Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?

by James Lehman, MSW
Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?

“It was always like walking on eggshells around here. Very tense,” says Josephine, mother of 17-year-old Jamie. “She was totally disrespectful and condescending and I was ready to throw her out.” Josephine recalls how her “blood was always boiling” at home because her daughter’s unending anger stoked her own anger, and she dreaded the next behavioral eruption. “I would ask her to do things rather than tell her to do things just so I wouldn’t set her off. I’d get drawn into these screaming matches and the ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Now that I’ve realized how I need to be communicating with her, and what to say to her, I haven’t raised my voice and we haven’t argued in weeks.”

“A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody in the family certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns to you and everyone else in your home.”

There’s a difference between being considerate of your child and tiptoeing around him. We all want to be considerate of our children. If there are things that our child has to face in life that are upsetting to him, then we want to be considerate in terms of the intensity and frequency of how often he has to experience it in order to build up a tolerance. So, that means if the child can’t swim, per se, don’t throw him in the pool. But work with him on what he finds challenging and talk about it so that he builds up more of a tolerance and a skill base.

But let’s talk about tiptoeing around kids who are very reactive in a negative way. When we start tiptoeing, then we’re talking about being afraid to ask the kid to do routine responsibilities or to meet age appropriate expectations because we’re afraid of that child’s reaction. When we do this, it sets up a primary effect and a secondary effect. The primary effect is that the parent knows the kid’s going to act out at the mall, so they tiptoe around him at the mall and give in to his whims and demands because he’s thrown tantrums there in the past. The secondary effect is, the parent stops going to the mall altogether. So first they tiptoe and then they stop activities completely. Think about your own life with your child. Have you stopped going out to eat with your family because your child or children won’t behave? Have you stopped doing to relatives’ houses or do you make excuses why you “can’t make it” because you’re afraid of how the kids will act? That’s tiptoeing around your child.

The More Timid You Are Around Him, the More Power He Senses Over You

Here’s the bottom line about walking on eggshells around your child. If you tiptoe around him, the child senses that he has power over you, and he will use that power increasingly to manipulate you. As parents, we have to turn that misplaced “power” into life skills. To do this, you have to set a firm limit and then do skill building to teach him how to solve his problems appropriately.

Part of the problem parents have is that they set the limits without doing the skill building. They put the hammer down after the child acts out, but they don’t show the child how to act appropriately. If you don’t want the child to act out at the mall, it’s not enough just stop taking him to the mall. You need to take him to the mall and then teach him skills on how not to act out when things don’t go his way. In The Total Transformation Program, I teach parents how to set limits, and I also give them the tools for skill building and show them how to build those skills with their children. If you do this with your child, you don’t have to “walk softly” around him anymore. You can simply communicate with him.   

A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns everyone in your home. So his siblings are his victims. One parent is the martyr. One parent is the boogeyman. The child assigns all these roles to the family members, and, without thinking too much about it, they fall into those roles because if they play these parts, the child doesn’t act out.

So if you’re the martyr, your child basically created that role for you and is saying, “I won’t direct my acting out at you. I’ll direct it to the school. If you don’t want me to act out toward you, you just have to keep blaming the school. Once you start to hold me responsible, I’m going to act out against you.” So you can see why so many parents find it easier to fight the school than to fight their child.

Some kids send their parents this message: “If you buy me things, I won’t act out against you.” So, they don’t act out with the deep pockets parent, and they rebel against the parent who can’t buy them things. Deep pockets parenting is essentially tiptoeing around your child. To avoid confrontation with him, you buy him things.

Let’s be honest. We all tiptoe around each other to some degree. If somebody’s upset, that’s not the time to tease him. If somebody’s embarrassed or humiliated about something, that’s not the time to be sarcastic and rude. But these kids teach you to tiptoe around them in all cases where there’s some demand that they perform appropriately. They want to have the choice and the power. They want to be able to say, “Hey, if I feel like doing it I will. But if I don’t, don’t you try to make me.”

Remember: our basic theory is that kids use behavior to compensate for poor problem solving skills. So if you have a kid who has not solved the problem of authority, the problem of give and take with others, the problem of getting along with people, or the problem of respecting adults, your child will develop these different power behaviors to avoid learning these essential problem solving skills.

To change this behavior, parents need a process through which they draw the line and then they start to follow it. But they also need to develop more skill building and a consequence structure that is geared toward skill building and not just punishment. They need a new set of glasses through which to see their child’s behavior, and a new way to talk to their child.

How You Can Stop Tiptoeing around Your Child Right

Tiptoeing is giving in to the child’s behavioral blackmail. What happens is that the child will give signals when he doesn’t like what’s going on. When he’s asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. Or when he’s asked to stop something he’s doing. Tiptoeing means giving in when he gives those signals. You read the signals and change your demands. Not giving in is a matter of keeping the expectations firm and consistent even when he starts to escalate.

An example of escalation is when you tell the child to do their homework. They say “No!” and slam their book down on the table. Instead of giving in, give it a minute, and remind him that if he doesn’t start now, he’ll lose a minute of computer time. You can leave the room or wait a minute. Take that time to build yourself up, and then explain what the consequences of his actions will be. If he continues to escalate, tell him he’ll lose any time he could have had on the computer that evening. That’s how they’re going to learn. The parent should avoid yelling and avoid overt conflict.

Your tone should be firm and businesslike, not unpleasant. Often with these kids their behavior will escalate when they’re being told to do something. So it’s not accepting those cues or giving them any attention at all, and then redirecting the child, giving him a minute to calm down.

The truth is, parents can get into patterns that become increasingly more ineffective as the child gets older. Parents want to do the right thing, but sometimes they’re overwhelmed and they take shortcuts. Before they know it, the kid is nine, twelve or sixteen and he’s got them backed into the corner. But parents should not expect less of a child because of the behavioral blackmail and they shouldn’t accept less.

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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."


This is definately my family! We all tend to tiptoe around one child and he plays us like a fine instrument! Although it's difficult to change, we are trying the techniques learned and teaching him other ways of dealing with what's going on in his life.

Comment By : Scheff

my child is ADHD/ODD and when he gets mad, he blows up, profane language and argues and runs away,I am exhausted and I am not sure what to do.

Comment By : Angelwatching

This really hit home with me. I ALWAYS ask my daughter rather than tell as to not set her off. I am a nervous wreck she will act rude and disobey in front of my boyfriend so I walk on eggshells with her when we are all three together. I don't know when I lost the control, as a parent, but I definitely have to make changes so that she is not determining the whole mood of the evening which she has done for several years now.

Comment By : Hope

I have a 14 y/o boy who does exactly what Mr. Lehman says. I want to get rid of the eggshells, and follow through with what I request of my son. One day he will have to work for someone and has to learn to listen to authority. I am starting ASAP!

Comment By : renee

It feels good to know that I am not alone with such a problem. Nine years old and my son trys to run both housholds. His 7 y/o brother is sensative and a rule follower. Many events were canceled and we just stayed home. Giving away our power. I believe it started at age 4 maybe sooner. This letter will help alot. Ive had some success trying to be non emotional. It is much harder than I ever imagined. I thank you for your advise and help. Wendy.

Comment By : Wendy

Well put James. Laurie, former tip toeing mother of two who did and still does the suggested through total transformation.

Comment By : Laurie

My child is 16 and totally out of control, he won't come home and work things out with me, he moved into my sister's house after I asked her not to let him. Now its the family interfering and my son is very defiant towards me and disrespectful, he and his cousin attacked me and pushed me out of my sisters home when I was trying to get him to come home. I called the police and they did nothing, my son came out and started banging his head against the window of my jeep and kicking the door, and punching it,efore the police go there. They put him in the police car and he just sat there giving me the finger. They let him go back inside the house and told me to leave him be. My sister lets him come and go as he pleases and there is substance abuse going on, the police know this. I have called several agencies to get him help but they all tell me I have to get him to the emg room for assessement. I am at a lost what to do, he is 16 he doesn't have to come home. I am losing my son. I have raised him in a stable, loving enviornment. I have walked on eggshells with him in the past, been an emotional hostage, but his drug use its escaluated. Please any suggestions would be great. His dad lives in another state, won;t come to help.

Comment By : Mainemom

Mainemom: Get in touch with the Family Court in your state and see if they will support involuntary emacipation. Tell them you have and ungovernable adolescent and he has assaulted you. Get an order of protection against him. This is tough love. I have been there. Your son will not improve until he is compelled by force of law or survival to fly right. If he violates the court order, do not hesitate to call the police. Above all, don't blame your self. If he is an addict, he must work this out with a support group of others with the problem. Anything else you do to postpone his recovery is enabling him to continue his addicted way of life.

Comment By : BeenThruThatHell

Our daughter is 20 and extremely manipulative. She continues to be uncooperative and inconsiderate. There have been two times she's been physically aggressive with me, and she's also spiteful and lies and blames and plays the victim. She is intelligent but she failed her first year of university and will be repeating again this year. She failed because I haven't managed to instil in her what her priorities are and how to manage her time and not to procrastinate even though I've explained the who, what, when, why of it to her over and over again. I realize the problem is that my husband and I don't present a united front. My husband continuously defends her by saying it's a phase; they're all like this, what's she's doing and saying is normal; she has a lot of problems in her life right now; she's just a child and she'll change when she gets older; I'm too hard on her and to stop or she'll move out. He and I present a united front sometimes but sometimes isn't good enough. She actually kicked him in the groin when he got after her for running at me and knocking me down. Basically he thinks she'll magically grow out of it, and he sticks with this opinion and turns a deaf ear no matter all the reasons I've presented to prove my point, which is she's difficult because she needs rules that need to be firmly set not set and then excuses made for her because she didn't follow them. I'm at my wit's end and feeling angry because I feel powerless and bullied. Our daughter did see a counsellor at school though whether our daughter saw her regularly is something I'm not sure of. My husband and I have also had marriage counselling, which I think was a waste of time and money. Please, any suggestions would be so nice.

Comment By : Unacknowledged

Thank you, Mr. Lehman, for the valuable information, in all of the articles I have read on your site. I am a Social Worker/Wraparound Coordinator. I live in a very small community, and our Agency has no funds for purchasing programs to train parents (specifically in behavior management), although we may be able to do so with the help of a Grant. Anyway, I have been researching articles to give to parents I work with, and yours are some of most informative, clearly explained, useful articles that I have found! It's great to have this information to give parents, so they can put some different "tools in their toolboxes". I often feel for them; I am a parent too. Fortunately, I have been shown many "tools" over the years, but if I hadn't, I would not want to be held accountable for something I didn't know how to do!! And no matter how experienced, all of us parents can learn from every new situation, every bit of new research, different viewpoints, and new techniques. Thanks again!

Comment By : Tonee Therrian

"A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns everyone in your home. So his siblings are his victims. One parent is the martyr. One parent is the boogeyman. The child assigns all these roles to the family members, and, without thinking too much about it, they fall into those roles because if they play these parts, the child doesn’t act out." That couldn't describe our household ANY BETTER! It started around 4 here as well. I guess I don't do well with telling her what *to* do! Her younger sister is so much more typical, the "usual" discipline techniques "work". (Not spanking, we don't spank, just in case you wondered). I've been stymied forever on why nothing "works". But in this case, I'm the martyr. And I am often confused as to why I personalize her behavior and not her sister's as well. But she is 6, and a VERY manipulative, bullying, tantrum-throwing little girl. I homeschool her because I thought public school would set off her anxieties and make things worse. But sometimes I wonder if that's the case.

Comment By : ainsleesmom

I love this web site. I am all of above, tiptoeing, giving consequeses that doesn't work. I have read these articles almost everynight and applied to my 17 years old daughter. I am constantly finding the way to feel in control of the situations. she complies most of the time and sometime she makes bad choices that hurt me. I am worry some of the time and go on the internet to read the article again and again.I am so tired of being tought and firm to my dauthers. My husband has not showed interest reunited with me to disipline our daugthers. Most of the time, he becomes ignorant when I bring our dauthers'issues for discussion.

Comment By : deperate patty

I am a single Mom with an 18 yr old daughter, who doesn’t do ANYTHING I ask/tell her to do! Whether it is clean your room, do your homework, or even small things like pick up your shoes … she does NOTHING that I tell her to do. I believe that with some children that you can give them consequences (i.e. lose computer time), but with my daughter there are NO consequences that bother her. This is mainly because she doesn’t abide by the consequences. If I ground her – she walks out of the house and comes home much later than she did to be grounded! And she laughs at me when I tell her she’s grounded. What do I do???

Comment By : Frustrated Linda

I am a single Mom with a 15 soon to be 16 year old who does not go to school consistently! He gets good grades when he attends so he doesn't feel that attendance is important. He always says he doesn't feel good. I get up every morning early to wake him up for school which takes about 5 x's+ when he does go. He's very moody and unapproachable to me. We've had ups and downs and I love him very much as does his father who lives in another state. I am thinking about transferring him to has father's, but it is not what I wish to do. I just wish he'd be less depressed and grumpy all the time. He is becoming disrespectful and treats me more and more like I'm the problem. I did a "sweep" of his room awhile back and found cigarettes and empty beer cans. This is so unlike him and my head is reeling. I took him to the doctor and he says he seems depressed and should get tests so that he can be put on medication. I don't want to go this route if I can help it. He doesn't stay in when I tell him to and if I tell him I won't give him a ride, he just walks out the door. I hate to say it, but I'm almost looking forward to him turning 18 so that I can stop supporting him and let him see what the real world is like. He was always so loveable and still is, but its becoming fewer and fewer times with more and more brooding inbetween. Punishments don't work. He doesn't accept them.

Comment By : NJ Mom

* Dear NJ Mom: This is a tough situation when your child does not accept the limits you’re trying to set on him. No child likes limits, but it’s a different kind of challenge when they simply walk out of the house. I’m sure you’re worried about his safety when he’s out and unsupervised. One of the concerns you bring up, I’d like to address first—-because it could very well get in the way of his achieving his goals--is your concern about his depression. It is sometimes hard to know what the best solution is. Just know that sometimes kids will try to self-medicate by using alcohol. This, of course, will lead to more serious problems and won’t help with his mood at all the way that prescribed medications can. James Lehman has published an article on how to address depression. Let me include that link for you: The second point you raise is about your sons’ growing disrespect and disobedience and your thoughts about sending him to live with his father. It is my opinion that this can be a very good idea. I think there comes a time in a young male’s life when the influence of his of father is very important to him developmentally. I’m not suggesting he won’t give your ex-husband a hard time—-he probably will. But there are things that he should have the opportunity to experience from his father when his father implements the teaching and coaching role, as well as the limit setting and problem solving roles that James teaches us to use. Not everyone raising their son alone has the opportunity to give that care over to the other parent when the time comes. But it sounds like in your family, you have all maintained a healthy love and concern for the welfare of your son. However you decide to proceed, I would encourage you to address your son’s struggle with depression first. Please keep in touch with us and let us know if there is anything else we can answer for you.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am glad I found this website. Its very informative. I am currently going through this problem. In my husband's house, the seat of power is with a 12 yr old daughter (3rd among 4 kids). She is so disrespectful.

Comment By : JV

I can empathize with all these comments. I am in total agreement with frustrated Linda. No consequences phase my 17 year old daughter. Refuses counseling, when we had taken her and gotten medication she refused to take it after a few days.

Comment By : mo mom

Thank you Dr. L, My husband is out of town with my younger son this week and I am home alone with my 19 yr old. The day after my husband left, my son took our truck, picked up his friend who stayed over last nite without my permission. I was not sure how to handle it, I like this friend and his parents, and they played football, watched tv, good stuff. I decided to deal with it this morning because yesterday was the first time I got hit with the flu in years and I wanted to scan your web site for tips first. What helped me the most was the paragraph below: "Here’s the bottom line about walking on eggshells around your child. If you tiptoe around him, the child senses that he has power over you, and he will use that power increasingly to manipulate you." I called the boy's parents 6 am and they picked him up, they did not know he was here. I told everyone it would not have been a problem if this would have been cleared with me first. I asked my son where the truck keys were and he slurred he did not know. I found and took them. He started talking back abusively and I said "If you keep talking that way, I will call the police and have you removed". He stopped but is strutting around trying to intimidate me. I want to add that my son was adopted at age 8 and has attachment disorder issues, however, after reading the parent blogs/newsletter, I now realize biological parents are dealing with similar and even worse issues. The next statement says: As parents, we have to turn that misplaced “power” into life skills. To do this, you have to set a firm limit and then do skill building to teach him how to solve his problems appropriately. I need to write my expectations and give it to him in writing. This is tough, but this support web site is the only place I have felt there was a community of people who really "understood" and a place that had any useful information (we have gone to counseling, etc and my son said, "I don't care what you do, I am not going to change")so I am very grateful for this site, that is here 24/7. Thank you again.

Comment By : Vic

My husband and I adopted 5 kids ages 5-12 several years ago. We've found that they have a need to reject us before we reject them. After all, once your mommy doesn't keep you, they believe who on earth would? They're looking for that unconditional love they never got. So if they say hurtful things - and they most certainly will - it's because they fear rejection more than anything. They feel empowerment by being the one who rejects first, because after all, they were the ones who had the rug pulled out from under them with the last parents. Trying to balance their need for love and zest for power with parents' right to be the person in charge of the family is the real skill. It took us a LONG time to deflect those comments. Once you really believe that the comments and actions are not about you, but really about their terror of being abandoned again, it will get much easier.

Comment By : MomOfSensationalSix

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