feel like a whimp, which was the goal of the teen...

Comment By : Darla

I read this article carefully since I have a 12 year old who definitely has hormones brewing. I want to be prepared. I wondered, while reading, what my brother would get from this article. He is divorced with an ex-wife who does not support his decisions to be firm with his teenagers. So, when he gets firm the kids just run to Mom so they don't have to comply. It is sad to see my nephew and niece opting out of good parental guidance.

Comment By : Concerned Aunt

* Dear ‘Darla’: I think you’re right that your [son] is trying to get you to back down when he says if you call the police, he will tell them it was you, not he that was physically abusive. James Lehman reminds us that it’s important to follow through with a planned consequence so that kids can count on us to help set limits on their behaviors. When a teen uses violence, or the threat of violence against you, calling the police is an appropriate response. As James says, if kids are using violence in the home, you need more help. Family therapy can also be helpful. In therapy you'll examine your family's ability to solve problems, express thoughts and emotions, and identify issues that contribute to conflict. Ask your son’s pediatrician for a referral to a good family therapist. Read James Lehman’s article, When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse” for a complete discussion of handling violence in the home. Your son needs to experience that this behavior is not tolerated anywhere–your home or in the community. Don’t ignore this behavior because that sends the message that somehow the use of violence against you is justified and you should tolerate it. No one deserves to be abused. Hold him accountable so that he will learn to take responsibility for his choices. Please call us here on the Support Line if you need to talk to someone. We would be glad to listen and to offer ideas on using the tools in the Total Transformation Program.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Troubled Mother - Drug and alcohol use are challenging issues. You're right that grounding him will not change this behavior - as your son has demonstrated, it is easy to run away or ignore the consequence. And, you can't keep your son home forever. Grounding him does not give him the skills to refuse drugs and alcohol when he leaves your home; in fact, it can make your son's behavior more secretive, and therefore more dangerous. James is very clear on this subject: drug and alcohol use is against the rules of your home AND it is illegal. For those reasons, it will not be tolerated.Your son needs to have tangible, practical skills to help him abide by both your household rules and society's laws; he needs to know how to refuse drugs and alcohol even when he is tempted to break your rules (and the law). If your son is driving, you also need to take steps to ensure that he is not driving under the influence. Let your son know very clearly that drug and alcohol use will not be tolerated - it doesn't matter if he thinks it is okay for him, or that all his friends do. Certainly, you can make drug counseling and random drug testing part of your rules and requirements for privileges such as driving time, extended curfew, or access to the computer. Your son's school counselors may have other ideas and resource for you. Please reach out to your community for support. And remember, this isn't about punishment. Effective rules and consequences should help your son learn to actually change his behavior, and follow the rules even when he thinks those rules don't apply to him. You might check out and Why Don't Consequences Work for My Teen for more assistance. Good luck!

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

this is a question, more than a comment. you only had a tiny part about, teens with bad mouths. like the other lady that wrote you I have a 15 yr old with a learning disability. the only real problem I have is the profanity, he calls me and I am a single mom. with limited income. he is so disrespectful. I dont know what to do I have tried telling his therapist,so far nothing helps. and he does no chores. and ignores me when I ask him do help out. pls help calif mom

Comment By : calif mom

i have a 10 year old that has been acting out for about 2 years she is pretty good in school and things like that. but she has no respect for my husband her (stepdad) or me. she rolls her eyes, smarts off, makes and all day thing of doing home work so she does not have to do anything else.. im almost to my end of the rope.. its hard not to get worked up and i know that is a mistake of mine.. this was helpfull... thanks

Comment By : tanya_s

This is for "troubled mother" wife and I are attending a parenting class as we've dealt with some of the same behaviors at our house. One concept that seems to have worked is called the TEASPOT, which means Take Everything Away for a Short Period Of Time. In practical terms it means that for a house rule broken, the parent takes EVERYTHING away for a short period of time (one day, two days,...depends on the infraction); the kid will know that he or she will get the things back (cell phone, TV, computer use, car, etc...) in a day or two and will not feel like giving up when he or she feels like the 'month long grounding' will never be over. Anyway, seems to be working for us.

Comment By : parents in this together

I really need help with my teenage son. Is it too late? He ran away and said he hates me. My daughter is sixteen and we have caught her lying to us. Pleas help. I want to leave.

Comment By : im

* Dear ‘im’: It can be emotionally challenging raising kids, so much so that at times you feel like throwing in the towel and leaving home yourself. When you’re feeling this way, call us here on the Support Line. We can offer needed encouragement and support along with suggesting what you might do in your situation to help your kids learn to make better behavior choices. For example, James Lehman would recommend paying more attention to the behavior your child is lying about and less attention to the fact that your child lied to you. For more details on handling lying, read this article by James Lehman: Why Kids Tell Lies And What To Do About It. He has also written two articles about kids who run away: Running Away Part I: Why Kids Do It and How to Stop Them, and Running Away Part II: "Mom, I Want to Come Home": When Your Child is on the Streets. James states that kids run away to solve a problem so it’s important to help them learn what triggers them to choose this risky behavior as a solution, to help them learn to take responsibility for their actions, and to help them to accept consequences for their choices--instead of avoiding consequences by running away. We would love to hear from you on the Support Line so that we can learn more details on the challenging behaviors you’re working with. Then we’ll be better able to direct you toward specific parts of the program that will help make things better in your family. Please let us hear from you.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

i am the parent of 3 boys age 14,11,and 9 the 9 and 14 yr olds are the rebellious ones at this time fighting constantly breaking my things using words to simulate cursing and picking on the 11 yr old. they were all 3 diagnosed with ADHD and were medicated for a time and now i am trying for the past 4 years to handle them without meds i would love to be able to interact with my children without having to drug them so thats not even a possibility anymore. everyone says their just being boys but at times things almost come to blows between myself and the 14 yr old. as a mother i am sometimes affraid of him and i shouldn't have to fear what he might do to other members in our home. because i was raised in foster homes this is not an option for my children. someone please help

Comment By : angeebe

* To ‘angeebe’: It sounds like you are feeling quite overwhelmed right now. You certainly do have a lot going on at home. One thing that is really important when addressing behavior issues with kids is your reaction. Many parents who use the Total Transformation program have found that changing the way they respond in the face of difficult behavior makes all the difference in how the situation turns out. A great first step for you would be to walk away when you are feeling angry, frustrated, or really needing your son to do something he isn’t doing. You should also walk away when he is inappropriate toward you. You might also instruct the siblings to go to their rooms and spend some time alone in there if they do not want to deal with his behavior. Once you are calm you can decide how you will hold your son accountable for his behavior and talk to him about what he can do differently in the future to improve his behavior. I am including an article that will give you more ideas for changing your reaction, which will lead to changes in your children: Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry. I also want to suggest that if at any point the conflict in your home escalates to a point that you feel things are unsafe, you should contact the police or a local crisis line to help diffuse the situation and ensure everyone’s safety. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this. It’s not easy.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I have a 15 daughter who has behavior problems. She is the one running the show her at home as it is easier that way. She is getting counseling and has other people trying to help her but she does want the help.

Comment By : pamoonchild

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