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.