Is It an Adolescent Phaseóor Out-of-Control Behavior?

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Is It an Adolescent Phaseóor 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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About James Lehman, MSW

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."

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