The Secret to Understanding Acting-Out Behavior: 5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Make

by James Lehman, MSW
The Secret to Understanding Acting-Out Behavior: 5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Make

Does your child refuse to take responsibility for everything? Or maybe your teen plays the victim card and is a pro at turning around an argument so you feel like you’re the one to blame. What you probably don’t realize is your child is using “thinking errors” to get his way—and to get out of doing things. In this follow-up to the recent article in EP on “Child Outbursts”, James Lehman unlocks the mystery of your child’s excuse-making, blaming and fighting.

Show your child that he's not superman—he's simply a kid who can make mistakes, just like any other.

Is there a word that you find hard to spell? For the longest time, I had to stop and think before I spelled the simple word “their.” I’d ask myself, is it “e-i” or “i-e”? This was a thinking error on my part. The difference between a thinking error and a mistake is that a mistake is a single incident, while a thinking error is making the same mistake over and over again. Behavioral thinking errors are the same kind of thing—picture an error in spelling or math that you repeat over and over again. In the same way, people use thinking errors to justify irresponsible or self defeating actions they take over and over again. They’re usually harmless. So let’s say your friend tells you he’s on a diet, but then you see him eat an extra dessert. And if you ask him why, you'll hear a thinking error: “I needed a little reward. It’s been a hard week.” When asked, your friend who has an extra helping of pie or the guy next to you on the highway going 85 miles an hour in a 65 mile-an-hour zone will probably give some excuse to justify their self-defeating or illegal behavior.

Kids use thinking errors all the time, too—and they get into trouble when they use these errors to justify being aggressive, taking risks, shirking responsibility, or trying to manipulate others. This is especially true for adolescents, because they're at a stage in their development when they really need to learn how to deal with life. They have to figure out how to manage anxiety, meet their responsibilities, follow through on tasks, and communicate frankly and honestly. For children especially, thinking errors are a destructive habit to get into, because they prevent them from learning the important skills that lead to success in life.

So as a parent, how do you recognize thinking errors when you see them? I think it’s important to learn what your child’s thinking errors are and to confront them. Confrontation leads to change—and by the way, confrontation doesn’t mean with hostility or anger. It means dealing with it head on. Actually, the less emotion the better, because a clear head gives you a better chance of getting all the information. Use your communication skills as a parent: Show positive regard in your expression and in your tone. If you’re not sure how to do that, practice in the mirror for awhile.

5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Use and How to Challenge Them

Thinking Error #1: The Victim Stance: The battle cry of a child who uses the victim stance is, “It’s not my fault!” When they don’t meet their responsibilities and they're challenged, they inevitably play the victim. A classic example of this is the old excuse, “The dog ate my homework.” What the child is really saying here is, “I'm a victim of the dog.” And if his teacher says, “You have to stay after school and finish your work,” instead of owning up to his mistake, the child feels like he’s the one being wronged.

All people see themselves as victims from time to time; it’s normal. Yet children and adolescents will often see themselves as a victim in ways that interfere with their emotional and functional development. If your child is allowed to use the victim stance too frequently, he will start to see himself as a victim all the time. The victim stance is one of the primary cop-outs adolescents use when they think a task is too hard, or boring, or stupid. They see injustice whenever they are challenged or confronted. This stance makes them very ungrateful and hostile, and it also prevents them from meeting their responsibilities. Think of it this way: if your child doesn't meet a responsibility, usually the natural consequence is supposed to help him change. But if he sees it as an injustice and believes he’s the victim, then he’ll take no responsibility for change, and he probably won’t.

How to Confront the Victim Stance: I believe you should challenge your child’s use of the victim stance clearly and directly. If you find out from the teacher that your child isn’t completing homework assignments, for example, start with, “Your teacher called me and said your homework isn’t getting done, but you told me you were finished. What’s going on?”Let him answer; hear him out. Let’s say your child gives you some victim story. I recommend that you avoid fighting with him about that. Instead, you can state very clearly, “You're a student, this is your responsibility. If you need help, you have to ask someone for it. You’re not a victim here—you can make choices.” You can also say to your child, “It sounds like you’re giving me an excuse or blaming your teacher for not having your work done.” (Understand that he’ll be unwilling or unable to understand the meaning of what you’re saying, but stick with it nonetheless.) Kids tend to avoid confrontation or they overreact to it because it makes them uncomfortable, but that’s right where you want them. Ask him “Do you have homework tonight?” And then tell him to go do it and let you know when it’s done. No long lectures. Just challenge his thinking and get him moving. Believe me, if the Victim Stance is a consistent thinking error he uses, there will be plenty of time to confront it further in the future.

Thinking Error #2: Uniqueness: Often, parents will ask their teenager why he’s started hanging out with the wrong crowd: kids who are using drugs or getting into trouble. They might say something like, “I'm different. I’m friends with Josh, but I don’t smoke pot like he does.” Or, When asked why they’re playing video games and not studying, your child will say, “I don’t have to do my homework or study. I know I can pass the test.” Statements like those reflect the thinking error of Uniqueness, and it creates a false sense of security for the person using it. Picture an adult friend of yours saying, “I can have the bottle of scotch and still drive. I drive better after a few drinks…it relaxes me.” He’s saying he’s unique, even though you think he’s crazy. Many adolescents see themselves as unique, and that thinking can have serious consequences. For instance, you might ask your teen, “When did you start spending time with those kids?” And your child will say, “They were nice to me on Friday, so I hung out with them after school.” Your response might be, “I’ve heard those kids use drugs.” And your child says, “Not me, I'm different. I don't use drugs. I'm just hanging out with them.”

There's an old saying: “If you hang around the barber shop long enough, you're going to get a haircut.” If your child thinks he’s unique and he can hang out at the barber shop, maybe he is. But for most kids that I've worked with, they're not unique at all—it’s simply an error in judgment.

How to Confront Uniqueness: It’s normal for most kids to perceive themselves as unique and invulnerable. Those thoughts become problematic when children and teens use them to avoid responsibilities, engage in risky behavior or justify poor judgment. Be straightforward when you talk about this. Ask your child about different scenarios that could occur and see how he would handle them.

Thinking Error #3: One-way Training: One-way Training is another thinking error that’s important to understand. This is when your child resists every effort you make to get him to take responsibility to change specific behaviors. And not only does he resist your training, he unknowingly starts to train you. The more aggressively he resists you, the more he’s training you not to challenge him. If he resists you through verbal abuse, dishonesty, destructive behavior, or manipulation, he’s training you not to hold him accountable, and to accept higher levels of irresponsibility. This is a huge thinking error. If kids using One-way Training are successful, they're just not going to learn what they need to learn.

A simple example of One-way Training is that your child feels that he has the right to go through your purse or your bedroom whenever he wants to. But if you go into his room, look out! You’ll see him become very upset and escalate. Believe it or not, that's the gentler part of One-way Training—it can get much worse when the stakes get higher and kids get verbally abusive or physically destructive.

What does your child get out of this? It’s simple: he won't have to perform and he’ll be able to skip his responsibilities. But adolescence is fleeting, and the day will come when your child has to have the basic knowledge to fill out a job application, apply for a job—and then keep one. He will also need the basic skill of being able to relate to other people without escalating and being a bully. In the long run, it’s very destructive to think, “If I resist them, they'll give up—and if I resist them forcefully, they'll stop bothering me and give in.”

How to Confront One-way Training: When your child uses One-way Training and starts escalating, the question is, “Are you trying to intimidate me?” Ask him very clearly. Your child may say yes or no, but at least the real issue is on the table. It's not “Oh, you asked me at the wrong time; you're bugging me.” Challenge your child directly and clearly.

You can begin by confronting his distorted thinking. Say something like, “Listen, I’ve noticed that you don't want me to go in your room, but you go into my room all the time. You have to give respect in order to receive it. Let's make a deal here. We’ll stay out of each other’s rooms from now on.” If your child still goes into your room, buy a lockbox and put a lock on the closet door. Opportunity, willingness and ability are the three primary factors of behavior. To help kids who can't manage their impulses, one of the things you have to cut down on is opportunity. I call that “opportunity management.” So instead of fighting with your child every day, put a lock on the closet door and start there—by eliminating the opportunity. Always remember, we have to deal with the child we're really parenting, not the child we wish we had.

Thinking Error #4: Dishonesty and Secrecy: I know kids have secrets; I understand that adolescents are in the stage where they’re individuating and separating from their parents. Secrets are a natural part of this stage of their development. But here's the deal: There are things that kids lie about, give misinformation about, or are secretive about which get them into trouble. There are kids who do things underhandedly and won't admit to it—or who blame somebody else. Maybe they’re caught at a party where everyone is drinking and they say, “Oh, I was just there; I wasn’t drinking.” Or “I was just walking by.” They always give you half the story, or they stack the facts.

“Fact stacking” is where your child gives you the facts, but stacks them in a way that seems to justify his behavior. When you investigate a little further, the facts take a different form. When you "unstack" them and get the truth, you realize that your child is simply justifying his behavior. And again, justification and avoidance may be common in our society, but they're not going to help your child.

“Partialization” is another part of dishonesty in which your child tells you half the story or does half the work. So you say, “Did you do your homework?” And he says, “Yeah, it’s all done.” Let’s say he's only got some of it finished, but he tells you what you want to hear so he's not under pressure. Many kids partialize; eventually it gets them into trouble. When it all comes out later, everybody feels like they were cheated and lied to. And if you don't confront this thinking error, this story will repeat itself again and again.

How to Confront Dishonesty and Secrecy: Kids need to learn about privacy and boundaries. They’re very important developmentally. Again, I think you should confront your child directly and clearly. You can say, “It sounds like you're only giving me part of the story. What’s really going on?” Or, “Are you just telling me what I want to hear? No? Well, then show me all of your homework.” Make your child uncomfortable and then hold him responsible.

Usually people don't like being challenged. Many kids will start yelling and get angry when confronted. Try not to get angry yourself. Instead, tell your child, “Getting angry at me is not going to change this. Let me know when you’re ready to talk about it maturely.” And then turn around and leave the room. Try to talk to your child later. If he refuses, there should be a consequence for him. I believe there should be consequences for kids who don't want to participate after a reasonable amount of time has gone by. And you can say, “If you don't want to talk to me about this, that's fine. But no electronics until you do.”

Thinking Error #5: Turnaround: Finally, kids often use a tactic called “Turnaround” when challenged. This is when you ask your child, “Why are you late for curfew?” and she says to you, “What do you care?” Your child answers your question with another question that puts you on the defensive—that’s how she turns it around on you. Or maybe you say something like, “Boy, I'm sick and tired of you not doing your chores.” And your child says, “Why? Don't you love me?” The name of the game for your child is to say something that puts you on the defensive—and it usually works. In fact, many of these tactics work. And by the way, it's not that the bad kids use thinking errors and the good kids don't. Any child can pick up these habits.

How to Confront Turnaround: State simply and clearly, “It seems like you’re trying to change the subject. Don’t turn this around on me. We’re talking about you doing your chores, not whether or not I love you.”

Kids use thinking errors to avoid being held accountable every day. They use them to avoid homework, but also to start using drugs, to steal and to be abusive to other people. But you can’t help your child change his behavior if he never takes responsibility for what he’s doing.

When you challenge your child, is he going to get angry? Yes. Defensive? Probably. Believe me, I know this isn’t easy. But if you can follow these guidelines, you have a better chance of getting your child to look at his excuses differently. You’ll be able to show him that they are actually getting in his way and getting him into trouble—not helping him. And that’s the first step toward acquiring the skills he’s been avoiding.


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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 all wonderful advice. I've implemented some of these things over the past 1 1/2 years with my 15 year old son. I've seen some very positive changes. There's still more change that needs to happen and I will use these techniques. Thanks

Comment By : caring

Excellent article, James. The truth works, even if the response to it initially is an explosion of sorts. Thank you for your valuable ongoing insights into the tough task of parenting!

Comment By : Lise

One of the best articles I've read from you. It covers 90% of the main problems I deal with and gives great advice on how to parent them. Everything in 1 article. Thanks. Maybe I understand it so clearly is that I've read all your other articles though.

Comment By : SusanBee

Thank you for this information. It is very direct. This reminds me that my 15 year old daughter is quite normal in many regards as she uses these thinking errors, however, I feel she uses them above and beyond. For example, this morning she arose early enough to get herself completely ready for school but when it came time to getting dressed she could not find anything she thought was good enough. She has been living at home and with an aunt while we are trying to figure some things out and she played the victim twice when she said, "I wasn't planning to be here last night so the clothes I could have worn are at the other house. It is your fault Mom, I was supposed to be there." Her next comment after I addressed that thinking error with a suggestion of wearing something similar to what she had worn on the previous day was, "Somebody at school already commented to me that I have worn that again." I feel like I keep addressing the thinking errors but she keeps wallowing in not solving the problem and creating much bigger ones like being constantly late for school. I other words, she can't seem to get on top of the thinking errors which constantly plague her. Anyone with an idea?

Comment By : Shannon

As for not doing homework, my daughter went from A's and B's to F's and D's because of not doing her homework. I told her if I see anymore 0"s she will have no more cell phone. ( I can check her grades and work online) Still she got 0"s I took away her cell and she started to do a little better, then she went back to getting 0"s again (meaning not doing her homework) I confronted her and she turns it around on me , telling me how alful she thinks my life is and saying horrible things about me. I just repond I don't feel that way about my life, I like my life. I think your talking about yourself. Then she says "Im not going to do my homework! I dont care! Im not finishing high school! Im not going to college! I hate you! I dont want to live here! etc, etc etc!!! I dont know what to do with her anymore. Shes very emotionally abusive and can be physically abusive too. Im a single mom. Shes bigger than me. Its scary sometimes when she comes after me. She will push me, slam doors into the walls, throw things. She used to grab me and shake me and even through things at me (during that time the courts were involved and she went to detention for two weeks) she is now off probation and things are getting bad again. She is almost 16. I need help with her and I dont know what to do.

Comment By : helpmom39

This is all great reading, but for me it's also academic. I have to contend with a 9 year old who most certainly is plagued by Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Consequences, ha! All I can do is to keep those boundies within plain sight and keep them consistent. Already I'm looking for ways to implement "opportunity management" even before I read this great and latest piece. Wish me luck. Only 20 more years to this 30 year experiemnt in chiild rearing.

Comment By : Daniel's son is stubborn!

This is perfect. I have so many conversations with people who are in fear of offending teens or they want to drug them. I know this takes time and repetition for a change of thought process. I also know that boys turn into men and if a parent never confronts error thinking there are grown men walking around with these thoughts.

Comment By : Momofboy

My daughter is 15 and has a hard time taking responcibility for her actions. She has a hard time getting up in the morning and it taked my husband and I 45 minutes to get her up. We are always late to work because of her and she is always late to school. Her honorol turned into D's and F's and her friends went from good kids to veery bad crowd. We moved to get her into a very good school and a great area but she is managing to find the same bad crowd here. We impose concequenses but she just says she does not care. How do we turn this child around?

Comment By : LilyaG

* Dear helpmom39: Given that your daughter is physically and emotionally abusive and violent, we urge you to address those safety issues before tackling schoolwork. Let your daughter know that if she or anyone else in your home is unsafe, you will call either the police or your local crisis services for help. You might call those local providers when there is no emergency to find out what they can do to assist your family. Please search the EP archives, by typing "physical violence" or "aggression" into the global search box on the EP homepage, or by clicking the link on the sidebar. Please also read "Why Don't Consequences Work For My Teen" for help in finding ways to help your daughter improve her behavior, and you might consider becoming a Total Transformation customer. As a customer, you not only have James' step by step process for creating behavioral change, you aslo have access to support line specialists who can work with you to customize a specific plan for your family. Good luck, and please keep in touch.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Shannon: You’re doing the right thing to encourage her to think of how she can solve her problems. It may work itself out after the family issue is resolved and she is again living in one place. Sometimes kids do have a hard time with their thinking when emotions are running high and living situations are unsettled. When you coach her, it’s okay to give her an idea of how to solve problems. James Lehman calls this ‘hurdle help’—helping our kids get over the big obstacle in the way. Give us a call here on the Support Line. We can work directly with you on the behaviors that are challenging you from day to day. Keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Hi Lilya - First, we recommend you choose one of the issues you mentioned to focus on. Trying to solve everything at once can be overwhelming for you, and for your daughter. You might choose the one which causes you the most stress, or the one that you feel is the most pressing; once you have seen improvement, you can move on to the next issue on your list. There are articles in the EP archives on all of the issues you mention: End the Nightly Homework Struggle; Why Don't Consequences Work for My Teen; and My Kid Won't Get Out of bed are great places to start. And remember, telling your daughter how "bad" her friends are will only make her defend them, and herself, more strongly. You will have more success if you stay focused on concrete behaviors, rules, and expectations, rather than on your feelings about her friends. You might also read "How Can You Control Your Child Outside of Your Home," also in the EP archives. Good luck, and please keep in touch.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor


Comment By : MERRITT

Dear MERRITT: Empowering Parents is not available in Spanish at this time, but thank you for your suggestion!

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