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Are You Afraid of Your Acting-Out Child? Part I: Why Giving in is a Dead End

by James Lehman, MSW
Are You Afraid of Your Acting-Out Child?  Part I: Why Giving in is a Dead End

Do you walk on eggshells around your child, afraid of doing anything to set him off? Do you appease him when you notice he’s winding up to throw a tantrum? In part one of a two-part series, James Lehman, MSW explains how fear of acting-out behavior sets up a dangerous pattern for your child—and the whole family.

All parents experience fear for their kids. They worry about their children getting sick, doing well in school, and whether or not they’ll be able to get a job and succeed in life. Being afraid for your kids is very normal, but being afraid of your kids is a phenomenon that has developed over the past several decades, and something that parents need to look at closely. And by the way, sometimes these two fears are actually tied together—fears about their child being able to make it in life actually will cause some parents to think they have to give in more; they become a cushion for their kids because mastering life skills seems so difficult for their child. But let me be clear: that’s exactly what you don’t want to do.

"Now you’re negotiating on your child’s terms; your fear that he's going to act out is going to dictate how much you give in."

Young Kids: How the Pattern Starts
When a child is two or three, he learns to respond by saying “no” all the time. He starts resisting and asserting his individuality from his mother and father and often manages his anger and frustration by throwing temper tantrums. Some parents learn that you just have to wait those tantrums through, but others begin to worry that they're not able to manage their child or that they are not in control. Others worry that if they don’t give in—if they say “no” to their child—their child won’t love them anymore. In effect, these parents become afraid of their child’s acting-out behavior and are held hostage by it. They get worn down and often begin caving in to inappropriate demands as they try to appease their child instead of remaining firm and waiting the tantrum out.

So their young child develops a pattern of acting out because it works for him—it gives him power and gets him what he wants. When the tantrum happens in public, the parent feels embarrassed, humiliated, and ashamed. When it happens in private, they feel stuck in this negative cycle with their child: they're alone in the house and their child is screaming and yelling and kicking. Their life seems crazy and out of control, but they don’t know how to stop it without caving in to their child.

These kids soon learn to blackmail their parents with the threat of throwing a tantrum. Pretty soon, the parent starts giving in as soon as their child starts to signal that they're going into a tantrum: maybe their child’s voice escalates or becomes shrill, or maybe they stomp their feet and scream “no.” Once that happens, a very serious pattern has begun. Now the child has actually trained the parent to give in to their demands, no matter what. If your child knows he can get you to give in by behaving inappropriately or destructively, he's going to learn to give you those cues. It’s just like being in a play: when you get your cue, you're going to read your lines: “It’s OK, don’t do that, I'll get you the toy.” Or you're going to bribe him: “Well, if you can hold off for five minutes, then I'll get you a candy bar in the car.” What you're really doing is negotiating on your child’s terms; your fear that he's going to act out or that you can't handle the tantrum is going to dictate how much you give in.

And by the way, parents don't know this pattern is forming while it’s happening. This is not a conscious thing where people say “I'm going to give in to my kid and then he's going to become a monster.” They’re saying, “Oh man, I can't handle this right now.” And their child learns from that lesson that when you can't handle something, he'll get what he wants. So his goal then, when he wants something and you tell him no, is to set up situations you can't handle. Remember, this is not a moral issue for your child: it's not about being good or evil. Your child is not really conscious of the effects of his behavior other than it gets him his way. Children, like all living things, learn to take the easy way out. The important thing is not to blame your child or assign diabolical motives to his behavior.

It is important to realize that if your child is using inappropriate behavior to get his way, it's not a phase that will magically stop when he turns ten or twelve or even fifteen. That pattern of behavior may continue on through adolescence and into young adulthood.

Acting Out in School: When Your Child’s Behavior Controls Others
If a child has successfully used inappropriate behavior at home, you will often see them trying it out at school. After all, if their strategy works on their parents, why shouldn’t it work on their teachers, too? In kindergarten and first grade if they don't get their way they may escalate. They may tantrum, call people names, throw things on the floor and walk around in the classroom when they’re supposed to be sitting down. It's important to note that for a significant number of children, the classroom structure that teachers utilize will be sufficient to change some of these behaviors.

I’ve found that many of these kids also have a learning disability or some other factor that interferes with their ability to learn to solve problems. Think of it this way: if you have dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder or auditory processing problems, you might perceive the world as a threatening place. For these kids, it’s often much harder to learn how to solve social problems through reasonable negotiating, being patient, and learning how to accept no for an answer. So what tends to happen is they solve their problems by acting out—and that becomes their one default skill. They've developed this one trick: “Agree with me or face my crappy behavior.” And that can become their strategy for solving all problems. “Give me my way or face my crappy behavior.” They do this in school, at home, and on the bus and as long as it works, they will continue to use it. Not only is the child controlling others with his behavior, he’s not learning the problem-solving skills that he desperately needs to learn to be able to make it in life. If everyone around him is backing down, all he’s learning is how to threaten and intimidate others through fear.

How This Affects Your Family
Realize that if you have one child who controls the house with inappropriate behavior, this is not just your problem: it's also a problem for your other children. Make no mistake, dealing with an acting-out sibling can have a great and long-lasting influence on your other kids’ personalities. When siblings don’t know when, how or why their brother or sister is going to explode, it’s overwhelming and scary because they can’t control it. What often happens in these cases is that kids develop their own sub-type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They will learn not to show their feelings. They may hide out in their rooms and submerge their emotions. That's because in their world, it's not safe for them to do so. It's not safe to show your feelings; it's not safe to say how you feel. After all, their sibling could explode and take it out on them at any given moment. So these kids wind up very flat emotionally; there seems to be no joy in their lives. There are things parents can do to correct these destructive patterns, but nonetheless, it's hard on everybody. [Editor’s note: for more on this topic, read James Lehman’s article, ”The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings”.]

The First Step toward Changing Your Child’s Behavior
When parents used to come to me with this problem, I’d say, “We’re going to come up with a plan to change what’s happening in your house. Let's figure out some things for you to do when things get tough so you can empower and support yourself.” I think it’s nearly impossible for people to try to rely on willpower alone to change their parenting style. Here’s the truth: their child’s behavior wasn't going to change unless the parents’ behavior changed. I believe if you work at it, things will change; and if you don't, things will stay bad or get worse. The kid who's throwing a tantrum today is going to be throwing your chair across the room in ten years. And that's how he ups the ante as he gets older. Most kids escalate; it's a natural progression. They have to be more intimidating. When you're 13, it's very awkward to lie on the floor and throw a tantrum. It's much easier to throw something across the room and hit the wall. You see these kids punch holes in walls all the time; that is the evolution of their tantrum. Certainly as they get older, the intimidation becomes more real. There are kids who hit and push their parents. There are kids who intentionally break and damage things around the house. There are kids who hit their siblings or hurt them emotionally by calling them foul names. And make no mistake, this becomes a very real problem.

If your child has trained you to be afraid of him and back down when he acts out, realize that whatever authority you had originally has diminished over time. When these kids are really in flower—when they're really showing who they are—you can't tell them anything. They'll tell you to kiss their butts. You can't tell them when to come in at night; if you put them in their room, they’ll climb out their window. Basically, they’ll come and go as they please and they’ll say, “You can't stop me.” The sad part is that unless you change the way you parent and start holding them accountable, they’re right.

In next week’s article, James Lehman will give you 7 tips on how to stop living in fear of your child’s inappropriate behavior—and learning how to start parenting more effectively.


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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."


Ok.......I keep reading 'hold him accountable'.....just WHAT exactly does that mean? I have taken everything away, called police, even sent him to live in a group home after he became violent and threatening to our family.....nothing seems to be working. I'm really seriously distraught and emotionally spent. Somebody help us.

Comment By : chantal

We've tried everything. He started at two and is still acting out at eight. We've seen psychiatrist's, counseling, mentoring. I have to say that he isn't acting out as often but when he does, it is ugly. Thank you for your articles, it really helps to know that we aren't the only ones with these problems. Many times the blame is put on the parents... but it is much easier to raise a normal child and nothing compared to raising a child with emotional and behavioral problems. I've done both.

Comment By : Kiki

Wow, interesting enough my daughter was very rude and she does not like the word no and she thrown things, hits and pushes me to the point where i just want to lose it. i just felt like crying the way she was speaking to me sometimes. This morning i was 30 lates for work and my daughter was giving me the hardest time ever to get out of the house and expressed that if she was going to late then i was going to be late. OMG, teens can be so selfish. i want to change so badly in my parenting style but any little bit of self worth i have my daughter insults me until i just feeling like giving up and giving in. There are times when i just feel that know one understands and i feel like a prisoner in my own home.

Comment By : Peaches

My only problem is having this problem with a five year old who everyone involved feels needs meds but I'd too young for now looking forward to nxt weeks article.

Comment By : stressedoutinNE

This is very close to home. I'm waiting with anticipation and hope for Part II.

Comment By : Gramma

My child is adhd. He is and has tramatized his younger sibblings for years. Each of the siblins have confidence issues. I threaten to send him to live with his father because we are geographically separated. I know that is just an empty threat because after 3 tours in Iraq, my husband who is diagnoised pstd can not deal with this child.

Comment By : jkc


Comment By : sabryan

I don't know if I can wait to read next weeks article. This is my son who has been diagnosed with adhd/anxiety. He is too young to be diagnosed as bipolar but I feel that he is. He was just kicked out of school again today for the second time since school started a month ago. He is in a special ed class and only has 4 other students in the room. When the teacher doesn't give him undivided attention he melts down. I have been very strict with him and have been told too strict, but when this is the behavior I have to live with I think I am not doing enough. He is an only child and has his grandma wrapped around his finger. I would discipline him and then she would get onto me in front of him. I think he is using that as a way to play us. I just don't understand why he just snaps at school. I am considering putting him inpatient at a psychiatric hospital which the idea is about to kill me.

Comment By : angie

My son a 12 year old with ADHD. He is the middle child of 3 and he's the only one that acts out aggressively, intimidates and manipulates everyone around him. It is so true that we all walk on eggshells so that we don't "send him overboard". Keeping the peace so to speak. I know now though, that bad behavior is simply bad behavior...but I need practical advice on how to change it. We also have taken privilages away, grounded him, taken away his beloved video games, everything we can thing of. Nothing works, we need more. HELP!

Comment By : Discouraged

I can fully relate to all here. Tried everything. Then my child was caught shoplifting. I truly believe that if we cannot learn to make them accountable for their small misbehaviors, soon enough someone will, be it the police, school, etc. It was then that I snapped, woke up and detached myself in that I am doing my best and this is not my fault. I learned to make my daughter accountable for each and every misbehavior, no matter how small, there is a consequence. My home has all sorts of rules, some of which came from the kids themselves. We are all learning and working on just doing the best we can...everyday.

Comment By : bettereachday

* Dear sabryan: It’s great that you are doing what you can to help your family. Many grandparents order the Total Transformation Program to use with grandchildren. If this is a living situation where you all live together, perhaps a simple remark to everyone when emotions are running too high and swearing results would be helpful to remind everyone of the techniques that work to stop this behavior. You might say, “We need to get better at taking a break from each other [Disconnect] before emotions get out of control.” Try to speak to the parents privately about this and encourage them to demonstrate to their son [Role Model] how to stop the emotional momentum increasing in a verbal exchange by not staying in an argument or waiting to speak to their son after they have cooled off a bit. There is more information about James Lehman’s Disconnect and Role Model techniques in the Total Transformation Program. Another article by James on Empowering Parents you might find helpful by is: “F--- You, Mom!” How to Stop Your Child from Cursing in Your Home. Thanks for your question and please keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am suspicious of artificial additives in our foods which can trigger less rational and hyperactive behavior in our children. We are steering away from Red dye 40 found in cheese crackers, dorritos, chocolate, and colored desserts, cereals, and sweet treats. Sodium nitrate found in hot dogs, lunch meat, peperoni, and any processed meat is also suspect. Monosodium glutemate can trigger undesirable effects as well. Some children are even allergic to wheat, milk, eggs, peanuts. Aim to give your children real unprocessed meat, basic sides like rice, noodles, and potatoes, and either fresh or frozen vegetables. While these behavioral strategies are critical you might be surprised how less frequent their behaviors become when their minds and bodies are adequately nourished. I challenge you to give it a try. Healthy choices certainly can't hurt.

Comment By : Melody

WOW, I have 2 son's one is 18 the other is 14. The 14 yr old has LD, ADD, ODD, etc. I will say that this was not an issue when they were younger but it is now. I found that the older that my youngest got the worse the Temper Tantrums.Around the age of 8 or 9 I got to a point where I said to myself I had pick my battles with him otherwise my house was going to be a battlefield. Unfortunately this is what has happened anyway. I not only getting it from him but from his older brother now due to the fact he felt AI let his little brother get away with everything. I admit, when he starts I feel that stress kick in and try anything to calm the situation before it really gets out of hand. Otherwise it is screaming, cursing , hitting things. Then the older one starts in on me with his attitude. It has gotten completely out of control. I can hardly wait to to read the 7 steps to getting our home back to a somewhat normal environment.

Comment By : Devinalee

* Dear Peaches: I’ve very glad you wrote in. Besides giving information on ideas that work, one of our goals on this website to let people know they are not alone. Please click on the ‘Forum’ button and spend some time on those pages. You’ll discover many parents, talking to each other, about the same challenges you are having. It does feel awful when family members get mad at each other. Teens can be very hurtful at times when they let anger get the best of them or let their anger become a habitual way of communicating. In the Total Transformation Program, James Lehman talks about a technique kids use called ‘Anger with an Angle’. He discusses how kids use anger to train others to avoid making them angry ‘or else’, use anger to have power over others or use anger as an excuse for being aggressive, destructive or abusive. When you use the Total Transformation Program to recognize the techniques your child is using to get their way, it will help you to learn more effective ways to deal with this behavior. It’s also helpful to know that although it’s directed toward you, your kids techniques are not about you, but about getting power over the situation. James Lehman wrote another article you might enjoy: Anger as a Weapon: When Your Child “Points the Gun” at You. Remember, you can always call the trained specialists on the Support Line for help in using the techniques to manage your child’s behaviors. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

All of what you say has totally related to my son. I purchased your Total Transformation Program which when I apply it, it has helped me tremendously. I suggest every parent get this program it is a soul saver. James Lehman is the only doctor that has related and explained exactly what I am going through and the way my son acts. And believe me we have seen so many counselor etc. You would not believe what we have been through with our son. My son gave me a black eye. My son is now in Military School which again is a lifesaver for us. But again not everyone can afford this type of school. he is a 5 day resident. My son was kicked out of numerous schools. My son through tantrums since he was a toddler oh and yes he has a grandmother that thinks he can do no wrong. that whenever I would correct him when he was bad she would turn around and take his side, my son could commit a crime and his grandmother would defend him. Anyone out there that has this type of Grandmother take my advice don't let her see your child she will ruin him. My suggestion to everyone out there "listen to James Lehman tapes" it helped me tremendously. I just thank James Lehman for actually being one of the only therapists that knows what hes talking about.

Comment By : Joyce

I, too, have thought military school might be a good answer; but I don't know how to find one.

Comment By : Tiredmother

Hello, I just found this site and can relate to much of what is shared here. My 14-year old definitely has anger issues, disrespect and entitlement issues. The most shocking part is that his environment doesn't warrant that so it has taken a bit for me to realize that he really is a child who needs to be addressed differently. We tried counseling, establishing consequences, taking away things, and had a very active church life all to no avail. When he didn't get his way he would reek havoc on everyone and say very, very hurtful things to me (his mom). We have gone the military school route which is making him even more angry. If anyone is looking for a school I suggest Valley Forge. There are others...another more affordable one is Carson Long...very affordable. If I can offer any advice is to go with this Transformation Program but also mothers should stop feeling guilty when their teens act this way. I have had to remind myself that our culture is either the only or one of the few that breeds the sense of entitlement in children and teens. We are not perfect but we all know improper behavior when we see it.

Comment By : Angela

I am the single Mom of an out of control 16 yr old boy. He bullies me, intimidates me, breaks my belongings, will not participate as a family, curses, stays out as late as he wants and generally ruins the quality of my life if he hears the word 'no'. This has been going on since about 8 yrs old. One definite trigger is video games. His personality changes drastically after spending any length of time playing them. It took some time but I have finally removed all video games and gaming consoles from the home. The violence has died down some but he is still very aggressive and bullying. I have called the police for my own protection many times but didn't know where to take it from there. As his Mom the thought of having him taken away brought on horrible feelings of guilt and failure, so I stuck it out. Last week, he vandalized the house so I had him arrested. The local police worked with me to show him how unpleasant jail was. They put him in a cold cell with no mattress, with his only option being to sit on the floor. He was safe but definitely uncomfortable... the point being that he may think twice before wanting to return. After release, all he could say to me was he had lost all respect for law enforcement.. that they were so cruel.. as if he was expecting a night at the Ritz. It's exhausting but it brings me great comfort to see that I'm not the only one suffering with a child who has behaviour problems. I see so much of my life in these posts.

Comment By : sandrakaren

I'm the disabled, single mom of a thirteen year-old boy who sounds almost EXACTLY like KarenSandra's son. I've had trouble with him since before he could walk. He is extremely smart, but also very volatile. My doctor had to give me nerve pills because of it. Sometimes I am afraid to go to bed at night. I am getting ready to get rid of his video gameing console for the last time and I am a nervous wreck. When he comes home from his father's house this weekend, I want to beg his father to stay a while and his father and I don't even get along. Believe me, I've called the police time and again, told my friends, family, alerted his school, therapists, psychiatrists. I have even asked them to take him. I feel like I'm in a horror movie.

Comment By : targeted

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