Is It an Adolescent Phase—or Out-of-Control Behavior?

by James Lehman, MSW
Is It an Adolescent Phase—or Out-of-Control Behavior?

“Every teen goes through this!” You tell yourself these words, but in the back of your mind, you wonder if your child’s disrespect, acting out and destructive behavior really is normal. How do you know if your child is going through an adolescent phase, or if his out-of-control behavior is here to stay? James Lehman has the answer in Part 1 of this 2-part series in Empowering Parents.

The whole idea that an out-of-control teen or a kid with behavioral problems can't make appropriate choices is a patent falsehood.

Why do parents often say, “Oh, it's just a phase; my teenager will grow out of it”? I think there is often a sense of denial that parents have when it comes to their teens’ acting-out or destructive behavior. When you’re a parent, it’s very troubling and sad to think that your son or daughter has a serious problem, and it’s painful to think that they might be different from other kids. Parents will do a lot to deny that, partly because of how bad it makes them feel. After all, denial helps you not feel what's in your gut and to avoid looking at the facts.

Parents may also explain their child’s behavior with “It’s just a phase” because they truly believe this is so. Perhaps friends or relatives have assured them with these words. And television, magazines, the Internet and some counselors may even tell them that what their child is doing is normal. Personally, I think parents get a lot of misinformation today. That's not because anybody is bad or wrong, it's just the nature of our culture: parents are bombarded with information—but not all of it is effective for their child.

How Do You Differentiate Between Normal Adolescent Phases and Inappropriate behavior?
When you look at what is considered to be a normal adolescent phase, understand that there's a continuum. Within that continuum you'll see different types of behavior, depending on where your child is developmentally. So picture a line with a well-behaved child on one end, and out-of-control behavior on the other. I’ve found that most kids are somewhere in the middle.

During adolescence, you might see your child do the following as part of “normal” adolescence:

  • Be moody and look secretive, spend much of his time alone in his room.
  • Get frustrated and stomp upstairs.
  • Be short-tempered and more impatient with you.
  • Decline to hang out with the family as much.
  • Be late for curfew.
  • Say things like, “Only my friends understand me! I hate it here, I wish I could leave.”
  • Be discontented and restless.

As unpleasant as it is at times, this is all part of the way teens and pre-teens typically individuate from their parents. But some behaviors are not normal—rather, they are warning signs. The following behaviors fit into that category:

  • Stealing
  • Being physically assaultive to others or destructive in the house.
  • Being verbally abusive, intimidating or threatening.
  • Abusing a younger sibling.
  • Coming home drunk or high.
  • Staying out all night.
  • Getting arrested.

Make no mistake: there's something wrong with this behavior. Parents who tell themselves “It's just adolescence” are setting themselves up for a rude awakening later on.

I believe most parents know the line between normal and inappropriate behavior in their gut. If your child’s behavior starts affecting other people in a physical way, if he becomes verbally abusive, or is stealing, coming home high or drunk, or staying out all night, that's the line. Most parents know that line, even if they’re in denial—and at some point, they simply won’t be able to deny it anymore.

If any of this is going on in your house, remember that the earlier you intervene with your child, the better. The sooner you tell your child that what he’s doing is not acceptable, and then teach him the tools he needs to behave differently, the better. Don't forget, a lot of kids who seek control by acting out—by being assaultive, verbally abusive or destructive, or abusing substances—don't know how to solve problems. They don't know how to make friends or communicate in a way that gets their needs met, so they use drugs and alcohol and inappropriate behavior to meet their needs instead.

Dealing with Your Child’s Thinking Errors
I’ve had parents of acting-out kids ask me, “Is my son angry; is he really frustrated; is he mad?” My answer is always, “Yes, he is. But probably not for the reasons he's telling you.”

An acting-out child will say things like: “If you'd leave me alone, I'd behave better.” He'll tell you it's the school's fault: “They don't understand me there, they keep picking on me.” The reality is that these feelings are coming from his inability to solve problems like getting along with other people, managing his impulses, and following directions. They also come from his unwillingness to make the right choices—or inability to ask for help. Instead, he keeps creating negative feelings by the way he thinks.

A child in this situation is making a lot of what are called “thinking errors.” Just as there are spelling errors and math errors, there are also thinking errors. When your child blames somebody else for a problem he caused, that’s a thinking error. When he tells you that it's somebody else's fault that he broke a window, that’s also a thinking error. In fact, you'll see kids employ all kinds of thinking errors: they’ll blame you, justify their behavior, and lie. And acting-out kids are willing to back up what they're saying by punching a hole in the wall or calling you foul names.

If your child doesn’t know how to get along with people, he might try to control you through behavior, manipulation, and dishonesty. And if you ask him what he feels, he won’t answer—or he’ll become more aggressive. That’s because he doesn’t know how he feels. And many times, his feelings are so uncomfortable he won’t want to acknowledge them in the first place. That’s why it’s vitally important to focus on thoughts and behavior, not feelings.

My Teen Acts Out: When Will It Stop?
Here’s the truth: kids get more control from seemingly losing control. So let’s say you tell your 14-year-old that it's time to go do his homework. He starts freaking out and punching holes in walls. After he does this a couple of times, you stop telling him to go do his homework—by the way, that’s normal for most parents—and that becomes the solution. But here’s the danger: now your child has gotten more control over you. It looks like he lost control, but in the long run, he’s gained more control.

Many acting-out kids “lose control” in order to get more control, but understand that it's an unhealthy kind of control. Believe me, if your child is doing this already, he will increase your tolerance for deviant behavior—what you would normally accept or even what you morally believe in. He will push you beyond your limits and you'll accept behavior from him that’s wrong and inappropriate. At the same time, he will decrease your expectations for appropriate behavior: you won't expect as much from him. Little by little, your child will become comfortable using acting out as a way to solve his problems.

By the way, the whole idea that an out-of-control teen or a kid with behavioral problems can't make appropriate choices is a patent falsehood. I’ve worked with these kids for many years and believe me, they are able to make appropriate choices—and they do so every day. That's why they act out with some teachers, but not with others. Or they act out in the home and not in school. In my practice, I’d see parents of kids who were supposedly out of control. Then I would go visit these kids in the youth detention center where their probation officer sent them and they weren’t cursing out the guards there. They were saying “yes sir” and “no sir.”

Remember, the idea that a child will grow out of this type of destructive behavior is not realistic. Understand that if your teen is acting out and using intimidation to get his way, he’s already put this behavior into place as his problem-solving mechanism—and the sad thing is, it works for him. The people in his life will back down and let him have his way until he reaches adulthood, but then he’ll really be in trouble. If your child doesn’t learn the all-important life skills of compromise, acceptance and appropriate negotiation, how will he ever hold a job or stay in a healthy relationship? The harsh reality is that letting a child get away with this type of behavior will handicap him for the rest of his life.

Read Empowering Parents next week to see what James says you can do for a child whose adolescent phase has turned into out-of-control behavior, including the 8 steps you can take today to help your child before it’s too late.


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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."


I would be embarrassed to tell you how much I am paying off in bills for psychologists,psychiatrists,testing,resident treatment,etc. for a son with "problems".I (he) has used up several insurance plans. What I read here makes so much more sense than what I have been told. My biggest concern now is that the boy is a 25 year old adult. But at least I have some hope.I am still waiting for the book to arrive.

Comment By : resident

Loved it, now have a child who is refusing to get out of bed in the morning and go to school. I had homeschooled her all her life until 10th grade. She just started school 15 days ago and has missed her bus 1/2 of the time. This AM refuses to go to school and says, "We can't make her". We are trying to make her accountable but don't know how, already have taken all her electronics from her including cell and computer (because of making wrong choices with them). Any suggestions?

Comment By : NanC

Thank you for "being there". And for your excellent program. I have co workers who talk to me about their troubled teens. I point them to you and your program. Sometimes I send them an article that speaks precisely to an issue we've discussed. Thanks for the sanity.

Comment By : grandma susan

So true for my son. Teachers love him (in spite of him doing poorly), friends parents say how polite and respectful he is, our friends and family can't believe what I tell them about day to day interaction wit our son. He is constantly disrespectful,does poorly in school because he doesn't do his assignments. He says he doesn't do his work because I am obsessed with school. I have followed much of James' tools using the Total Transformation. I stop the show, he is not allowed out until his homework is complete. We used to ground him for the whole semester. I say don't talk to me that way I don't like it so forth and so on. I am not going to back down. I am not responsible for the results. He is resistant. And unfortunately for him he may have many struggles as he gets older. He says if we were good parents he would be doing better in school and have more control in his life. As if we haven't done anything for him. We could hand him the world and it wouldn't be enough, something would be wrong with it and it would be our fault. Consequences keep coming and he pushes harder. I know this is not a phase this is his way of being in control of our home. It used to work, I would feel sorry for him and wonder how could I help him more. Now, we are handling him better for our own sanity. We are trying to coach him forward (he's 16 and stuck on 12). But he is resistant.

Comment By : annemarie716

Sounds very familiar.

Comment By : m.a.

This makes perfect sense. Can't wait to read next week's article. I am a widow for 3 years and have had some struggles with my now 15 yr. old son with Asperger's. The book, the articles, the advice and parent comments have all been a tremendous help and support. I have vowed to remain strong and consistent, though it has been quite challenging at times. The concrete steps and techniques for problem solving are invaluable at those times of feeling so powerless. Thank you

Comment By : lynny0430

I am a grandmother who has had 2 grandsons living with me and my husband for the last 8 yrs. The 18 year old one thinks if he yells loud enough and slams doors and curses this will make us leave him alone. This kid has been a problem from age 6. We put him in a private school at age 6 and he was ask to leave. I had his physican exam him to determine if he had problems and was advised he was fine just determined to get his way. Eventullay I had to home school him because I knew the public school system would not be able to work with him. I home schooled him for 2 years and placed him back in public school. I became very active with the school and teachers all in an effort to keep an eye on him and make sure he was behaving. Well this didnt work either, this kid still stayed in trouble. I ended up having to home school him after he was kicked out of high school. Fast forward to present day. This kid started climbing out of the bathroom window at night to meet up with his friend and get high. Once I found this out I kicked him out of my home. Next thing you know he gets locked up for breaking into his very best friends house and stealing his Xbox to buy drugs. He was lucky and was given a youthful offender conviction because he was only 16. I put him in counseling with a therapist who leans towards your teaching this has help somewhat but this kid continues to get high. He is currently enrolled in the community college doing ok but still tends to gravate to kids who are just like him. Aimless, I recently told him I'm getting a little to old for this and he is about on his way out. Neither his mother of father will take him in and they have already said so. I am tried of the everyday challenges with this kid. to

Comment By : Grannie

I feel I am in the beginning stages of this pre-teen with my 12 year old son. I feel I am losing him and am not sure what direction to take...he refuses to get out of bed in the morning causing the rest of us to be late, doesn't do homework and doesn't provide me with assignments in order to follow-up on the assignments, receives "write-ups" from school more frequently than ever and grades are starting to go down....I am a single mom with three children - I feel responsible and as one can imagine I am tired...he is the only male in the house and I am positive he feels the world is against him - I love the articles they are positive and I need assistance with how to enforce a new routine so late in the game...suggestions?

Comment By : concerned mom

Today we go a new program that will step up my son's therapy to twice a week from twice a month. He has graduated from pot/alcohol to pills since we started testing for the former on a regular basis. He made the "thinking error" of doing this in school and has now been expelled. But he doesn't think he has a problem. He has more people praying for him right now and, given everything else we've tried to do, I hope that works. He's 16 and we're hoping that he realizes that his future is forfeit until he takes responsibility for his actions and accepts the help that is being given to him. God help us all.

Comment By : LI Mom

How do you stop the manipulation and verbal abuse from your teen? I am so tired of the attitude and disruption to our everyday life. My husband and I are also arguing because he tolerates our childs behaviour and also gives in to her demands. It's easier for him to give in than argue.

Comment By : Bel

* Hi Nan - Kids often use "you can't make me" as a last ditch bid for control. The truth is, you can't make her - physical force is ineffective and will not help her learn better skills. Don't argue with her - think about it: if her goal is to stay in bed and not get ready for school, then getting you to argue with her lets her stall for time; she is arguing rather than getting ready for school. A great response to "you can't make me" is, "That's true. But refusing to get out of bed doesn't change the rules. If you aren't ready for the bus, you know the consequences." Then, turn and walk away. You might also work with your daughter on how she can help herself meet the morning expectations, even when she does not want to. You mentioned taking away her electronics. You might consider allowing her to earn access to something she values, for a shortened period, each day when she gets herself up and on the bus appropriately. Remember, in order to get kids to do something you value, you need to offer them something they value - let her know she can earn something she wants each day. You might also read Why Don't Consequences Work for My Teen? and My Kid Won't Get Out of Bed Stop the Morning Madness Now for more ideas. It might also be helpful to find out what your school's policy is on absences and tardiness; let your daughter know you won't protect her from the school's consequences if she chooses to break their rules.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear “concerned mom”: As James says, it is never too late to help your child learn better skills and better behavior. You might choose one of the behaviors you mention, working on that one issue until you see improvement. For example, if getting out of bed in the morning is really stressful, sit down and discuss it with your son, as calmly as possible. Let him know your rules and expectations, what he can expect to earn when he gets up on time, and what he will lose each day if he does not. Be sure to identify what he can do differently to help himself get up on time - a simple, "I'll just do it, mom,” is not enough. He needs to have a plan. Once you have identified what he will do differently, you can act as his coach, prompting him and reminding him each night: "Remember, you get X-box time tomorrow night when you get up by 7. You said you would set your alarm and put the clock across the room, so please go do that." You might also read My Kid Won't Get Out of Bed Stop the Morning Madness Now. If you would rather focus on the homework issues, the same structure applies; check out End the Nightly Homework Struggle for specific ideas. Regardless of whether this is a phase or the portend of things to come, remember that how you respond is important: if your son sees that his behavior upsets you, or it gets you into an argument, he will continue to use it. Stay calm, walk away if you can't be calm, and stick to the issue at hand. Good luck.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have a 13 yr old that is very defiant, disrespectful & constantly breaks the rules. She has snuck out of my house for the 3rd time and it's all for boys. She is very developed for her age and & is seeming like she may be experimenting. I feel that part may come from the feeling of abandonment from her real Dad that she looks up to but never seems to care or have time for her. My husband and I struggle because we stand strong but she just keeps getting worse! She wants what she wants & she doesn't care how anyone else feels...but when we take things away or gets a punishment she cries to others for for sympathy...what do we do???

Comment By : Tracy

* Dear ‘Grannie’: He has been very lucky to have you as a grandparent. It seems you have the right balance between supporting him and holding him accountable for his own choices. And you’re right. Kids hang out with kids who are just like themselves. He’ll change friends when he changes. (See: Does Your Child Have Toxic Friends? 6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd) When drugs come into the picture, they affect everything. You can’t problem solve with a kid who is high. Let his current counselor know that he is using pot and ask if he is trained in treating ‘co-occurring disorders’—mental health issues and substance abuse. If not, ask him to give you the name of a drug counselor who can also work with your grandson. For support for yourself, attend Al-Anon meetings. They are the best resource for techniques to use for those who live with an active alcoholic or substance user. To learn more about Al-Anon, call 1-888-425-2666 or go online to Call us too on the Support Line for encouragement and more ideas on how to implement James Lehman’s Total Transformation program.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

The comment by annemarie is so true to our situation.My son is 17 and has controlled our lives and my every waking thought for the last two years,every time he is given something he always wants more,he gravitates to the friends who are lazy and taking drugs,we really try so hard and do not give in but it ruins the whole family way of life,we see so many parents just turning a blind eye to this but I could not do that.Every day is a constant struggle and to be honest the rest of the family is just fed up with it.

Comment By : parents ageing fast

* Dear ‘Bel’: In order to see changes in your daughter’s behaviors, it is vital that you and your husband work together as a parenting team. Talk to your husband and decide on the house rules. When you have this discussion with him, if you begin talking about where you are in agreement, instead of where you disagree, you may find the conversation goes better and that you have many ideas that are alike. Supporting each other as parents will prevent your daughter from manipulating you. You both have authority in your home and if you’re in disagreement regarding the house rules or acceptable behaviors, your child will choose the parent that gives her permission to do what she would rather do—and she has the right to do this. She won’t be able to choose between you if you and your husband are united around behavior goals and house rules. You also mention concerns about her attitude. One of the many great techniques James Lehman teaches in the Total Transformation program is to ‘ignore’ your child’s attitude because your child uses attitude to get to you—to get you to back off and let them do what they want. Stay focused on the behavior you want the child to change and don’t allow your child's attitude to pull you into a power struggle. If your daughter is using ‘name calling’ or intimidation, that’s abuse and needs to be handled differently. Look at this article by James: Disrespectful Child Behavior: Where Do You Draw the Line? We hope these ideas and articles on this web site are helpful to you. Remember you can also call the trained specialists on the Support Line to discuss the specific behaviors you’re working on with your child. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

my son keep breaking things when out of our sight. he smashes his wall breaks his bed i find broken beer bottles outside broken glasses in the basement. he denies doing this but sometimes fesses up. he is counselling now. my husband ignores the behavior and tells me to focus on something else. i point the behavior out to my son who isalmost 18. he says he's working on his anger managemnt what do you recommend? i have taken his electronics away when angry now he tells me i don't care you cant take anything away anymore. everyday there is another thing to deal with. the conselling is helping wspecially getting my husband to be more supportive of me i appreciate your advice we are worried about school for next year he has adhd is on meds which help but still see him struggling with being able to start and be thorough in his hw. we wonder if a residential school would be best for him to attain the academic and life skills he needs in life

Comment By : frustrated mom

* Dear ‘frustrated mom’: It’s good to hear that your family is attending family therapy together and that it is helping. As James Lehman states in this article, smashing and breaking things in anger is a behavior to be concerned about. If your son needs to physically work out his anger, coach him to use more socially appropriate ways to reduce tensions; such as doing push-ups in his room, jogging, or doing some deep breathing exercises. And it’s important for your son to learn how to recognize what ‘triggers’ his anger—which is discussed in Lesson 7 of the Total Transformation program—How to Stop It Before It Starts: The Trigger Management Process. Tell the physician who prescribes his medications about his continued struggles with schoolwork. You might also ask this physician, your family counselor or his school guidance counselor whether a residential school would be a good placement for him. We wish your success as you continue to use the techniques in the Total Transformation program.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Great piece. Much needed for a curent situation.I'm wondering whether you can advise me on how to deal with my 14yr old. All his school life his behaviour has been exemplary. In the last 3 weeks for some reason he seems have suffered a "mental short circuit". Litteerally in he following order: (1) 3 weeks ago suspended for 2 days for punching a kid who had been bothering him since the start of school.(instead of reporting it which he knows he should have done - his excuse the kid bothered everyone in the class and kept saying things that were not funny) (2)Last week suspended for 2 days for writing a sexually explicit letter to a girl . He was trying to get back at his friend/classmate by pretending that his classmate wrote the note to the girl. He says he realizes i was stupid. One thing I did was confiscate his phone. (3) Today I got a call from his dean that he was using his cell phone in school which in my mind was confiscated and sitting in my desk drawer. His excuse, he was charging in anicipation of being away this evening for his friends overnight bday . To me this seems like a consecutive series of evens where his brain was on vacation. The standards in our house are very contrary to that behaviour and is 16 year old brother doesnt behave like that. Any advice on how I should deal with this , it almost seems like a melt down. Ive been out of work for 6 mos but I'm also self employed and Im wondering whethr Im projecting the frustration of my employment situation ( ev though I dont talk about it and in their minds everything is normal) ? Please advise on how you think I should handle this.

Comment By : John

Dear John: If your son’s behavior has changed suddenly, is odd or out of character, “almost seems like a meltdown,” be sure to check in with his pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Also, double check to make sure he’s not using drugs or alcohol. You’re correct that he is using a lot of ‘faulty thinking’ when he explains his recent behavior choices. Kids can get themselves to the point where they ‘kind of know better’ but start to rationalize their reasons to themselves so much so that they believe they’re on a noble mission to help out their friend. Teens also try on different roles as a way to learn who they are. Your son may have started to identify himself with a certain image that he wants to project of himself, or identify with certain groups, such as “preppy”, “punk” or “goth”. But no matter what identity teens are currently trying on, they still have to behave appropriately. They have to figure out how to help their friends while obeying school rules, their parent’s rules, and rules of law and society. Hold your son accountable for his behavior choices by discussing his behavior, teaching him how to problem solve and giving appropriate consequences when necessary. For guidelines on giving consequences, refer to this article by James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation Program: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work. We wish your family the best. Please keep in touch with us and let us know if we can be of further assistance.

Comment By : Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor

Our family is terrorized by our 17 year old son. He is super smart, creative, can be very responsible, savvy, charming, has held down a job for almost 2 years, has amazing leadership skills, is helpful, respectful, capable - all outside of the home. At home as long as he is getting his way, having us "out of his hair" he chooses to act civilly and non-destructively, which is about 80% of the time. As soon as he interprets any of our actions as favoritism toward his younger brother or when due to his own lack of planning or follow through and things do not go as he planned and I hold my boundaries of not rescuing him, he steals from us, destroys things in the house, and breaks into our bedrooms/office to take things or destroys things. He seems to operate from the morality (lack of morality) of if I see it it's mine. We've resorted to having our bedrooms locked and secured so he can't pop the frame and break into the rooms. He does not drive because I told him that when he demonstrates self-control especially anger control, and either bring up his grades or have the cash difference between good student discount and not, I am willing to support him getting his license and using our car sometimes. He thumbs his nose at us that he doesn't care that he isn't driving. Today he poured water on my new laptop because he blamed me for not getting to the next city for an event (though I clearly told him several time that I was not available today and he had to find his own way there). He lies about doing these things - he was the only one home, the laptop was fine when I left and was puddled with water and not working when I returned. Fortunately I was able to dry it out and it seems to be working. My husband does nothing to enforce consequences or hold behavior boundaries, does not even say "that is wrong" or withdraw driving him places etc. So I am the evil-controlling-(fill in a bunch of inappropriate language) parent that takes away the phone, cuts off internet, refuse to be "nice" and drive him places after he's been destructive/inappropriate/out of control. I've called the police in the past for various reasons, forced him to go to family counseling (threat of no phone etc) and anger-management therapy and troubled teen therapy. I've read a bunch of books, worked hard on changing my own behaviors. I don't know what to do now - he trashing our house, uses foul language and is never sorry or remorseful or grateful for his life of privilege, can't trust him in the house alone, his younger brother does not feel safe nor his things safe. Help!

Comment By : End of the Rope in Colorado

* To “End of the Rope in Colorado”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Dealing with teens that have a false sense of entitlement can be so irritating. You certainly do not have to drive your 17 year old son to special events, especially if he has been disrespectful or abusive. It sounds like you have been clear as to what he will need to do to earn the privilege of being able to drive and use the car. At this point, it falls on him to follow through. Remember, though, that you can’t change how your son feels. It probably isn’t going to be effective to focus on whether or not he’s remorseful for his behavior or grateful for what you are providing for him. Instead of trying to get him to see things your way, we would suggest you continue to focus on his behavior and setting limits with him when his behavior is not meeting your expectations. It sounds like you have established very clear boundaries and limits even though it hasn’t been easy. Kudos to you for following through with consequences even though it hasn’t been easy. If he destroys property or takes things that don’t belong to him, we would suggest he be responsible for replacing them. Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner discuss various ways of holding your child accountable in the article Is Your Defiant Child Damaging or Destroying Property? You may also want to check out The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". It may also be necessary to continue to limit his access to other people’s things to decrease the opportunity for theft or destruction. As frustrating as it may be to keep things under lock and key, it may be preferable to having something destroyed that may be difficult to replace. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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