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"Parents Aren't the Problem—They're the Solution"

by James Lehman, MSW
Parents Aren't the Problem—They're the Solution

Do you feel like your family members, your kid’s teachers, and even counselors blame you for your child’s acting out behavior? You’re not alone.  As James Lehman says, there are countless parents out there “living in little prisons”—feeling trapped, isolated, and ashamed of their child’s defiant or out of control behavior. If you’re in this situation, James has a message for you: you aren’t your child’s problem—you are the solution.

Q: James, in a recent article in EP, you said “I don’t think parents are the problem—I think they’re the solution.” That really resonated with a lot of our readers. Can you explain what you mean by that a bit more?

J: Parents of acting-out kids are often perceived as being the problem—or that they've created their “problem child”. I think when parents are labeled this way, it becomes extremely discouraging for them. They’re out there trying their best and looking for answers, but they’re being told that their child’s behavior is their entire fault. The attitude of many professionals today is also that parents are the reason children behave inappropriately—and that the parents aren't committed to helping their kids change. In my experience, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

By the way, while it can’t be denied that some parents out there are abusive or neglectful, I'm focusing on the “good enough” parents in this article. “Good enough” parents provide for their children and try their best to keep their kids safe. They are trying to raise their children the best they can, even if their methods aren’t always effective. I personally think parents who are trying their best should not be blamed for their child’s acting-out behavior—they need training, not blame. And it’s not only that they need help, they need the right kind of help. If we put half the resources into training parents that we do into family therapy, I think we’d see some real change.

Parents are out there trying their best and looking for answers, but they’re being told that their child’s behavior is all their fault.

Q: So you don’t think it’s the parents’ fault that their children behave the way they do?

J: Let’s face it, blaming people never gets anybody anywhere. Of course we influence our children, but personally I think there is every reason to believe that our kids also shape our behavior.

Let me break it down for you. If you have an acting-out child, you might react to him in a variety of ways. Let’s say you try to reason with your child, but he throws a tantrum—and doesn’t learn more appropriate ways of behaving as he develops. Or maybe when you go to hug him he pushes you away. Later, when you attempt to set limits on him, he calls you foul names. As he gets older, if a given situation isn’t going the way he likes, he breaks things or hits his siblings—or you. And when he’s asked to account for himself he usually blames you or some other person, place or thing. Remember, blame is infectious.

Make no mistake, a family in that situation is going to treat this child in a certain way. And while to outsiders it may look like the parents are triggering the inappropriate behavior, it's actually the child who has shaped theirs.
By the way, I've talked in other articles in Empowering Parents about how children blackmail their parents into giving in. Often, for example, you'll see families with parents who appear to be too tolerant or passive. But sometimes their child has trained them through years of acting out and aggressive behavior. And what he’s taught them is not to demand or expect a lot from him. The inherent threat is “if you try to set limits on me, I’ll act out—and you’ll be sorry.”

Q: Why do you think other people, and especially professionals, tend to blame the parents?

J: I think it's often easy for them—and other people outside the family—to paint with too broad a brush. People look at the family of an acting-out, defiant child and tend to criticize the parents. And frankly, I think it's easier to blame parents who use ineffective strategies with their children instead of taking the time to educate them about more effective ways to manage their child.

It’s a lot easier to blame parents than it is to change children. In my opinion, it's important to understand that there are ineffective parenting strategies, but there are also effective ones that can be learned. Unfortunately, most parents are referred to family therapy before they're ever referred to parent training. When they show up, they’re often treated as if they are “guilty until proven innocent” instead of the other way around. This is because many therapists are trained to validate that there’s something wrong with the family.

Q: What happens when the parents are blamed for their child’s behavior?

J: When you're a parent in that situation, it's very easy to feel attacked. You feel like there’s a suspicion that you’ve done something wrong, and that your mistakes are causing your child to have problems. Compounding that, many parents feel somewhat guilty about their kid’s behavior because they don’t know what went wrong. It’s easy for them to fall into the trap of blaming themselves.

Parents also tend to get discouraged and distrustful. And in addition to professionals, families are often told by other family members, teachers and people in their community that they're not doing right by their kids.

If you’re a parent stuck in this situation, it’s easy to look out your window and see your neighbors’ kids playing nicely with each other while your child can't play with other kids. It's very easy to get the sense that people think you're the problem. Many parents of acting-out kids carry a lot of guilt around with them—they immediately assume their child’s behavior is their fault. Then when they try to get help for it, what they often get is more blame. Or sometimes, just as bad, parents might assume their child’s behavior is the fault of someone else. I try to tell them that blame does no one any good. Rather, the important questions to ask are, “Who is taking responsibility for this child?” and “What are you willing to change in order to accomplish that?”

The first place they go for help is usually to their own families. Sadly, if they get blamed there, they will often try to keep their problem a secret; they won’t ask for help in other arenas. Many parents experience a certain amount of shame over their acting-out child.

Q: Parents do experience shame over this, but why is that?

J: The ideal in our society is children who behave. The formula is the following: if you're the right kind of parent, your child will be well-behaved. Of course, I think that there's another formula for parenting which I mentioned earlier called the “good enough” parent. They’re not being abusive or neglectful, they provide for their children, but they may not be using effective techniques to solve their kid's problems. They might be doing things they learned from their own parents or that they saw on a talk show.

Sometimes parents might simply be following their own instincts, but that information can be ineffective with certain kids. Why is that? This is because we're talking about a 21st century child with 21st century problems. It's simply a different time, and it's also a much more difficult time to be a parent as well as a child. Let's look at the demands that parents are under. First of all, they’re under a lot more economic stress and anxiety. In most families today, both parents have to work to stay above water, and sometimes each parent has more than one job. And this stress affects a parent’s ability to function and to act. Children and adolescents are also under more stress, and they have more ways of rebelling than ever before. Many parents are simply overwhelmed.

I think helping parents find solutions and teaching them problem-solving skills is the most effective thing we can do. I believe that parents who feel like they are under suspicion of being “bad parents” are often going to be very defensive. They won’t be open to new ideas or to learning new things. They feel like they have something to prove—what they’re trying to prove is that they're not bad parents.

Q: James, how would you help parents in this situation?

J: I try to distinguish the difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is not helpful, ever. And the people who are showing up and trying to find ways to help their child are taking responsibility.

In my own life, I grew up with three brothers. We all had the same parents, but I was out of control. My siblings were pretty well-behaved kids all the way through high school and into adult life. Even though we had the same parents, there were very different outcomes in terms of our behavior. My parents were “good enough” parents, and it showed. Unfortunately I had special needs and there was no one around to show them how to manage me. 

I also understand that parents of acting-out kids have a more challenging time of raising their children. Everybody knows how to handle a child who doesn't have behavior problems. So I think if ineffective parenting contributed to the behavior problems that a child has, it just makes sense to me that effective parent training will contribute to positive change: not blaming, pointing the finger, or arm-chair diagnosing.

Q: So why are parents the solution, in your opinion?

J: I think parents are the solution because they spend the most time with their children; they create the environment their children live in. They are the primary role models because their children spend the most time with them. The family is the center of a child's life. I believe that if parents get the proper training on how to be more effective, and they're willing to use those techniques, then they're going to have children who can solve their developmental life problems effectively.

I also think parents are the solution because they love their kids. They have the most invested in their children because they are going to be related to them for the rest of their lives. So they are the most motivated to help their child change his behavior. I used to tell parents, “If we do these things now, maybe your child can avoid getting into further trouble. But if he continues the way he’s going, you're going to be the ones visiting him in prison, lending him money because he won't get a job, or raising his kids because he's either too irresponsible or addicted to raise them himself.”

The good news is that once parents have techniques to use in their home, they can use them all the time. And I absolutely believe if parents work on having a more effective parenting role in their child's life—to not be a Martyr, an Excuse-maker, or an Over-negotiator—it’s more likely that things will change for the better in their family.

If you’re the parent of an acting-out child, ask yourself, “What do I want to see change and how can I make that change occur?” And then be honest with yourself when you look for answers. I believe that’s the first step toward creating positive change in your child’s—and your family’s—life.

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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."


Good, but it would be much more helpful to know more about what parents can do to change an unwanted behaviour, not that is just not their fault....if parents are the solution.....then what are they to do? More on this is definitely needed. Thanks

Comment By : Concerned and Loving Parent of Teen

To the Concerned and Loving Parent of Teen who commented above - we've been using the Total Transformation Program principles with our Adult Son and now his 13mth old son (our grandson). This program has really provided the answers and help to releive a lot of guilt. In fact I think I need to reread some of the main points as a refresher as we as parents get pretty lazy and slip back into old patterns. Thank you for these newsletters that remind me that parenting skill development is a huge solution to human behaviour. Thanks James!

Comment By : JO in ON

Great article. I am the Grandmother. I am temporary parent while my 16 year old grandson's mother is in an alcohol treatment program. My grandson has been truant from school, not doing well, failing grades and I just found marijuana in his pocket. Also, he is showing anger out of control, not at me, but at anyone who "offends or challenges" him. I am afraid for him. I have given him my house rules for his behaviour and he is doing well and being responsible, but is very hard to get to do his schoolwork. He is very undisciplined. His mother was pretty neglectful for years. I don't know how to confront him about the marijuana I found. He has been offered therapy, but has not agreed to go yet.

Comment By : Grandma

I am a parent of a troubled teenage girl and I know I have been ineffective as her parent. I love my child, however I have been manipulated since she was two years old. Her manipulative thinking was beyond my scope of comprehension and when she was 2 years old, I believed she was more intelligent than me and I took a parenting class, "Parenting with Love and Logic". What I learned in this class was extremely helpful but I continued to fall into her manipulation. She is 16 years old and has manipulated and bullied me throughout our relationship. I am divorced and as many divorced mothers do, I tried to compensate for the absence of their father. I since have remarried and my husband, as an outsider looking in, has pointed out how she continues to manipulate me and that my method of trying to reason with her isn't working. She recently manipulated me into letting her live with her father (where there are no rules) by telling me if I didn't allow her to live with him, she would kill herself and she hated her stepfather and wished he were dead. Of course as her mother, I couldn't live with myself if she followed through with her threat. Her stepfather informed me this was another form of manipulation and he understood my reasoning, but didn't support it. She is not attending school, has no rules with her dad and is often alone because he works swing shift. I feel like I have lost my child and have no way of getting her back. I recently purchased the Total Transformation Program in hopes of gaining insight and the tools to become a better parent. As a parent, I often blame myself and often find myself saying, "If only I had done things differently." I do believe, however that it is never too late.

Comment By : Struggling Mom

I am a parent of a 17 year old son who is ADHD, ODD and some bi-polar. My husband and I try so hard to parent our son correctly, but continue to blame each other when we do not get the results we are looking for. Our son will not go to school, both of us believe education is the key as we are both educators ourselves and we don't relate to our son quitting. He wants to sleep until 1 every day and play video games all night. We have worked closely with the school he is supposed to attend and have a DJO, and BJC and Special School District involved. We have done the doctors and therapists until we are blue in the face. It appears that our son feels entitled to live in our house, but not to follow the rules of our home. We care more about the success of his future than he does. He refuses to take the prescribed medicine and instead self medicates with marijuana. We bought the Total Transformation Program recently, but have not yet begun to utilize the program. I hope it will help, because we are at the end of our rope with this young man. We have looked into sending him away, but cannot possibly afford the high cost. We are trying to keep the faith, but it is challenging.

Comment By : Lisa

It is true that the parents are usually the ones blamed. I would like to see a follow up to this article on what specifically parents can do to help their acting out child other than seeing a therapist that just makes them feel more guilty.

Comment By : Lisa

I have decided to not let others opinion of my parenting get me down. I know I am doing the best I can, I believe I have gone above and beyond what many other parents would of done. I tell myself if others think they can do better, than try, because you don't know what that person is dealing with until your in their shoes.

Comment By : Mellisa

* Dear Grandma: You have stepped in to help out during a really difficult time in your grandson’s family. Having his mother seek treatment as you work on parenting your grandson gives real hope for positive changes. Changes will take some time, consistent efforts and lots of encouragement. It’s good to hear that your grandson has not yet tried to use his anger toward you to get you to back off, as he does with others who challenge him. James Lehman calls your grandson’s technique ‘Anger with an Angle’ and it can be a challenging and difficult habit for adolescents to break. It helps that you are aware of it. As you establish routines for studying and house rules, your grandson will likely fall back on using anger in this way. Be prepared to tell him that getting angry at you will not change the house rules. There are two articles that would be very helpful for you. The first is regarding kids who use anger: Anger as a Weapon: When Your Child Points the Gun at You The second article will address your other concern, which is how to talk to him about his marijuana use. Yes, Your Kid is Smoking Pot: What Every Parent Needs to Know Now It is very likely that you will need someone to support you during this time. We would like to offer to help you as you work on these challenging behaviors with your grandson and hope you will keep in touch with us. --Also, stay tuned for next week’s article which is all about “Anger with an Angle”.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Lisa: Anytime a child is using substances to solve problems, the substance use becomes the first priority of change in your family. Your child will need to ‘unlearn’ his learned behavior that drugs give him some reward. Instead, when substances are used, you will want to consistently enforce a negative consequence, such as losing access to the video games that day. Making this change will require a lot of coordinated parent involvement and a commitment to demonstrate your concern and interest in your child. James Lehman talks about this in Lesson 4 of the Total Transformation when he discusses the technique of using ‘Strategic Recognition and Affection’. Set up a specific time for reconnecting with your son. Always keep this appointment and have this socializing time be enjoyable and criticism free. You can expect that as you’re learning the parenting techniques of Limit Setting and enforcing new house rules around substance use, your son’s behavior will escalate for a time in an effort to get back to what he has been using to solve his problems. Your commitment to your son is clear and you continue to seek resources to reach your families goals. We are very glad to be a part of those resources and look forward to working with you. Please remember that you can call the trained specialists on the Support Line for encouragement and ideas on how to implement the programs techniques to get you the results you seek. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Struggling Mom: I’m glad to hear you have purchased the Total Transformation program. The program, along with the Support Line service, will give you the tools you need to become a more effective parent. It is not uncommon for parents and kids to fall into a pattern of manipulation in their relationships and it is really difficult to manage when your child raises the stakes as high as your daughter did. One of the things James Lehman talks about is the personal difficulty of managing our feelings when our kids are mad at us. We as parents have to find a way to accept that our kids will be angry at times when we set house rules and tell them to follow them. When we find a way to deal with our feelings we can share that skill with our kids. When our kids become really upset it makes us so uncomfortable that we may try to renegotiate the rule with them so they feel better, which in turn makes us feel better. Instead, it’s important to learn to refocus our thinking, to take a moment to calm ourselves down, and remember what we want our kids to accomplish instead of how upset they are feeling at that moment. Instead of backing off on the rules during tense moments, role model how to calm your body down. I’m glad to hear you say that it’s not too late in your relationship with your daughter and that you remain hopeful. Please call in to the Support Line so that we’re able to help you think through how to stay in contact with her, letting her know you love her and she’s welcome home, but of course there are important rules you will expect her to follow when she returns home. In the meantime, here’s an article on manipulation you that will be helpful: Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You With Behavior We appreciate your question and hope to hear from you soon.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am thankful to have had the God-given wisdom to obtain Mr.Leaman's Total Transformation package...We have placed our Son in a Residential Home and he is doing very well. He liked the program so well that he even asked to go back on it when he was home. I am still getting the internet articles and they continue to be of great value. Thank you Mr. Leaman...

Comment By : A satisfied customer....

My Defiant child is now 18 and as her parent I have literally been through hell. The lying, manipulation and abuse over that period of time, combined with the constant judgement from other parents, teachers and just about everyone else has resulted in what I can only describe as PTSD. I honestly feel as though my life ended the day she was born--and yes, I knew something was different about her from the very start. I've tried therapy, I've tried things like yoga but get home and feel that familiar panic before going into the house, dreading what I'll find there. My home is a wreck and there is no point fixing anything until this now adult child moves out. Even then, I know she'll be back as she is incapable of taking care of herself. She'll either end up back in my home or in jail. She wants to join the military but I don't think they'll accept her with all her problems and history.

Comment By : sjb127

And who, exactly, empowers the children? They are at the mercy of the adults in their lives. When a parent takes their child to a psychiatrist for the first time, the doctor relies heavily on the account and characterization given by the parent, secondarily (if at all) on their inventory of the child. Any adult, be they parent or teacher, who refers a child for a suspected mental health diagnosis, such as ADHD, should be required to submit to a comprehensive eval and inventory as well. How else will any mental health professional be able to accurately tease out from where the child's purported problems originate? Too many inept, dysfunctional parents who are mentally ill themselves drag the kids with whom they cannot cope or properly nurture in a healthy manner, into doc's office for diagnosis and drugs. Too many mental health professionals are more than willing to indulge said parents either because they are ignorant and utterly misguided, or because they need the revenue.

Comment By : Lee

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Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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