There are times when your authority as a parent isn’t enough. If your adolescent has escalated to the point of physical abuse and destruction of property—or if he is engaging in risky or dangerous behavior outside the house—you already know you need help. Calling the police on your child poses a risk that you might not be willing to take, but it’s an option you might want to consider. James Lehman tackles this tough subject in a frank one-on-one interview.
"You should not have to live in fear of your child—and you shouldn't have to live in constant fear of how he will manage in life later on if he’s out of control now."
EP: Many parents feel powerless to stop their out-of-control adolescent’s behavior. They write to EP and say, “My teenage son is bigger than me, and he threatens me physically. I’m afraid of him. What can I do?” James, what would you say to those parents?
James Lehman: To parents who tell me “I’m afraid of my teen,” I say, “I believe you. These kids can be very scary and threatening. But I think if your child doesn't respond to your authority, there's another authority you can call upon if you choose to.”
Kids with behavior problems often make choices that lead to less and less self-control. They'll say and do things which give you the impression that they're out of control, but remember: everything they say and do is a choice. And it's those choices that we need to be concerned about.
Picture your child’s school for a moment—they don't let him assault people, punch holes in the wall or speak in a verbally abusive way to others there. In fact, all the schools I've worked with call the police if a student assaults someone, uses drugs or is destructive. Schools take action because they understand something that parents can lose sight of: kids make the choice to do these things, and as a result, they should be held accountable.
And why do we give somebody a consequence or a reward? To encourage kids to make better choices. If your son can choose to handle his emotions maturely and not curse out his little sister when she's annoying, that's a good choice; we want to reward that. If on the other hand, he chooses to be verbally abusive to his sister, the consequence you give him holds him accountable for that choice. So whenever we're thinking about steps like calling the police, I think the important thing is to understand that kids make choices—your child made the choice to hit you, take drugs or destroy your neighbor’s property. And I believe you should hold him accountable for that by using whatever appropriate means you have at your disposal.
EP: James, what would you say to parents who aren’t comfortable with taking this action?
JL: I know that many parents are alarmed at the idea of calling the police on their kids. And believe me, I really understand that. You’re getting the law and the government involved in your home. Many people are afraid that if they call the police, they'll lose control of the whole process. I also think there’s a social stigma attached to it; many parents are embarrassed by what their neighbors will think if they see the police at their house. They also may feel ashamed of themselves; they question themselves and wonder why they can’t handle their own kid.
I want to be very clear here: it's tough for parents to call the police and it's a very personal decision. It’s not for everyone, and if this option does not work for you or your family, then I think you should listen to your gut feeling. I really think everybody has to honor the choice of the parents. After all, you have to live with yourself for a long time. 30 years from now, your child’s teachers and counselors won't remember him, but you will, and you want to act in a way that you won’t regret later.
EP: James, let’s say a parent has decided that they would be willing to take that risk. How do they know when it’s time to call the police? In other words, what behavior would constitute a good reason for taking this action?
JL: I think you call the police when safety is an issue or when the behavior crosses the line and becomes criminal. This includes when things are getting broken and when people are getting threatened or hurt. To be more specific, if your child grabs a book and throws it across the room, I don't think you call the police. But if he punches holes in the wall or breaks something on purpose, I think you tell him “Next time you lose control like that, I'm going to call the police.” And if he does it again, you follow through.
To put it another way, I think you should consider calling the police when you see a pattern of behavior that's unsafe and threatening to others. Make it clear to your child that “This is the consequence for abusive, destructive or criminal behavior.” And hopefully he will learn from that consequence and make a different choice next time. I think it’s very black and white. When you have a child who is willing to violate the rules of your household—a child who’s willing to climb out the window and stay out all night, break his sister's iPod, punch holes in the wall or push his father or mother or siblings—you need to take very strong action. Believe me, you have a child who’s really in an awful lot of trouble as a person.
Don't forget, one of the things about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that the trauma comes from feeling like you didn’t have any control over the pain or the stressor. And I think that siblings who grow up with a violent, destructive or explosive brother or sister can be traumatized because they don't know when they’re going to get hit, pushed or verbally abused next. I know from personal experience that many siblings of kids who act out—the brothers and sisters of kids who are assaultive, abusive or destructive—develop PTSD-like symptoms. That's the bottom line.
When I hear from parents in this situation, I think of the terms “domestic violence” and “domestic abuse.” And that's what it is, because somebody in your home is taking advantage of weakness and physically assaulting family members. I think that's when you have to ask yourself, “What do I have to do keep my family safe here? And what am I going to do to help my child learn that he can't behave this way anymore?” For me, calling the police is part of the equation, because they can exercise greater power than you can over your child.
By the way, if this is a choice you’re willing to make, I think you have to let kids know what you’re planning to do. When things are going well, you can say, “The other night you pushed your mother. If that happens again, I'm calling the police.” It’s important to have that kind of plan in place. Let’s say you don’t have a plan and you wind up hitting your child in self-defense. You’re the one who will be arrested and penalized. And not only may you wind up in jail, but the courts are going to blame you for all your kid's previous problems.
I think you should tell your child you're planning to do this and I think you have to be very clear. But remember, if you tell him you're planning to do it, you better well do it. If you don't, then it's just another joke; it's just another bluff. And every time that you bluff your child, he will get more contemptuous of your authority—that's just human nature.
But the bottom line is that you should not have to live in fear of your child—and you shouldn’t have to live in constant fear of how he will manage later on in life if he’s out of control now.
EP: What about parents who are worried that their child will be sent to a juvenile detention center; that he’ll have a record that will follow him for the rest of his life?
JL: I think those are legitimate fears. I can't in good conscience tell you those things won't happen, because they do. But in my 25 years of working with the juvenile justice system, I’ve found that the wheels of justice turn very slowly. If the police come, they might write a report, but they can't do anything if you don't want to press charges. And they'll usually encourage you not to press charges the first or second time you call them. Look at it this way: nobody wants to take custody of your son or daughter; nobody wants to take responsibility for your teenager.
Why are you calling the police? You're calling them to give your adolescent a strong message that you're not going to tolerate his behavior and you're not helpless. I think that if the behavior continues, parents should press charges—especially if a parent or another sibling gets hurt. Press charges, because nobody goes to jail on their first charge; it just doesn't happen that way. Certainly, your child is not going anywhere if he has a family. The state doesn't want to pay for him; they're going to try all kinds of non-institutional resources. Hopefully they'll set you and your child up with counseling.
EP: What if you call the police, but the behavior continues?
JL: If the abusive, destructive or criminal behavior continues, the main thing that you want is for your child to be held accountable on another level. One way the courts do that is by putting your child on probation. Having a probation officer adds another dimension of accountability. Now if your child punches a hole in the wall, not only do you tell him to stop, but you call his probation officer. When your teen meets with him, the probation officer says, “Your mom told me you punched a hole in the wall. I thought we said you were going to work on that. I thought you promised me you weren't going to do that anymore.” Think of the probation officer as another level of authority.
I've seen probation officers and judges work out plans for kids who are aggressive and violent. They'll put them in "juvie" for a weekend or two. It can be very effective. They don't send the child away forever. After his time is up, they bring him back to court and say, “So what do you think? You think you can stop hurting people?” If the kid smarts off, they send him back for another weekend. They're trying to teach him to be accountable. Ideally a counselor or therapist points out, “You're not punching any holes in the walls here. What's different is we’re holding you accountable and you know we won’t tolerate your disrespect or abuse. You're making different choices about how you treat people and property. You can punch a wall here, but you're choosing not to. Now let’s figure out how you can make those same choices at home.”
That’s how coping skills are developed by professionals. These punishments and consequences are all designed to teach your child to make different choices; hopefully those choices will be healthy and safe.
EP: What about getting a permanent record?
JL: Parents ask me, “Will my child have a record for the rest of his life?” I'm sure the fact that they’ve been in detention or had a probation officer will be written down somewhere. But if something happens before your child is 16, in most states, that gets sealed when they become adults; there's no access to it and the public can't find out about it.
I understand that parents don’t want their kid to have a record. That's what you have to weigh out and struggle with. Ask yourself, “Is this behavior dangerous enough that it warrants me taking this action? How dangerous is he, really?” Personally, I'd rather have a child learn to be in control of himself and have a juvenile record than be out of control and have no apparent future.
Many kids blackmail their parents by saying, “If you call the police, I'll get a record.” Or “They’re going to send me to juvie.” They manipulate their parents this way. But I think if the abusive, assaultive, destructive behavior doesn't change, your child is going to have a lot more problems than whether or not he has a juvenile record. Make no bones about it; some day he's going to get an adult record. Out-of-control juvenile behavior becomes criminal behavior the day he turns 18.
EP: Any other reasons to call the police on your child?
JL: Another issue that I think parents have to think about is crime. This would include possession and selling of drugs or stolen property. I think you can say ahead of time, “I can't stop you from using drugs and if you're high, you're high. I can't tell the difference and I'm not going to play detective. But if I find drugs, I'm calling the police.”
If the police come over to your house and find some pot, they're usually not going to arrest your kid. They're going to warn him, because a quarter an ounce of marijuana is nothing to the police. You want to give your child the impression that you're just not going to sit by and let him throw his life away. But again, it's a strictly personal decision.
EP: How can you expect your child to react afterward?
JL: When things are calmed down the next day, your kid is going to be mad at you. He’ll say, “You stabbed me in the back.” He’s going to feel a sense of betrayal, but that's what bullies do. When you stand up to them, they feel like you've betrayed them and that they're the victim.
I think when things are going well, you want to say, “If you make different choices, we never have to call the police again. But if you assault somebody, if you break people's stuff, if you bring drugs into the house, if we feel intimidated by you, or if I'm afraid somebody's going to get hurt, I'm calling the police. And I just want you to know that.”
What your child will learn to say is, “So what, they won't do anything anyway.” But I think you say, “That may be, but I'm still going to keep calling them.” And here's the deal: every time you call, you’re adding to the paper trail on your child. You want to create that so there's clear documentation that he is out of control. I also think that it's important for parents to follow through on their plans. Say, “Well I don't know if the authorities are going to do anything, but I'm doing something. I'm calling the police.”
EP: James, Is there anything else parents should know?
JL: I think that it's just very difficult to raise a child, especially if they have behavior problems. But it's important for parents to know and remember that these kids make choices. Even when they seem overwhelmed by feelings, they’re making conscious choices—although that's not what they want you to believe. They want you to believe that they were overwhelmed by anger and so they really couldn't control themselves. That's an out-and-out lie. They're making choices all the time, and I think one way or another they need to be held accountable for those choices. If they don't respond to the level of accountability that they're held to, when they become adults, the game gets very serious and the consequences are severe: you lose jobs; you get arrested for possession; you go to jail for stealing.
Challenging kids who have out-of-control behavior patterns is not for the faint of heart because they strike back forcefully. Every now and then you're faced with a really tough decision. Hopefully you have knowledgeable people to talk to and access to learning tools. In any case, it's a tough job being a parent and there's not a lot of community support for that role nowadays.
Again, calling the police is one of the options parents should seriously consider, but it's not the only option. And if parents take that off the table, for whatever reason, that's perfectly sound judgment. Many, many parents choose not to exercise that option, and I support them. That being said, calling the police should be something people consider, and either reject or accept. Remember, you have the same right to protection from crime in your home as you do out of your home. It's not as if the law is different. We should have the same expectations of our children.