Child Outbursts: Why Kids Blame, Make Excuses and Fight When You Challenge Their Behavior

by James Lehman, MSW
Child Outbursts: Why Kids Blame, Make Excuses and Fight When You Challenge Their Behavior

Arguing with kids often seems like a losing battle—and it is. No matter what you say, your child has a smart comeback that pushes your buttons or leaves you speechless. And worst of all, when your child is angry, nothing is fair, and it’s never his fault. James Lehman explains how, in any argument, your child might set different “traps” for you to fall into. Once you know what these traps are, you’ll be able to avoid them—and hold your child accountable. Here, James translates what your child is really saying during an argument.

If your child thinks it's somebody else's fault or that something isn't fair, he'll be able to justify a lot of inappropriate behavior…

You’ll often see kids blame others and point the finger at someone else when you hold them accountable for their behavior. Very often they see themselves as the victim, no matter how aggressive or abusive their behavior is. Thinking of themselves this way gives them the ability, in their mind, not to take any responsibility—and if you don’t take responsibility, then you won't have to change.

If your child blames others or comes back with excuse after excuse whenever you call him on his behavior, I believe you need to start challenging his thinking. And if he acts out or is destructive in order to get away with inappropriate behavior, know that this is a warning sign: you need to find ways to stop that pattern immediately.

Here’s an example of how a conversation with your child can quickly be derailed by accusations, blame and anger. Let's say the teen below hasn’t done his homework and now he's behind at school. He was in a bad mood when he came home, so he takes it out on his little sister by picking on her and calling her foul names. His mother is concerned and upset, and she attempts to talk to him about what’s going on. Soon, their conversation deteriorates into an ugly argument:

Parent: "Why are you falling behind in school and picking on your sister so much lately?”

Child: “It’s her fault that I call her names—she’s always bugging me and taking my stuff. I’m sick of her crap.”

When you try to hold kids accountable, they will often use excuses to deflect your attempts to make them take responsibility for their actions. And in fact, if the mother in this example asked her child to apologize to his sister, he would say, “I'm sorry, but.” And it would be, “I'm sorry, but you looked at me funny.” Or “I'm sorry, but you laughed.” So whatever he says, he means “I’m sorry, but it was your fault.” And again, what he’s really stating here is, “I'm not responsible for what I say. I’m sorry, but I'm actually the victim here.”

One of the big signs of whether or not your child is ready to change is whether or not he is ready to stop being the victim. If he can stop that victim thinking and start to take some responsibility for himself, I don't care if he’s 8 or 18, he has a better chance of changing than a child who continues to blame the world—and everybody in it.

Parent: “Well, why aren’t you keeping up with your work?”

Child: “The teacher didn't explain the assignment to me. How should I know what she wants me to do? She's an idiot.”

Again, what we see here is victim thinking. In this kid’s mind, it's not his responsibility to get clarification from the teacher. One of the problems with this kind of thinking is that kids believe what they think—in fact, we all do. So if your child thinks it's somebody else's fault or that something isn’t fair, he’ll be able to justify a lot of inappropriate behavior and shirk a lot of responsibility. These are what we call “thinking errors”—and they cause a lot of problems for kids and adults alike.

Understand that in their minds, they believe they’re right. Kids think, “My friends are allowed to stay out until 10 o’clock. Why can't I?” Or “Why can't I watch another hour of TV?” That’s victim thinking: they believe they’re a victim of your stupidity or failure to understand their world. And then the next jump in their thinking process is, “It's not fair.” When somebody thinks something isn’t fair, they are then able to reason, “This isn’t fair, so the rules don't apply to me.” Next, they’re able to justify not following that rule.

Adults do the same thing. Very often, people know something is wrong, but they don’t see it as harmful. So they rationalize that the rules around that issue are unfair and they choose not to follow those rules. How many adults know that it's wrong to speed, but speed anyway? When you ask them about it, they have a lot of reasons, excuses and justifications why the rule isn’t fair and why it shouldn't apply to them. We see this in children all the time. When kids start complaining or blaming teachers, they're basically saying “It's not fair.” And once they believe that, then they don't have to do the homework assignment, clean their room or mow the lawn. And many kids are adept at making something unfair right away—they’re professional victims.

As soon as your child excuses his irresponsibility by saying his teacher is an idiot, you can bet he’s found a way to rationalize not doing the work.

Parent: “Well, why didn’t you just talk to her after school if you didn’t understand?”

Child: “Why don’t you believe me? You're always taking the teacher’s side. It’s not fair. Why are you always picking on me? God, you're such a b----.”

Once again, we see the victim mentality kick in. Kids with behavior problems and a lack of problem-solving skills see any questioning of their actions, no matter how benign, as an attack. They start by saying, “I already explained that it's the teacher's fault, why are you bothering me?” And then they add some power and sting to their words by getting verbally abusive. This is their strategy of “Agree with me, or face my acting out, face my aggression, face my verbal garbage.” So there's the warning—“Agree with me or face my B.S.”—he’s starting to escalate so his parent will back down and leave him alone. The worst part about this strategy is that it often works for kids—and by the time they’re young adults, they’re left with no problem-solving skills in their arsenal except intimidation and aggression.

By the way, I think that you want to avoid letting your child gain control of the conversation by using curse words. If your child does this, make a mental note to deal with it later. That’s better than letting him push your buttons. Stay focused on the issue at hand. In fact, I often tell parents to write down the issue on an index card so they can keep referring to it when they’re tempted to get sidetracked.

If I was talking to this mother in my office, I would coach her not to accept any excuse for abuse. When her son verbally abuses his sister, there should be clear, firm immediate consequences for that. You don’t have to lose your focus to assign those consequences. Wait until the end of the conversation but make sure you address that. Secondly, I’d recommend that she give her child a consequence such as doing homework downstairs instead of in his room. She should tell him that she wants to see his homework every night until his grades go up, according to his midterm report. In other words, she should be setting appropriate limits on him until his grades go up.

If your child starts to escalate in this way and becomes verbally abusive, it’s also easy to become upset and angry and lose your temper. And that’s often just what he wants you to do, because then you’re stuck in a power struggle with him—and when that happens, you’re yelling and threatening, he’s yelling and threatening, and no one is talking about his responsibilities any more.

Parent: “What did you call me? How dare you talk to me that way—I’m your mother! ”

Child: “Why do you hate me so much? No one understands me but my friends. I hate you!”

When the parent in our example finally loses it and responds to her son’s aggression, he makes another personal attack upon her and tries to manipulate her emotionally. In the moment, he may believe what he says, and this is yet another thinking error. His mother doesn’t realize that for him, his solution is to attack—he wants to render her speechless. And if you’ll notice, he’s still not talking about taking any responsibility or solving the problem. They're just going around and around because he continues to play the victim. And since his mother isn’t challenging him on that posture accurately, he's just stepping up his verbal abuse and manipulation.

Parent: “I don’t hate you. Why would you say that?”

Child: “F--- you, I'm out of here.” (Kicks the wall and leaves.)

Escaping a situation is the most primitive thing that humans do when they’re threatened: it’s the so-called “fight or flight” response. When your child reaches a point where he’s out of coping or problem-solving skills, his fight response is to yell at you, break things, or hurt people. If he chooses “flight,” he runs. This response is not good for communication or negotiation skill development, which are two fundamentals of problem solving. His behavior doesn’t resolve the conflict—in fact, both choices just tend to make things worse in the long run.

The antidote to “fight or flight” is developing the communication and negotiation skills that are the basics of problem solving. A child, who doesn't want to communicate, has distorted thinking, constantly makes justifications, and continually takes a victim stance, has run out of coping skills. And when they run out of excuses, they start becoming verbally abusive and threatening. If that doesn't stop, then they run. So for most of this argument, this child has been fighting—and when that doesn’t work, he decides to run.

The bottom line is that now this child’s escalation is getting physical. He went from verbal abuse to physical abuse when he kicked the wall. This is just another sign of his inability to communicate, his inability to solve problems and his world view that he's a victim and “It's not fair.” Again, if things aren't fair, then the rules about cursing at people or breaking things don't apply to him, because it’s not his fault. And that lets him off the hook. These kids have a way of thinking that justifies inappropriate behavior, that justifies violating other people's boundaries and that sees them as a victim of everything. When you try to interfere with or challenge that kind of thinking, these kids will get more upset , threatening or destructive.

But as a parent, you have to challenge your child’s thinking errors and hold him accountable. Even though your child may try to shut down questions about his behavior, remember that you are the parent and you have control. My advice is to avoid getting sucked into a power struggle with your child, even when he leaves in the middle of an argument. Just say, “When you get back, we’re still going to have to deal with this.”

Realize that the thinking errors kids use interfere with their ability to take genuine responsibility for their actions or inactions. They also inhibit a parent’s ability to teach their child how to communicate, negotiate or solve problems responsibly. In fact, thinking errors make communication impossible: they distort reality and allow the person using them to avoid taking responsibility.

As a parent, it’s important to understand the thinking errors kids use so you won’t fall into the traps they set for you during an argument. If you know what your child is doing—and how to challenge him effectively—you can stop the blaming, excuse-making and victim thinking. In an upcoming article in Empowering Parents, I’ll be talking more about the thinking errors kids make—and how to deal with them as a parent.

 


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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."

READER'S COMMENTS

My son is 11 years old and has the 'victim' mentality. Everything is someone elses fault. We play into this constantly. Thank you for sharing this article. I can't wait until the next one. Please Hurry!!

Comment By : Michelle

Great explanation of the problem. My son has very weak problem-solving skills, so I read along carefully but found the article heavy on the "problem" & light on "solution".

Comment By : pastlives

The article on - just making rules with consequences was very helpful ind ealing with my 9yr old. of course she is annoyed that with out getting angry I am able to give ehr consequences which are not to her liking. But, slowly she is learning to accept rules and consequences. also the victim game is some thing I always see her playing. It may take time to bring her out of it, but even I need a lot of practise to not get angry or make an emotional comment.

Comment By : Roopa

I agree with this article. My grandson is 20 years old and he still does this type of behavior when he doesn't want to answer any questions. He is always saying why I'm 20 years old I don't have to do that. I would like him in by midnight and I get thie is 2010 why are you always doiing this I'm going to move out. Then the swearing starts. He knows I hate the f word and he just rattles it off . What to do ? thanks

Comment By : ann

This is an on time Article! I related to everything that was said in this article.

Comment By : Tired Mom

I've got an 8 year old daughter who is exhibiting this behavior. Everything thing is a struggle from doing her math homework to cleaning her room. If it is difficult then "we don't love her, everyone hates her" for making her do her responsibilities. I wish I knew the secret to changing this way of thinking.

Comment By : chpr19

Just wanted to chime in and thank everyone for their comments. Also, for those of you who are eager for more solutions to some of the issues mentioned in this article, please keep "watching this space" for an article by James Lehman on how you can address "thinking errors" in children--the thoughts at the heart of acting-out behavior. The article will appear in EP within the next few weeks, and is called, "The Top 5 Thinking Errors Kids Make—and How They Use Them to Justify Behavior". Look for some excellent advice from James in this article!

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

This article brings to light alot of what I'm dealing with. My 11yr. old does everything mentioned. Please tell us more about how to get a child to accept responsability. I'm all ears. Thank You Idaho Mom.

Comment By : Idaho Mom

Speaking of 8 or 18... After years of problems with our son he finally secured employment and moved into a house with three other guys. But here we go with the thinking errors... On one of his customer calls he forgot to verify the last four numbers of the customer's SSN which is their policy and a clear requirement. Also he was told that he was not allowed to place customers in the quique while he ran out and got a quick snack or drink. When he was written up and eventually let go, guess what? It was their fault and their rules were stupid. This "stupid rule" is the same game we played with him concerning weed. It's a stupid law. In his mind, since it was a stupid rule, he wasn't responsible. After several discussions with him concerning his needing to keep a job and how ALL companies have their own rules that he would need to follow...problem solved.

Comment By : mightyhorn

* Dear chpr19: Realize that kids make those kinds of comments as a way to change the subject, or delay doing what they don't want to do. Think of it this way - if she doesn't want to do homework, she knows she can delay it by saying you don't love her: you will spend time telling her you do love her; problem solved! Don't buy in to the emotional power struggle. Stay focused on what she needs to be doing in that moment, not how she feels about it. A great response to "you don't love me, no one likes me" is: "I'm sorry you feel that way. We can talk about that after your homework is done." You might also listen to the podcast "getting kids to do chores" in the EP archives.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ann: Hi Ann - You might read James' series on Living with older children: Remember, your grandson does not have to like your rules, he simply needs to find a way to abide by them - or find another place to live. It sounds like your grandson knows that this is not what you want, and so plays the "fine, I'll move out card," when he wants you to back down. He also knows that swearing upsets you. Kids do things to push our buttons, hoping we will get upset - that lets them take the focus off of the issue at hand, whether that is curfew or chores or any other responsibility or rule. While it is difficult, please know that you can walk away when he starts swearing. You might say "it's not okay to talk to me like that. Let me know when you're calm." Then, walk away. When he tells you he will move out, a simple and direct response is, "well, that is not what I want, but while you do live here, you need to find a way to follow the rules. Let me know when you are calm enough to discuss this." Good luck, and please let us know how it's going.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

Amazing how right on this is for employees too. And honestly, I can see myself doing it when I'm shirking my own responsibilies! Thanks for this timely and well written article. Can't wait for the solutions!

Comment By : The Boss Lady

* Dear ‘pastlives’: Thanks for your question asking for more clarification. The Total Transformation program is more in-depth then the series of articles on the Empowering Parents web site. The program gives detailed instructions on how to make changes in your home. In this article, James is talking about some of the thinking errors your child may have. Lesson 5 of the program is entitled Understanding Faulty Thinking: The Blocks to Problem Solving. In that lesson he discusses 14 common thinking errors. As he says, faulty thinking will get in the way of solving your problems--because it’s necessary to have a good sense of what the problem is in order to solve it. Let’s say that your son’s homework is the behavior you are concerned about. Instead of completing his homework, your son may be stuck in some faulty thinking. He might believe that it’s too hard for him, become anxious and overwhelmed and say, “I just can’t do it.” In this article James recommends that you confront faulty thinking and challenge it, because faulty thinking can derail the problem solving process. In this homework example you might say to your son, “I hear you say this sometimes--that you think you cannot do this work, but yet you are able to do the work. You’ve done this type of work before.” As you recognize your child’s thinking errors and help him to learn to identify them, eventually he will be able to change his own thinking, replacing errors with more useful, productive thoughts. As James says, “A change in thinking can lead to a change in behavior.” For more discussions on thinking errors, see A Day in the Mind of Your Defiant Child and I'm a Victim, So the Rules Don't Apply to Me! How to Stop "Victim Thinking" in Kids

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Victum thinking has been the Modus Operendi for our son. He is diagnosed 'objectional disorder'. He talks out, and gets rebuked by teachers. He has made improvements, but I am having trouble dealing with the repeditive negative events from his 6th grade teachers. Good advice from James about distance and taking time to deal later. My anger doesn't help and our son's willingness to change and deal with his tendencies is encouraging. Is this a struggle for life? Will he ever be able to understand his personality and see it for what it is, a trait? He can change his behavior and function better, but how long will it take or when can we tell him, that this struggle is ongoing, yet his ability to take control of himself will happen?

Comment By : Karma Dad

Wow, I am living this article right now! I have an ADHD 9-year-old daughter. As a single mom, it's easy to feel isolated during conflicts like this. After all, no other moms around me seems to have the behavior issues that I'm contending with. This article was very empowering, so on target. I couldn't figure out what on earth was at the bottom of her constant sparring, until I read that it's my daughter's lack of problem solving skills! She's not excused for that, but man, it's great to finally have a lead in the mystery! Eager to read the follow-up article! Thanks again :)

Comment By : orchidandgg

* Dear ‘Karma Dad’: It’s good to hear that your son is willing to work toward changes and has made improvements. You both deserve credit for these gains. Help him recognize when he’s making progress or even when he’s made a good effort. Encouragement will go a long way toward giving him the energy he needs to keep trying day to day. It’s not possible to know how long it will take him to overcome what he’s working on now. We’re all unique individuals. However, teaching him how to solve problems in childhood is giving him the tools to solve problems throughout his life.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I bought this program last year when my son was in kindergarden and it has helped a lot on how to handle his blaming everyone else for his behavior. We are still working on it but we have seen a great deal of improvement in his attitude and respect for other people. I tought me a great deal on how to handle the situation and that I think made it harder for him to get away with things. We are working on getting him to do homework on his own and be responsable to do things on a timely manner. Thank you for your program and articles. I always get something out of them that will help with my ADHD son.

Comment By : LadyElizabeth

This sounds just like my husband acts; only I don't know how to give him consequences for it.

Comment By : lostincrazytown

You have much knowledge of 'the deal' with kids. I appreciate all comments, but like 'lostincrazytown', don't know how to give 'her' consequences- here at 16 yr. old. Priviliges have always been removed in such cases...??

Comment By : Older single parent

RIGHT ON TARGET!!!! VERY HELPFUL AND MUCH INSIGHT ALONG WITH EXPERIENCE, IT SOUNDS LIKE!

Comment By : Weary Parent

* Dear ‘Older single parent’: You could say that privileges, rewards, consequences, and incentives can look the same. But unless you use James Lehman’s techniques, they are likely to be ineffective. Implementing consequences can be challenging and many people are unsure how to approach this. We have found that removing all privileges does not work, but instead a system of using short-term consequences, attached to a lesson to be learned, works. A consequence is only one part of a larger system of problem solving that changes behavior. Punishment does not require your child to actively think about and tell you what they have learned from their experience and will not help the child develop new skills. Instead, use the material from Lesson 6, which James calls ‘The Alternative Response Process’ to learn how to have a successful problem solving discussion with your child. At the end of the discussion you will let your child know what consequence there will be for her behavior. There is additional help with this issue of how to use consequences effectively. James Lehman has produced a product call The Complete Guide to Consequences. This DVD program features parents and children in real life behavioral situations and includes analysis and coaching by James Lehman. (available at https://store.empoweringparents.com/). We appreciate your question. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have trouble getting my ADHD son to get dressed and brush his teeth before the bus in the morning for school. I can't get him off the video games etc.. So I told him at 7:15AM he has to shut off the games , get dressed and brush his teeth. Well this morning it was another power struggle. I tried to keep my cool and keep my tone to a minimum but having to get to work myself I hate to say it but I lost it. He cried and apologized , he even started to blame himself and call himself names. He always uses the woe is me scenerio! But only when he's pushed me to the point of screaming! So no electronics tonight. I am going to try again tomorrow morning, this time it is no electronics AT ALL until he is dressed and teeth brushed. God give me strength! Thanks for listening. Your articles make me feel less alone.

Comment By : PattyJ

My 12-year-old son has this victim mentality too, but today he went way over the top. At school he got mad that his assignment wasn't done, and he expressed his anger by breaking his eyeglasses! Now I'm trying to come up with appropriate consequences. I've taken away all privileges for the moment while I figure this out. I think he should have none of his favorite privileges until he shows me that he can go a few days without an inappropriate outburst. Since he doesn't have an income that could be used to pay for the glasses, he can give me all of his available allowance that he has saved up, and he can spend the weekend doing chores to work off the rest (which still won't be enough). Then, since he has trouble remembering assignments, he can bring his assignment book home every night for me to see too. And I want a written explanation of what he did wrong so we can discuss it too. Does this sound reasonable?

Comment By : Paul

* Dear Paul: It sounds like you are pretty angry right now—and for good reasons. I really like that you mention the idea of problem solving with your son and having him pay for part of the cost to replace his glasses—this is a great start! James always said you can’t punish a kid into better behavior. Children need to be taught new ways of managing their emotions in order to change so I would make the problem solving talk your main focus, and then have him write down his plan for what he will do differently next time—what was he thinking before he broke his glasses and what will he do differently next time? He could earn back a privilege or two for having this conversation and writing down his plan; then he can earn back one or two other privileges after he pays for a certain percentage of the cost to replace the glasses. You can have him do work around your home to “work off” part of the cost as you mentioned. We recommend stopping there. If you bring in too many other tasks for him to do it could get really overwhelming and it could start to lose meaning for your son. I hope this helps.

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

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