Inappropriate Behavior - Why Parents Dismiss it as a Phase

by James Lehman, MSW
Inappropriate Behavior - Why Parents Dismiss it as a Phase

Q: Why do parents tend to dismiss inappropriate behavior as “a phase?”

James: When a child is between 18 months and two years old, they’ll start to walk away and say "no" to their parent. The child is practicing a new skill. Parents call it a phase because eventually, the “no” goes away and the child starts to operate within the guidelines of the family. When parents see things they can’t explain, they call it a phase. Parents are very prepared to tolerate phases. But they’re not prepared to tolerate inappropriate behavior. So they label it a “phase” because that makes it easier for them to accept it.

Parents tolerate phases in adolescents in order to accommodate their kids. The sort of phase we’re talking about starts at around age twelve. There’s more testing of authority and testing of limits. You hear, “I just wanna talk to my friends.” “I just wanna stay in my room.” Kids spend more time instant messaging and wanting a cell phone. Parents see this correctly as a phase. And at first, they accommodate this. Most parents who are secure about their parenting will understand this and accept it. We see enough of this in our culture—on TV and in magazines—for parents to understand that this is something adolescents and pre-adolescents go through.

What tends to happen, though, is that some kids start to violate family norms, and parents tend to deny that this is separate from the phase. Saying “This isn’t fair,” and stomping off to your room a couple of times is a phase. Calling your mother filthy names is not. Saying “I only wanna talk to my friends about this. They’re they only ones who understand,” is a phase. Getting high on drugs or alcohol is not.

Q: If the behavior is inappropriate, does it matter whether or not it’s a phase?

James: No, it doesn’t. I think the most important thing parents need to know about phases is it’s important to the child as well as the parent to maintain appropriate standards and boundaries through the phase. So, we set up situations where the child can act out the need for independence or act out the challenge of authority without being destructive, abusive to others or self-abusive. So parents can say, “If you don’t like what’s going on, feel free to go to your room. Feel free to say what you don’t like.” Parents should even accommodate this by giving kids time to say it. I think one of the most effective techniques is to tell your kids that at 7 pm, we’ll sit down and talk about the things you think aren’t fair. And then we’ll go from there. Because then when the kid starts to escalate, you can say, “Save it for seven o’clock.” That way, you have a problem-solving time set aside.

But if the kid starts to call his mother and father all these disrespectful names or call his sister or brother foul, sexual names, I think that’s not a phase. That’s abusive behavior. And it needs to be stopped.

The task of adolescence is individuation. And sometimes adolescents are so uncomfortable with this task that they’ll use hostility and abuse to accomplish that. Parents have to maintain the standards during those times. There’s no excuse for abuse. That’s not a phase. Deal with it as a violation of family rules. Not as a moral issue, not as something to panic about. It’s a violation of family rules, and this is how we have to deal with it. Parents should have clear sets of consequences for this so they can manage it.

Q: How do you know when to address a certain behavior, instead of hoping the child grows out of it?

James: If it’s hurting the person who’s doing it or hurting other family members, people in society, teachers and other students in school, it needs to be addressed. Adolescence is a phase where you start out as a dependent child. It’s called the “latency age, “and you end up as an adult, usually in college. Adolescence doesn’t end with adolescence. That phase of development lasts into the early twenties, and there are different earmarks for the different parts of that phase. For instance: “I can only talk about this with my friends.” “I wanna look hot.” “I’ve gotta look cool.” And then you’ll see a slow shift to the next phase where they want to date and be popular. Then you’ll see a slow shift to the next phase where they individuate themselves from other teenagers. So, at age twelve, it’s me and all teens. At age seventeen, it’s me and my group.

During this period, it’s important for parents to understand that if kids gravitate toward a negative subculture, there’s a problem there. In other words, if kids start hanging out with kids who get high all the time, they’re getting high, and they’ll lie to you about it. But worse than that, they’re seeking a subculture that doesn’t expect anything else out of them, except that they get high. If you hang out with people who play soccer, they expect you to practice. They expect you to stay healthy. They expect you to show up for games. They expect you to be a team player. There’s a cluster of expectations that kids in other groups have. If you’re part of the chess team, there’s an expectation cluster. If you’re part of the honor society, there’s an expectation cluster. If you’re part of a church group, there’s an expectation cluster. When kids gravitate toward groups that don’t have any other expectations for them, except that they’re juvenile delinquents or they shoplift or they get high, parents should take alarm at that.

Q: So, if you’ve got a situation that is violating family norms, what’s the best way to address it with your child?

James: If you want to talk to kids about these things, I think first you want to choose a time when things are going well. Not when they’re going badly. And you want to choose a neutral setting. It shouldn’t be at the dinner table. It shouldn’t be in the kid’s room. It shouldn’t be in your bedroom. Pick some place quiet in the living room, where there aren’t other kids around. Begin by telling your kids what you see. Not what you think or what you feel. What you see. "I see your grades going down. I found cigarette rolling papers in your room. I see that you’re not hanging out with the kids who play soccer anymore, and you used to love soccer. And I’m wondering what’s going on. What do you see?" And ask the kid what they see. That should start a discussion, and it should be an interview format, in which the parent is conducting an interview, not a sharing conversation like they would with one of their friends. This isn’t, “I feel, you feel.” This should be an interview: "This is what I see going on. What’s up?"

The kid may turn away. The kid may say, “None of your business.” The kid may run a lot of excuses. But the parent has to calmly keep the focus on what they’re seeing and what they want to change. And how they can be helpful. Again, the kid may not change, but the parent has planted the seed and met their obligation. And they can have those conversations once or twice a week.

Your kids are going to accept a much wider range of differences than you will as a parent. For a lot of those, you just have to have it established with your kids that these are the rules, and whoever your friends are, this is how you have to behave, and this is what’s appropriate in our home. "You can have friends with nose rings and eye rings, but you’re not going to have any of those. And as long as we don’t have to fight about that, there’s no problem."

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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."


5 stars - everytime i read one of your articles, I learn something that I can put into practice immediately. Thank you so much.

Comment By : dajipajatoda

I am a grandmother raising 4 grandsons 1 is ODD 1 is ADD the third is ADHD and sometimes I feel like I could go nuts. My 4th has a serious medical problem. There are days that I don"t know what to do. But GOD only gives me what they they need and what they want. I guess we are truly blessed.

Comment By : glonana9

It's been an uphill battle with my 17 year old. Since he started high school, he's never been motivated to do more than pass his classes; no learning problems, just doesn't want to do the work. A few years ago he found a new group of friends. Didn't seem to be any problems at the beginning. As time passed we found out he was smoking pot. It seemed to stop for a while. He got a job and was being responsible. He started going into his room and locking the door (the lock is gone now) and I told him it was making me suspicious. He continued. So I found his stash and flushed it. He quit his job the next day (to punish ME, I guess). After looking at his finances, I've realized he has spent 80% of the money he made working on drugs. We just started seeing a counselor. My husband and I are meeting with him next week, since he feels part of the problem is a lack of teamwork on our part (no surprise there, my husband won't even ask him to do his chores). The most recent "bust" (this is me finding it, not the cops) included not only pot, but anti-depressants, which really scares me. He's moved past pot. (two of my sisters are/were addicts, one is dead, the other looks like a scarecrow). We bought a truck for him almost 2 years ago, but we haven't let him get a license because of the drug use. On the plus side, when I ask him to do his chores, he generally complies without complaint. He gets himself up for school every day and goes (mostly sleeps, tho). Even though he was furious and resistant about the counselor, he still came home to go to the appointment with me. (I had told him computer privileges were going to be suspended otherwise.) He's 17 and will graduate from high school in June. He won't be 18 until late November. Wants to move out this summer, though, since I'm still legally responsible for him, that won't happen, unless he becomes emancipated. I fully expect to be driving him to and from whatever job he gets this summer. I'm not sure how to make sure the money doesn't get spent on drugs, though.

Comment By : Valerie

My 10 year old has resorted to violent abusive behavior to get what he wants. My Ex husband is encouraging this in hopes I will fold and let my son live with him. My son and his father are bullying me in my own home. I have no more schedules or rules that are followed and do not know what to use as consequences anymore. My 10 year old is completely running my life and is father only wants to step in for support when thing's are convenient for him so has not to look like the bad guy. HELP PLEASE!!!

Comment By : NThayer

* Dear Valeris: Money is not the problem, drugs are. Addicts with no source of income find ways to get drugs. Keep your focus on the use of drugs. Ask your current counselor to recommend a good substance abuse counselor in your area who your son could work with. Substance abuse counselors use a technique called motivational interviewing. Some of the specialized techniques are designed to help your son think of his current life goals and what gets in the way of reaching those goals, including drug use. The counselor will also encourage your son to imagine what a future life would be like without drugs. What you can do as a parent is try to force him to attend substance abuse counseling by using consequences. However, a person using drugs has to want to stop using. Let the substance abuse counselor deal with your sonís readiness to make changes.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear N.Thayer: First of all, as James Lehman says, ďThereís no excuse for abuse.Ē If your son is violent toward you, you should call the police. You can set your own house rules that are independent of his fatherís house rules. If your son argues with you that your rules are not the same as his fatherís, you can say, ďYour father may have different rules in his house, but in this house, these are the rules.Ē Of course, your son may choose to not comply with your house rules but you have the authority to enforce a consequence if he makes that choice. That is what you can control.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Dear N. Thayer, This has happened to our family. Our son is 17. I had to file a peace bond against him at the court house. The judge ordered him to live with his father and go to therapy, otherwise face jail time. In your child's case, jv. It's better to be tough now, than to see them hurt someone or end up in jail for other things later. Call a lawyer or actually speak to a judge about what your options are. Or you are in for alot of stress. Also, the judge can order counseling for him as well. God bless you and your family.

Comment By : JC

I get caught up in worrying about my child's mental health and am letting them get away with behaviours because of that. Depression, anxiety, etc. Fear of them hurting themselves, etc. if I apply more pressure.

Comment By : Lisa

Spending good quality time no matter what age your children/or teens/adults are make them feel loved/wanted and they have a voice. They will grow to be stronger and independant and make better choices by communicating with them and listen to what they have to say as well as when you taught them to "ride a bike" so to speak, in all phases of their life...........Thanks to my mother who has been there for all along.......

Comment By : ety

From experience I can only tell you to do everything in your power while your child is under the age of 18. Remember, you don't have to be their friend or be loved by them. You need to do the right thing for them, not the easiest, but the right thing for their health and well being. I put my son in rehab after I learned he was getting high every day in school. Both the school and I had chalked all his problems up to being a teenager and ADHD. Once I found out what was going on, I told the school everthing I knew. Was he mad? Too bad. He went from failing and wanting to live on the streets, to being clean, taking responsibility for himself, and in school and doing A/B work. Is it easy every day, no. Is he working his program, happy, healthy and moving forward with his life? YES! Stop making excuses for your child, stop enabeling them. Get them help, get yourself help, work this program, let them be responsible for the outcome of their actions. They won't learn or change if you don't. It's not easy, but change never is. Good luck!

Comment By : workingit

SO what if my child says, "none of your buiness", "it's not up for discussion", or "I don't want to talk about it"? Do you insist he talk about it.

Comment By : Linda

I have a 12 yr old male son who is ADHD & Bipolar as well as ODD. He is violent and disobedient to everyone other than me. He has torn my home apart and attacked each member of my family. We have placed him in treatment facilities in the past that have not worked. Any suggestions, to increase the peace in my home?

Comment By : dadman

* Iím so sorry to hear that you have struggled with your sonís illness. Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error to find the right treatments or the right medications. In cases with there are serious mental health issues, these symptoms must be under control before you will be able to problem solve with your son using the techniques in the Total Transformation Program. When experiencing strong symptoms of bi-polar illness it is difficult to think clearly. Once your sonís mood is stabilized, you can challenge his faulty thinking and require him to use his coping skills to manage his strong feelings. James Lehman reminds us that kids with learning disabilities often have delays in learning how to read social situations and to solve social problems. So thereís some catching up to do. James Lehman has written a great article about violence in the family that you might find helpful: When Kids Get Violent: ďThereís No Excuse for AbuseĒ Donít forget that you can call the trained specialists on the Support Line to discuss the behaviors youíre working on. Good luck.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Dee: First let me start by pointing you toward another terrific article by James Lehman that addresses your concern about your son hanging around with the wrong crowd. The article is entitled: Does Your Child Have Toxic Friends? 6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd. I agree with you, it can be really difficult to get services at times. I think youíre right thoughóthat itís important to get your son the drug treatment he needs. Besides drugs being very dangerous to a growing teen, itís likely getting in the way of other goals he needs to achieve, such as attending school. As you mentioned, your son has been in trouble with the law. If he has a juvenile probation officer, ask the officer to help by requiring him to attend substance abuse counseling. Another alternative is to contact your local community mental health agency. They often offer treatment based on your ability to pay. Drug treatment might be a really tough sell, however, given his Dad uses drugs. When parents donít agree on behavior rules, kids will choose to listen to the parent that allows them to do what they wantósince both parents have authority in the home. Would his Dad consider giving it up? If he cannot give it up, perhaps he would consider telling your son that he wishes he had never tried drugs. Itís best not to ignore family patterns of substance abuse. Instead, acknowledge them and tell your son he is at risk of being in a position where he also cannot quit. Call the specialist on the Support Line for more help in handling this issue. Keep in touch. Weíre here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I'm wondering how one parent can try to implement these strategies if the other parent has a different parenting style and the two often disagree. We have three teenagers in the house, a lot of power struggles, abuse and disrepect occurring. I'm also wondering what works with an adult child? We have a 22 yr old living in our home who is often disrepectful and verbally abusive to other family members. Is my only recourse telling her to move out?

Comment By : penelope

* Dear Penelope: Itís not uncommon for couples to have some differences in their parenting styles. Ideally, each partner can learn a little bit from the other. As long as you support each otherís discipline decisions and generally agree on basic house rules, it can work. But if youíre in a situation where one parent undermines the otherís authority, giving the kids permission to disobey, thatís very hard. You mentioned that you Ďoftení disagree. That means there are times when you are in agreement. Try to begin working together by focusing on the areas where you do agree and build from there. It sounds like all the kids, not just the 22 year old, are disrespectful and abusive. Have a house rule regarding language that applies to everyone who lives in the home. Refer to James Lehmanís articles, 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) Keep in touch with us. Weíre here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have a 15 year old son who was sneaking out at night. We moved him out of the basement to the 2nd floor. He didn't like this and has runaway. He has been gone for 24 hours and is ignoring my calls and text messages. Now what?

Comment By : jen

* Jen: Many parents feel at a loss as to how to handle this type of situation. If you havenít already, you might consider calling his friends and/or his friendsí parents to see if you can pinpoint his location. If someone does say that heís with them, ask them to tell him he needs to be home by a certain time. If heís not home by that time, you will call the police and have them bring him home. Then, follow through. If nobody claims to know where he is, calling the police is the best next step because they can document that he has run off and maybe provide some kind of assistance to you. With kids who run away itís always good to have documentation or a ďpaper trailĒ so that you can show that you are doing everything in your power to keep him safe. If you have reservations about getting the police involved, and many people do, it could be helpful for you to call their business like or non-emergency phone number and talk to someone about how they typically handle these situations. Calling the police is usually not an easy decision for a parent to make. Sometimes their support is necessary to ensure a childís safety. After all, you canít protect him if you donít know where he is. In case you havenít seen them, I am including James Lehmanís articles about running away. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this.
Running Away Part I
Running Away Part II

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

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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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