“Will My Kid Be Messed Up Forever?”

by James Lehman, MSW
“Will My Kid Be Messed Up Forever?”

In my office I’ve dealt with many, many parents through the years who were really discouraged about their kids’ behavior. They felt hopeless and wondered if things were ever going to change. And the feelings they had were understandable: when you have a child who acts out in very aggressive and destructive ways, who is verbally abusive or physically destructive of property, or who even assaults siblings and parents, you feel powerless. And if you try to seek help from your child’s school, therapists, and counselors, but still nothing changes, it’s easy to get really discouraged and start feeling hopeless. But I think in many cases parents and kids can turn their lives around, and I’m saying that out of my own experiences with families and kids.

"Here’s the important thing to understand: it’s not 'Can kids change?' that is the question, it's how they change and why they change that matters."

I think that it’s important to understand a few things. First of all, people change. It’s documented all throughout history. It’s not "Can kids change?" that is the question, it's how they change and why they change that matters.

I think many parents try to promote change in their child in ways that are ineffective. Personally, I don’t believe kids change because they feel better, I believe they feel better because they change. I don’t believe they change because they’ve got higher self esteem or self worth. I believe kids change because they learn to develop the problem solving skills they need to deal with the issues that trigger their acting out. In fact, most acting out behavior is triggered by the child’s inability to solve the problem that’s in front of him. So he or she gets frustrated or angry or afraid, and then tries to solve the emotional problem by acting inappropriately. And this snowballs until you have kids who act out all the time because they haven’t developed any emotional maturity.

In this scenario, you have to look at feelings and emotional situations almost like problems, rather than emotions. Anger, fear and frustration are problems that your child has to solve in a way that doesn’t interfere with others or his ability to function. When kids don’t learn the skills to solve those kinds of problems, they develop what we call “compensatory behaviors.”  What that means is that they develop ways of acting which compensate for the feelings they have and the situations they get themselves into because they can’t solve their original problems.

So, do people change? They absolutely do when they learn how to solve the problems that are impeding their growth. My personal philosophy is that human beings want to be better than they are, simply because they’re human beings, for no other reason than that. If you can show someone a better path to take and how to solve the problems they encounter along the way, they’re more likely to go down that path. Don’t get me wrong, learning how to solve social and emotional problems is a big task. It’s the key to getting along and making it in life. And certainly, you’ll see adults in prison who don’t know how to get along with people, who don’t know how to respond to authority, who don’t know how to be consistent in their work ethic, who don’t know how to keep their commitments. And that’s a compilation of problems they didn’t learn to solve. Instead, they learned to deal with them through aggressive, anti-social, and even criminal behavior.

“Have I screwed up my kid permanently?”
From time to time, parents come to me believing that they did a lot of things during their child’s development that are irreversible. They worry that their child’s acting out was caused by their own personal behavior or the ways they didn’t give them the parenting they needed. Maybe it was a lack of resources in the family, too many “kid hours” in need and too few “parent hours” in support, divorce, family chaos or serious illness: whatever the situation may be, these parents take on the personal responsibility for their child’s current behavior. All I can say to them is that blame is not useful when you are dealing with the lives of children. And parents often get stuck thinking about blame when they feel the problem is hopeless, because they think blaming is all they have left.

Listen, if you’re ready to help your child grow, blame is not important. What is important is responsibility. Who’s going to be responsible for getting your child the skills they need today? And if you’re taking on that responsibility, how are you going to carry it out? These are the questions that are critical. Do parents mess their kids up? Yeah, they do. Do they know they’re doing it while it’s going on? Most often they don’t. Parents are not taught the skills they need before they have kids—it’s a simple fact. When faced with a child who acts out consistently or who has tough behavior problems, many people feel grossly unprepared and have no idea what to do. Sometimes they have a suspicion that there might be a better way to handle a parenting situation, but they don’t feel like they have a way out, they don’t feel like they have an alternative.

But when the day comes when the parent is willing to accept more responsibility and learn to make some different choices, that’s the day that parent becomes responsible. That’s the day they stop fighting everybody else and start joining with people to solve their child’s problems. That’s the day when they seek out parent support either through support groups, parent training, and through family therapy.

People change. But in order to change, what your child has to do is learn new skills and adapt to new situations. If you say, “I’m going to parent my child differently,” and then you don’t learn other skills, eventually you’re going to slide back to the same old errors. It’s human nature, really. You get frustrated, you get tired, you get overwhelmed and you wind up doing the same things again. Parents have to learn new skills if they’re going to make changes in their kid’s behavior.

Is there hope for parents in this situation? Yes, there is. There’s always hope. There’s a saying I like: “Hope is cheap, so indulge yourself.” You can have all the hope you want, but if you don’t take certain steps to do things differently—if you don’t learn how to set goals for yourself and your child and then find ways of reaching those goals, if you don’t change your behavior, if you don’t change the way you do things—even if you have hope, nothing’s going to change. People hope for better lives all the time, but they don’t go to college, they don’t learn new skills. If you don’t prepare yourself and get the tools you need, it’s simply not going to happen.

Being a parent is hard work. And being a child in our society today is risky business. The skill set parents need keeps getting more complex. Nobody teaches parents what to do when their child starts acting out and challenging their authority. So the quicker you can acquire effective skills, the better off you and your child will be. Yes, there is hope. But you also need to be prepared.

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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 have a 16 y/o healthy male son. For the last 4 years he has managed to get into trouble at school with his behavior. This has resulted in ISS,OSS and other discipline related punishment. Recently he was diagnosed with Intermintent Bevavior Disorder. It appears that his acting out is isolated to school. While at home he is in his "safety zone" and has nothing to prove. He is well liked by teachers and students alike. He has trouble with coaches and teachers who use their titles as justification to engage in a negative way. I believe that teachers and coaches need to be better educated in dealing with students with problems. Without a plan both the student/family and staff will fail.

Comment By : troubled in texas

I have a 13 year old son who has been disrespectful to me and his Dad for a very long time. I have been divorced for 11 years. My son has physically lived with me for the past 13 years and because of aggressive behavior (punching holes in my walls, spraypainting around my house, swearing at me, being very mean to his sister) I have since given physical custody to his Father. His Father who has never shown me any respect, and has said right in front of our son that our son does not need to respect us as long as he respects other people. My ex is always making excuses for my son's behavior like I yell to much or my son and I clash. I feel as though his Father has tied my hands now and no matter what I do my son will not listen to me. I am really scared of how my son is going to grow up to be a respecful man if he is being raised this way. I don't know what to do.

Comment By : Discouraged Mom

WOW, that's powerful. Everything you said regarding parenting is so true. We know being a parent does not come with a manual. It's very difficult. Saying the right things, doing the right things in the presence of children is important. We must remember that we must always "model" the correct behaviors in order for our children to act appropriately. I believe I've always done this and I have now 13 yr. old twin girls and I just don't know when the model behaviors begin to kick in. I've always tried to remain calm during the storm, but I still have one extremely explosive child and I'm still waiting for the correct behaviors to manifest. It's a long complicated story that my kids have, and I still hope for the best. I'm doing my reading and seeing therapists for my one daughter in particular and myself (too many to mention) and trying to implement the suggestions (there are a variety), but I still seem to be sitting very close to square one.

Comment By : Dawn

The article was well articulated and gives both encouragement and hope. James Lehman is a blessing and gift to all parents struggling with challenging behaviors in there children.

Comment By : chickimama222

Excellent article! Thank you for continuing to provide good information that helps give parents useful tools to overcome the fact that, as you say, "No one teaches parents what to do when their child starts acting out...."!

Comment By : Tonee Therrian

i have a 13 year old son that is ADHD, Odd, conduct disorder, and many other behaviour problems. he lies, steals, cheats, and says he's not doing anything wrong. nothing you can do or say will change his mind or get him to listen to you. we have tried everything you can possibly think of with punishment and it just doens't phase him one bit. my husband and i are going to take him to miami children's hospital to special doctors for some serious testings to try and find out if there is something wrong with his brain. if we find out that he is find physically and mentally, then we will have to send him to a strict boarding school for rebelious children. we are so stressed out and need to find out what is going on. my husband and i never have time for one another and are always worried and unhappy. it is a hard life when you are in a situation like this. bonnie

Comment By : a worried, stressed out mother!

Something I got out of this article... I keep handling my kids behavior problems in the same manner hoping that some day it will sink in their heads and they will change. I explane to them the importance of being able to handle problem situations, not to spend all their energy trying to prove who should get in trouble for starting a fight or who did "more" wrong when getting in trouble at school. I realize now that it is me who needs to change how I teach them, not just hope it sinks inn someday.

Comment By : Dave

My son is now 18. The acting out started about 2 years ago and nothing we do has helped or stopped it. He gets in trouble at school, his grades are poor and nothing is ever is fault. I am very concerned for this child who is very immature and just doesn't get it.

Comment By : worried in Massachusetts

is there a way to get in touch or respond to a particular person's comment on this site? I'd like to share something with "a worried stressed out mother", thanks, Leslie

Comment By : frustrated mom

If you listen to the total transformation program by James Lehman it will help train you as a parent to be a better parent to your child. However, you have to listen to it over and over and really do exactly what it says. It helps if both parents do it but if you are on your own or your spouce does not agree to do it you still need to do it because every little bit of help you can get will help you and your child!! It won't happen overnight so don't get discouraged!! Keep up the good fight, our children are worth it!!

Comment By : Sheri

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acting out, anger and defiance, behavior problems,

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