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Sudden Behavior Changes in Children Part II: 7 Things You Can Do Today

by James Lehman, MSW
Sudden Behavior Changes in Children Part II: 7 Things You Can Do Today

This week, James tells you how to handle the specific changes you might suddenly see in your child during adolescence, from backtalk to attitude to slipping grades.

I believe parents go through something similar to the stages of grief when their kids go through adolescence. The family that once had a loving and eager son or daughter, someone who would spend as much time with you as you let them, is gone now; it’s as if it has died. In its place is a different family system, and it’s one in which your child may talk back to you and complain about you frequently. Maybe your once-cheerful middle school son stomps off to his room when he comes home. Or the daughter who used to want to spend time with you acts like she doesn’t even like you—let alone want to be in the same room with you. Rebelliousness becomes part of the routine.

Don’t give their bad attitude or backtalk power in the moment, because that only teaches them that they can push your buttons.

Parents often react to these kinds of changes in their children by going through some of the stages of grief. One of the stages is bargaining—and in fact, parents will try to bargain and negotiate with their child in an attempt to pull them back in. Another one of the stages is anger: parents get very angry about what has happened to the relationship they used to have. Often that anger takes the form of fighting and arguing and blaming between the parents and the adolescent. Fortunately, the last stage of grief is acceptance: eventually, we come to accept that our child is going to become his or her own person, with his or her own personal tastes, likes and dislikes. The parent-child relationship becomes much more complex than it was when they were younger. Unfortunately for many families, acceptance of the process usually happens late and last.

When your family is going through this grieving process, it’s really tough to deal with, and I understand that—I’m a parent myself. I’ve seen many, many parents mourning these kinds of changes in their kids. It’s important to realize that when people are grieving, they don't always make the best decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of parents mistakenly fight against the changes they see happening. But make no mistake: the more you fight it, the stronger it gets.

Personally, I believe we need to accept the normal developmental changes we see while holding our kids accountable to the rules.

1. Realize that Your Child is Individuating from You

  • Realize that your child is individuating from you and try not to take their behavior as a personal attack. Think of the films you see on the Discovery Channel, where the butterfly has to break out of its cocoon, or a bird or reptile hatching from an egg. If you notice, they have to tear and claw their way out of the shell. They don’t get to the next stage of their lives passively. And unfortunately, neither do adolescents. You are the authority in their lives with control over them, so rebellion is often part of the way they separate from you. That’s how they break free of the cocoon. I don’t mean this to say that you have to accept it if they are verbally nasty or start to resist curfew or chores—you need to hold them accountable for that behavior. Just realize that this is not a personal attack upon you. It’s just your child fighting his or her way out of the cocoon.

    Adolescents will also start to say things like, “I have a life outside of this family. I have my own friends. They’re the ones who really understand me—not you!” They want their own money and might get a part-time job so they can buy clothes and have some autonomy. I personally believe one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids is that of independence. In fact, being independent is one of the greatest factors for determining success later in life. So as much as is possible and safe, I think you should allow your teen some control over his or her own life if they’ve proven themselves to be responsible. This autonomy may come in the form of a part-time job, or the sports or activities your child chooses to do at school. Whenever possible, allow them to make those kinds of choices themselves. And remember, giving kids choices so they don’t feel trapped will usually decrease the chances that they’ll enter into a power struggle with you.

2. Don’t Give the Behavior Power

  • If your child has developed a bad attitude and is rude and disrespectful around the house, one of the best things you can do is not give it power. Keep the expectations in your house clear: “In this family, we treat each other with respect.” Don’t stay there with your child and argue the point—remember, you don’t need to attend every fight you’re invited to. After you’ve both calmed down, you can give them consequences for their behavior. But don’t give their bad attitude or backtalk power in the moment, because that only teaches them that they can push your buttons.

3. When You Don’t Like Your Child’s Friends

  • Here's the thing. Even though you might think your kid has the wrong friends, you need to understand that they're the people he’s seeking out. To somebody else's parents, your child is the wrong friend. I used to laugh when parents would say, “Well, it's his friends that have made him change; it's the people he's hanging out with.” Understand that there's a reason why he's hanging out with them; he's choosing them because he's like them. He's attracted to their behavior, he's one of them. So while one parent might be saying, “Sam's a mess because he hangs out with those bad kids.” Another parent down the block is telling her child, “Don't hang out with kids like Sam.” It's all about your perspective.

    By the way, if your child is always at a friend’s house, and you don’t like that friend, I have one thing to say: your child has too much free time. Again, I encourage parents to have structure. This includes a flexible but clear time frame. When you have a set schedule in your house, your child then knows that there's a time when he has to be home from school. He knows he shouldn’t go and hang out at his friend's house for an hour and then come home. In fact, it’s been proven that kids who get good grades tend to come home after school and start their homework. And these days, kids have a lot of studying to do at night. Believe me, in high school when the demands for homework become greater, kids shouldn’t be spending less time on their studies. Don’t get me wrong, I think there's a time when kids can go to a friend's house, like on weekends, for example. But I think on school nights, they should be home.

    By the way, I know there are many families where both parents work. My wife and I both worked, and I understand the difficulties parents face in this situation. Many parents have no control over their kids until they get home at 5:30, or even later. But I believe you can still structure your child’s schedule after school by giving them choices. You can say, “What you do until 5:30 is up to you. If you’re home by 3:30 and start your homework, you’ll have more free time later to watch TV or play video games. But if you play around, you’ll have to do your homework after dinner and miss that free time later on in the evening.” (When You Dread coming home to your child)

4. Control What Comes Into Your Home

  • I think it's so important that parents control what comes into their homes. What I mean by that is, control the media that your children are exposed to. After all, your house is the only place where you have any control at all. It’s the place where you can say, “No sexually explicit stuff here. No x-rated movies, no violent music or video games.” Your home is the only area where you can really try to uphold those standards. Think of it as the place where there's some sanity, expectations and rules. Those expectations might be, “We expect you to get good grades, we expect you to do your homework. If you don't do your homework, forget about having your phone or being on the computer.” Realize that you can’t control what your child does outside of the house. You can give consequences when you catch them breaking rules, but ultimately, the control you have extends to the walls of your home.

5. Reward Positive Behavior, Give Consequences for Breaking Rules

  • If your child is involved with sports outside the house and does well and still maintains good grades, I think you can reward him or her for that. You can buy them a pair of cleats, for example, or take them to a football game or dance performance. On the flip side, if kids get in trouble outside the house, including trouble with the law or getting caught drinking or getting high, then you need to give them consequences at home as well. An effective one is to not allow them to go out until they’ve made amends and can demonstrate they're more trustworthy; they can do this by behaving more responsibly through a Learning Experience that you develop with them.

    Consequences are really how we get people to meet their responsibilities. It's very simple: when you're driving, getting a speeding ticket is the consequence for not meeting your responsibilities to drive within the limits of the law. It's all connected, and it’s an effective part of the way we teach our children better behavior.

6. Getting Your Child Back on Track after Grades Have Slipped

  • I think it’s okay to say to your child, “Your grades have really fallen. I'm taking your cell phone until you show me that you're getting them back up again.” And until the teacher sends home a notice saying that your child’s performance is improving, hang onto their phone or their Nintendo DS—or whatever it takes to motivate them. And then you can say, “If that notice doesn't say you're doing good work, I'm keeping this until the report card comes.” I think you should be very, very firm about that. You don't owe your child a phone, a DS or a car, in the case of teens. Those are the things you give them to use. And so don't hesitate to use them as consequences or rewards, and don't play around. After all, your child’s job is to learn, to go to school and get good grades. If you want them to go to a good school or get scholarships from college, they've got to have the grades to back it up. So if they’re not trying, or if doing sports or a part-time job is interfering with schoolwork, in my mind, you need to be clear with them: school comes first. They might have to give up activities or their job until they can get their grades back up, but that’s okay.

7. Setting Limits on Adolescents

  • Parents of teens need to understand that adolescents are in a different stage of their lives now—and there are ways to support it and there are ways to set limits on it. You can say, “In this house, I want you here for dinner time so we can all eat together. If you don't like it, just sit there and eat quietly. But we all eat dinner together.” Parents also have to accept that their kids might want to spend more time in their rooms. They're going to think their friends understand them a lot more than their parents do. They're going to push parents away. While it can be very painful, it’s important to realize that this change is not personal or unique to your child—this is really the way your adolescent is learning how to be an adult.


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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 am writing from Trinidad in the Caribbean. I have a 20 year old & a 6 year old - both sons. I am grateful for your newletter and all the info that is supplied. I am still challenged by the issues with my older son & am hoping that I can do better with the 6 year old in a few years. Thank you very much.

Comment By : Waterchild

I have a 14 year old freshman daughter, and every day after school I ask her to do her homework - she tells me she does not have homework. She does not like to read, or do any homework ever. I am so frustrated with her, as I know how important education is. What can I do?

Comment By : lucinda333

I have a 10 year old son and this type of thing won't happen when he becomes an adolescent. How do I know this you ask? Because he's already there! Let's see...talks back CHECK - doesn't want to spend time with you CHECK - complains about you frequently CHECK. There are so many times my wife and I wonder if it's all worth it. Why do we bust our butts so hard to make sure our son's needs are taken care to be treated so poorly? We had him in therapy for about 9 months and that made a little difference. Then I lost my job and we simply couldn't afford that anymore. I will see how much of these 7 Things above we can apply to our situation and hopefully there will be some improvement. If you're struggling like we are please know that you're not alone. And if you have a pre-teen that actually wants to do things with you and treats you with respect then be thankful for that and don't take it for granted because it's not that way for every family.

Comment By : Proud parent

I need help, my 14 year old son does not listen to us ( parents) anymore that we don't know what to do anymore. He is failing in school. He awnts to be out until 2am every Friday night and Saturdays. We involved the local police but he is not even scared by anything, I don't know what he is doing out there even though he claims he does not use any drugs and that he only partying with friends. The article was great I would applied it with my other boys.

Comment By : zahra06

This article is awsome, I will try it tonight with my 15 year old, I've used some of the other suggestions and they are already working.

Comment By : sh

I just started to work on Total Transformation Program.I was even able to find some common ground with my ex, and some real results are showing.The article is a part of a whole different approach that James is teaching, down to earth, real, common sense,where we can travel with our children ...learning , making mistakes, improving...just living active life as a parent instead of waiting until they just leave....

Comment By : em

* Dear ‘lucinda333’: This is a good question and one we hear about a lot on the Support Line—how to get kids to take care of their homework responsibly. Among the many things James Lehman says that makes so much sense is that if a kid is getting good grades, they have figured out how to take care of their homework on their own. They don’t need any problem solving help from us. The next thing to look at is whether your child is doing poorly in only one or two classes, or in all their classes. James recommends that you tell them that for the classes that need improvement - they have lost the privilege of studying on their own. In the classes they do well in, they can continue to do their homework whenever they want. Until the grades are improved in the classes you’re concerned about, set up a specific time for your daughter to do homework in a public place, such as the kitchen table. During this time, have the whole house be quiet—no other kids watching TV in the living room for instance. Don’t ask her if she has homework in those subjects. It doesn’t matter. Set it up so she still has to be studying at that time. She can review or read ahead. When the grades are where they are supposed to be, then she can try doing her homework on her own again. It works better if homework is done before free time—not the last thing in the evening. That way, if she refuses to work on her homework, she loses privileges that evening. Start this over the next day, so that if she studies during homework time, she can enjoy privileges that night. For more information from James regarding homework techniques, take a look at this article: Homework Hell? Part II: 7 Real Techniques That Work Keep in touch and let us know how its going.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear zahra06: It sounds like a difficult situation. And, no matter how "innocent" he says it is, staying out until 2 am and "partying" at 14 years old is suspect, to say the least. You don't mention whether you have had your son in counseling, whether at school or privately, but James would say that outside supports are necessary. Contacting your local police department and crisis services is also a good step; they can help you find the local resources your family needs. Don't worry about whether these actions seem to "scare" your son or not. Focus on his behavior, and on safety, not on making an impression. Remember, at this age, kids think they are invincible - police, jail time, dangerous situations are no big deal to them. You might focus on basic ground rules and safety for the time being; you can focus on his school performance once those issues are more stabilized. To help you decide on both your house rules, and the consequences for breaking those rules, check out why don't consequences work for my teen and rules boundaries and older children - even though your son is relatively young, that article describes basic family ground rules clearly. Good luck, and please keep in touch.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

We have a 14 year old son who has just absolutely taken over our lives with drama, disrespect beyond anyone's imagination and total chaos. Although he continuously states he is "not a bad kid", his choices are NOT GOOD ones! He is not only disrespectful to us but to teachers and coaches. He is bright but gets C's and B's with only doing partial homework. Can you imagine what he would get if he actually did all his homework and studied? When we set boundaries he defies them. He will take off out of the house and walk to "friends" houses, some of them 2-3 miles away. His language is extremely foul and doesn't think twice to curse me out screaming in my face. He is manipulative and never tells the truth. I have taken away X-box, cell phones, ipods, weekend privileges. I have tried to reason (never works), let him know his behavior dissappoints me (which he seems to not care in the least about) and ingore some of the behavior but nothing seems to work. He has been in outside therapy now for quite some time with some improvement but recently it has been on a downward spiral. I have had a full psychiatric evaluation which only told me everything I already knew, "pick his environment carefully". He thinks kids who never get in trouble and get good grades are nerds. He will only indentify with those kids who do worse than him in school and couldn't care less about grades. At this point school grades are the least of my worries. The disrespect is killing me and the idea that he WILL be in control at any expense is frightening.

Comment By : At MyWhitsEnd

I just read your article about adolescence and teens becoming independent and breaking away from their parents. It could have not come at a better time. I have been feeling so sad lately because my 13 year old son has been "acting" out" in ways that I'd have expected a few years later down the road. He has done well in school but fallin behid a little lately. I'm blessed that he's come to tell me that he wants to try smoking pot. Subsequently, I found out that he has. He's been very curious about lighting matches and little things on fire and I think we have that under control but are still concerned. We keep a very watchful eye. He's really trying to feel his oats and my husband and I, although we share the same values, we have very different ways to get results. He is a firm believer in JUST talking about the situation with him and I am a firm believer in consequences in addition to talking with him. How can we best approach this issue together?

Comment By : sad mom

* Dear 'sad mom': The issue of pot smoking is one that’s pretty black and white for a growing teen. It’s quite dangerous and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. There is nothing wrong with first talking to him about it. You might also let him know that he’s lost some privacy because of it, that you will be searching his room and clothing now and again to make sure there is no more drug use. If he continues to use, we recommend that in addition to talking about solving this substance use problem, you have consequences. Probably the best and most related consequence is requiring him to talk to a drug counselor. As far as lighting things on fire, that’s a different type of behavior and if it becomes problematic again, seek the assistance of a local counselor in your area. Sometimes fathers just talk because they get too angry giving a consequence in the moment. If this is the case in your home, remember, it’s best NOT to give a consequence right then and there but to wait until things have calmed down—even until the next day if necessary. Decide between yourselves as parents what an appropriate consequence will be and then ask your son to join you in a problem solving discussion. Bring up the subject by saying, “We need to have a discussion about your pot use, son.” For more information on dealing with drug use, look at this article on our web site: Yes, Your Kid is Smoking Pot What Every Parent Needs to Know Now Thanks for your question. I’m sure there are many parents out there interested in hearing how to handle this issue. Keep in touch with us and let us know how it’s going.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ‘MyWhitsEnd’: In the list of the many things you say you have tried, there is an important missing piece. As James Lehman says, and you have found, reasoning with our kids does not motivate them, appealing to their emotions by telling them they disappoint us does not work, and consequences alone will not change behaviors. In order to change behavior, our kids need problem solving skills--what to do instead. Without the problem solving discussion and a consequence that contains a learning component, your child is not learning to practice new skills to change his behavior. Look at these articles by James Lehman that discuss the importance of problem solving: Kids Who are Verbally Abusive, Part 1: The Creation of a Defiant Child and When Kids Get Ugly: How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse Part 2 It can be important at times to also work with a counselor in your local area. Be sure to let your counselor know he is not doing as well as he once was. As much as you can, tell him what you said in your comment--that he’s not a bad kid but needs to make better choices. That’s a nice perspective you have and it will encourage him to hear it from you when he gets down on himself. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Well, I'm trying to follow these steps today. My 15 year old daughter is a gifted student but in the past few years has been very rebellious, has chosen friends who are way too old for her and rebellious also, and her grades have dropped.She started high school this year and last grading period brought home a "D" and an "F". We restricted her phone and texts and she showed us she was improving, so we let her loose. she had stopped hanging with the older friends and was very pleasant and communicative. She wanted tickets to an allday concert(which is today) and cost $100.00 for her and 2 friends. I told her she could go if there were no "D's or "F"s on the next report card, which is really lenient since she should be getting all A's (which she used to get before adolescence). Well, she got her grades Friday and she had 2 "F"s and only because she just didn't do some assignments! We took away her minutes on her phone, her bike and the tickets and told her she needed to improve to get these things back. She stormed out yesterday, but by the end of the day she was nice and very pleasant. Today, she came in with a total attitude again since she can't go to the concert today, grabbed the bike and left after swearing a bit. We held our cool. I'm afraid she is going to go back to the older friends we forbid her to see to spite us today, but I can't let her go to the concert just to keep her away from them. I hope she thinks about the consequences she brought on herself today.

Comment By : Momtryingtoholdherground

Thank you! I am a single parent and so thankful for your tried and true wisdom and advice.

Comment By : RP

My Partner of two years has two children, boy age10, and girl age 9. They visit our house every other weekend and two nites during the week. They come from an environment that encourages bad behavior, no rule, no consequences and barely any adult supervision. So when we get them, we have t start over with normal house rules and ways of behaving. This has been fine for about a year and a half. My partner has supported my suggestions and helped to enforce and guide the kids through these expected rules and behaviors. About two weeks ago the son has decided to start lying and taking things. I have recently heard that he has told his mother that he has been threatened with being slapped if he does not behave by us here when he visits. his sister disagrees, but he is adamant and is disrupting to our fun time. He understands that it is not good to lie and that there are consequences to those lies. However, he is trying to separate myself with my partner and saying things to put us at odds with each other. This is not only hurtful, but it can be potentially damaging to our realtionship and to our lives. I read horror stories about people getting back at their exes by getting restraining orders and wrongly accusing the partners of their exes to get some sort of revenge. Im hoping that this doesnt go that far. Its just not worth it. I do need some suggestions on how do deal with this situation and not have my partner take the offensive and allow our relationship to go sour because of some underlying problem with his son. I honestly think that there are things going on in his permanent home, but not being any type of authority, my concerns are pretty much dismissed. So Im looking for ways to protect them from what might be hurting them, and protect me and my future also. please help

Comment By : LMMEOW

* Dear ‘LMMEOW’: It’s hard to tell from your question just how complicated this situation has become. What I would suggest, however, is that you focus on your partner and not his son. After all, when the parenting team disagrees over discipline issues, it is not the fault of the child, but a couples issue to be resolved. You might begin these discussions by talking about where you agree, instead of focusing on where you disagree. There’s also another article by James Lehman that you may find helpful entitled: My Blended Family Won’t Blend! Part II: What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

A friend forwarded this site to me, just at the right time. My 13 year son's behavior is very distrubing to me and my husband. He basically has episodes were he losses control, calls us named, insults us, is is very hostile and disrespectful. This is so not like him, as he has been a child who we really haven't had to discipline much as all. He gets better grades then ever, he has good friends, and yet still likes to hang out with us - he reallly only gets together with his friends on the weekend, and usually at our home, he doesn't speak to any of them all week, except at school. He is 90% of the time, happy and content, but when he explodes, it is very distressing - his anger is totally inappropriate for what triggers him. It is usually when we raise our voices to him, speaking to him about something we don't want him to be doing. Any thoughts? thank you so much, your site is greatly appreicated.

Comment By : Good kid 90% of time

* Dear ‘Good kid 90% of time’: Teenagers can make you ask yourself, “Whatever happened to the child I knew?” The normal mood swings of adolescence can make for a bumpy ride. But it’s always best to double check with your pediatrician when your child’s behavior looks like regular, sudden outbursts of anger that are clearly unreasonable and out of proportion to whatever has caused the anger. Like you, many parents get into a pattern of ‘raising their voices’ during conflicts, explaining that it’s the only way they can get their child to hear them. James talks about this parenting technique in the Total Transformation program. He calls it being a ‘Screamer’. He understands how this happens, because we’re frustrated, but explains why it’s ineffective. We don’t want the child feeling that no one is in emotional control during these exchanges because it jeopardizes the parent’s authority in that moment—because the child knows the parent is over-reacting. The beginning lessons in the Total Transformation Program will teach you how to change the focus of the relationships in your home by explaining in detail and giving you specific phrases to say to create that ‘culture of accountability’ that James talks about. This happens by changing the thinking of the parent first so that they can then teach their child to change theirs. James explains how to assume control and authority in your home, how to approach behaviors as problems that need to be solved, and what parenting techniques are not effective and which are. If you are already a customer, please call the Support Line so we can help you with more details on what to say and do in your specific situation. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

i'm so relieved to know where my feelings of sadness and anger are coming from regarding my 13 yr old daughter who thinks i'm terrible. i really did start to take it personally, and i feel so much better after reading this article.

Comment By : kelbre

My grandson is 11 years old. A few years ago his father stopped coming home at night which eventually ended the marriage. He was diagnosed with anxiety and separation anxiety and is on Zoloft. My daughter has had trouble with him lying about his homework assignments and/or not bringing them home stating he didn't have homework or he already turned it in. He has failing grades. She has grounded him and for the last few weeks he has had everything taken away. He can't play video games, use the computer, go outside with his brother, etc. None of this bothers him. At Parent/teacher conferences she found out that he constantly disrupts the class, does not pay attention and either ignores the teachers or is borderline rude to them. She is at her wits end as nothing makes a difference in his behaviour. Do you have any suggestions?

Comment By : Marie T

* To Marie T.: It sounds like you are very concerned about your grandson. In general, we do not find it effective to take away all of a child’s privileges at once and for a long period of time. It is most effective to use these privileges on a daily basis to motivate a child to do what is needed. Your daughter can establish a daily homework structure as described in this article, after which your grandson can earn some privileges for the evening. Here is another article you might also find helpful: Acting Out in School: When Your Child is the Class Troublemaker. We wish your family luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Our 15 year old daughther is a mess. She has no organization and time management and lost respect for us. She is now lieing and becoming very sneaking. She is seeking out attention from boys and younger ones at that. She has lost her drive and passion for her sport and makes choices not thinking about what the reactionor outcome will be. She is so talented, beauutiful and smart and I just wish she would see that again.

Comment By : helpmom

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