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Is Your Defiant Child Damaging or Destroying Property?

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW
Is Your Defiant Child Damaging or Destroying Property?

Kicking holes in the wall. Breaking and throwing things. Smashing in the windshield on your car. Most of us never expect to face these behaviors from our children, and certainly not when our child is “old enough to know better.” If you have a child who purposely destroys family property out of anger or spiteful, vengeful reasons, you naturally feel a variety of hurtful and negative emotions. It feels like a punch in the stomach. First comes shock—how can my child be doing this to me? Anger, resentment and guilt follow: What did I do wrong for my child to end up like this? If you’re like other parents in this situation, you probably also take an aching heart to bed with you every night. The fact is, your child is having a problem coping with strong emotions. This is their “cope of choice” right now, which is self-destructive in the long run. So why do they cope by damaging things when they’re angry or upset, and what can we do to teach our child healthy boundaries and limits? How can we motivate a child in this situation to develop healthier, more mature coping skills? Kim Abraham, MSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner, MSW, creators of the ODD Lifeline, explain how.

No matter what the reason is for your child’s behavior, she needs to be held accountable. Just like when you’re in a store: you break it, you buy it.

Why Some Kids Resort to Destructive Behaviors

We know that kids use destruction as a coping mechanism, but why? What led them to this extreme place?

Related: Does your defiant child destroy and damage property?

Low frustration tolerance: Children are generally known for having a low tolerance for frustration. They want things to go their way. When something happens that’s unexpected, disappointing or requires the use of coping skills, many children have a difficult time handling such situations effectively. Some older children and teens still engage in “tantrum behaviors” long past the age we might expect. Why? They may not have the skills to handle the stress they’re experiencing. Physically releasing that energy helps them relieve their distress for the moment—even though it’s unpleasant for everyone around them. This is particularly true for children with an underlying condition such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Asperger’s Syndrome or a mood disorder. The father of a 10-year-old diagnosed with ADHD shares, “My child has a very hard time when plans change. If we were going to the movies and we have to cancel because the road conditions are bad, she’ll start throwing her things around the room. She knows that’s not going to change the situation, but she just gets so angry when she’s disappointed that she explodes.”

Intimidation: Sometimes destructive behavior serves a different purpose: intimidation. A child may learn that by breaking things, punching holes in the wall and behaving in a violent manner he will effectively frighten a parent into doing what he wants, such as giving in or allowing him to have his way. One adolescent shared in therapy, “I know how to get ungrounded. I just start throwing things around the living room and my mom tells me to get out of the house.” Intimidating parents and family members may also give a child who’s feeling powerless a sense of control. It’s important to note that teens and older children who destroy property as part of an overall pattern of violating the rights of others (stealing, destruction, violence, breaking the law) have moved beyond Oppositional Defiant Disorder and into what we term Conduct Disorder.

Related: How to handle kids who use aggression to get their way.

Misery enjoys company: Ever have a bad day, come home and picked an argument with a “safe person?” Sometimes misery enjoys company and you just want to spew out those horrible feelings and let them land where they will. Our kids feel this way sometimes, too. When your child is feeling miserable, he probably won’t pick the neighbor to share his misery with—he’s going to pick you. Things can escalate and before you know it, your child starts releasing his feelings physically, not just verbally.

Payback: Often the most frustrating situation is when a child behaves in a passive-aggressive manner, breaking things out of revenge for anger they’re feeling toward a parent. You may find something of yours broken—perhaps particularly sentimental or valuable—you know your child did it, but you can’t prove it. Your child will deny until there’s no breath left in her body that she’s responsible, yet your gut tells you she’s getting even for something she isn’t willing or able to share with you.

Related: How to take charge—and get back control of your house.

What Can I Do about My Child’s Destructive Behavior?

  1. Be proactive. Make sure your child knows right off the bat that while you understand he gets frustrated sometimes, destroying property is not acceptable – not in your home—or in the rest of the world either. Be clear in your expectations and what the consequences will be if your child does destroy your property.
  2. Offer alternatives. Talk with your child during a calm moment about things she can do instead of breaking things when she gets upset. Give her the opportunity and space to calm down when she’s upset. If she needs to release some physical energy, what are some non-destructive activities she can engage in? How can she learn some more effective ways to cope with her emotions? One mom told us her 12-year-old daughter has a trampoline she jumps on to release pent-up energy. Another parent bought his child stress balls to use so he can squeeze when he’s feeling as if he’s going to lose control. The child was able to use these at school as well. You can also let your child know she can count in her head until the negative feeling goes away. This will help her realize that eventually the feeling does start to alleviate on its own, even if she doesn’t act on it. Your child can also use journaling, music, drawing, clay, Play-Doh or any other non-destructive activity they might be interested in to release feelings.
  3. Determine if natural consequences are enough. Some children break their own things when they’re upset or angry. If your child gets angry, throws his iPod and it breaks, the natural consequence is that he no longer has an iPod. Don’t buy him a new one!
  4. Hold your child accountable. No matter what the reason is for your child’s behavior, she needs to be held accountable. Just like when you’re in a store: you break it, you buy it. If your teenager puts a hole in your wall and it will cost $100 to fix it, how will you get that money back? You may offer opportunities for him to “work it off” around the house through chores. If your child is truly remorseful for his behavior, he’ll be willing to do so. If not, you’ll need to use more creative ways of recouping that money. How much do you normally spend on school clothes at the mall? $200? Well, if your child isn’t willing to work off her debt, you may choose to give her $100 for her clothes instead. She’ll still get clothes, but maybe from a less expensive store. Wearing no-name jeans might make her uncomfortable enough to stop and think before she breaks things again in the future. Take a minute to identify in what ways—even small ways—you spend money on your child. Think of things that aren’t necessities. Remember, there’s a difference between needs and wants. Your child needs to be fed; but he wants McDonald’s. You’re obligated, as his parent, to provide the first, but not the latter. Instead of a Big Mac, he may get peanut butter and jelly at home. (In The ODD Lifeline, we explain specific ways you can regain money spent to repair damages or replace broken items that have proven very helpful for parents.)

It’s a good idea to wait until your child has calmed down before telling him what the consequence will be for his actions. Don’t say to your child, “Well, I hope you liked that vase you just broke, because that just became your Christmas present!” That will only escalate the situation. Instead of stopping and looking at you calmly and saying, “Oh, Mother, what was I thinking? I’ll go calm down in my room now,” he’ll be more likely to smash something else! Instead, wait it out. Later, when the storm is over, you can let him know how he’ll be making restitution for the damages he made.

  1. Determine if parental consequences are enough. You will likely respond to your child’s destructive behavior based on several factors: your child’s age, the extent of damage that was done and the frequency of your child’s destructive behavior. You may choose to make a police report if the destruction of your property is severe enough or is happening frequently in your home. In the "real world," consequences depend upon the degree of destruction. If your 12-year-old breaks one of your knick-knacks, you may decide it’s sufficient to have him “brown bag it” to school rather than pay for hot lunches until his debt is clear. On the other hand, if your 15-year-old smashes your car windshield causing thousands of dollars in damage, you may decide it warrants a police report. It may be something that actually requires such a report for insurance purposes, but that’s a decision only you can make as a parent. The benefit to making a report is that, even if your child isn’t charged, you’re starting a paper trail. This is particularly important if your older child or teen has moved into Conduct Disorder, where he or she is violating the rights of others and believes there will be no consequences. If your child is at a point where he’s enraged, breaking things left and right, and appears to be escalating to the point of being a danger to himself or others, that’s a time when calling the police is appropriate as a safety precaution. When in doubt, ask yourself, “What would I do if this was a neighbor kid?” If your neighbor’s 11-year-old-son causes minor damage to your property, you might work something out where he makes restitution to you. If that boy breaks a $10 vase, you’re probably not likely to call the police. At what point would you consider the damage serious enough to make a police report? And how do you think a neighbor would respond to your child, if he exhibited the same level of property damage while at their home?
  2. Think of this as an opportunity. Your job as a parent is to prepare your child for Adult Life with a capital “A” and “L.” In society, if you destroy property, there are consequences—financial and sometimes legal. You want to respond to your child’s destructive behavior in a way that leaves no doubt about what he will experience should he engage in this behavior outside your home. One parent shared his reluctance to give consequences for his child’s destructive behavior: “She was just really upset when she kicked a hole in the wall. She felt terrible afterwards.” Maybe so, and it’s good if your child appears to have remorse for her actions, but she still must be held accountable. In her adult life, if that same young lady is in front of the judge after smashing in her ex-boyfriend’s taillights, and says, “I’m really sorry, Your Honor. I was just so upset,” it’s not going to save her from consequences.

Related: How to give your child “Fail Proof Consequences.”

  1. Keep your own emotions in check. Parents often feel angry—even furious—when their child damages their property. That’s completely understandable. Property destruction is a personal violation and it hurts to have a child treat something that we’ve worked hard for with such little respect. One mom states, “I think I got so angry because while I watched my son kick a hole in the front door, I was thinking I’m going to have to pay for that. Once I made up my mind that I would hold him accountable for anything he purposely destroyed, making sure he paid for things by controlling the money I usually chose to spend on him, I didn’t feel as angry. I was able to respond more calmly because I knew he would be held accountable. Once I adjusted my thinking to, Well, I guess he won’t be getting any money for allowance or any extras this month, I was able to respond more calmly and follow through with consequences. And, once he learned that he would pay for the damages, it only took a few times for him to choose to handle things differently.”

On the flip side, remember, if you don’t hold your child responsible for his behavior, you’re not doing him any favors as he prepares for the real world. Just because this is your child, whom you love, you still have the right to assert that your property will not be destroyed as a result of your child’s negative behavior. Holding your child responsible for damages to your property is done out of love and respect. The bottom line is that you are teaching healthy limits and boundaries when you hold him accountable.


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Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

READER'S COMMENTS

WEll written. I was almost in tears.Every subject touched basis with what I am going thru. Wish me luck.I don't want the younger children to end up with Police records before they're aware of what happened and what "can" happen.

Comment By : S Allison

What are we to do when your child doesn't appear to even care about any consequences you may give him? My son, who is now 19 & couch surfing elsewhere, is so disrespectful & unremorseful. Example, I recently reminded him not to expect any money from me for help since he chooses to sit around on his lazy butt & smoke weed rather than get a job & be responsible, to which his replies are always something to the effect of him saying I never do anything for him anyways. He is always the "victim" & it is so annoying. I did NOT raise him to behave this way, nor have I ever found this behavior acceptable, which is why we fight/argue anytime we talk. It's sad & horrible to me that I worked so hard as a single mom to raise my son right & he chooses to instead behave in a way that embodies everything I despise about humanity. He has always refused counseling or any antidepressants saying that weed is his antidepressant. If he was able to be a productive person while smoking marijuana occasionally I wouldn't care much, but that's not reality unfortunately. So disheartened....

Comment By : Joann

So far everyone of your articles that I have received have touched every aspect of my life. My 17 year old has punched 5 holes in the walls of my Section 8th apartment, kicked a hole in the door, ripped the closet doors off the hinges, broken two windows and he has no remorse. I have tried counseling, both individual and family, therapy, tried to have him evaluated but he never showed up for the appointment, experienced failing grades, poor attendance in school, very disrespectful to authoritative figures (school officials, me, counselors, step-father, ACS workers, police officers) and exhibited very destructive behaviors. I never called the police for assistance whenever he behaved in this manner and neither would the school or counselors. I had enough. A simple task would turn into a confrontation, he would threaten violence or physical harm on my fiance and me, refused to follow the rules of the home, smoking weed, running away from home, talking back and being combative. I had enough and while I had an active ACS case I was fearful that my 3 smaller children would be caught up in the foster system and I was not about to let that happen. I asked the agency to place him in a residential treatment facility, as he met all the requirements. They told me I would need a Mental Hygiene Warrant and told me where to go. I saw the Judge and he honored my request. On christmas he had a tantrum, grabbed a knife and punched another hole in the wall, I called the cops and the came out to the house. I thought he would be easy when the cops came, but he was even more infuriated. The police arrested him and he caught 6 charges and The DA issued a full OOP that excluded him from my home. On the Friday following his arrest he again started to act out in the presence of the counselor assigned to work with the family and I had to call 911 again as well as EMS as I explained to them that I had a Mental Hygiene Warrant that needed to be executed. He blamed me and my fiance for his arrest and showed no remorse or wrong in what he did. He was taken to see the Judge who after witnessing his behavior ordered him to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. The hospital kept him for 2 weeks he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct. I told the agency that he is not allowed back in my home and they need to place him in a facility where he could get the help he needed. And they agreed to take him, after a 3 and a half hour meeting. He of course tried to plead his case and I wouldn't back down. He even went as far as to say I choose my fiance over him. He has been placed since 1/13/12 and we have had no contact due to the OOP that's in place. But the thing that puzzled me is that although the DA issued a full OOP barring him from coming near my home and his siblings and he was aware (I wasn't) because in NY a 16 yr old is considered an adult so they don't contact the parent. I was unaware that he was not allowed back into my home, and although he knew he wasn't allowed there he came home after he was released from the jail and did not make me aware that he wasn't suppose to be there and was there for 2 days brewing over the fact that I had him arrested. I could've been killed in my sleep as a result of The DA not making me aware of the OPP that was put in place. He is now in a better place and he said he likes where he's at and would like to remain in the RTF...I however decided not to pursue the criminal charges because I won't like him to have a criminal record and he be unable to find employment or apply for grants for school if he do decide to change his behavior as he gets older. But I had to give the TOUGH LOVE as a mother. He'll be fine and if he chooses not to ever speak to me again in his life I'm also fine with that too....

Comment By : S. Burke

Very much to the T. We have tried this with our 4 year old son who has severe ADHD/ODD. His reaction has always been that of an "oh well" attitude. He moves on to the next thing. Even after taking away all of his toys (placing them in a bin in a closet out of reach), he moved on to something else. No TV, oh well; no LeapPad, oh well...on and on. When we took his toys away, we told him that we gave them all to another child that was needy and would treated them with more respect. He answer was "we can always go to the store to buy more." And he does not always get things every time we go somewhere. He is very much a problem solver and will think of ways around things and obtain the solution. 2 Neurologists and a family therapist have not been able to provide a positive resulting suggestion. We have gone through several medications as well. Nothing seems to get through to him unless it is something that truly scared the heck out of him. He once tried to make popcorn for breakfast and did not wake me until the microwave was on fire. He was so quiet getting up that I did not hear him leave his room, move a chair over to the key holder and get the key down for the locked pantry and get out the popcorn and set the microwave for 30:00. This child has no remorse for his actions with us, when he gets angry. At school, the teachers have absolutely no complaints and actually wonder why he needs an IEP. We are at an absolute total loss of what else to try. HELP!

Comment By : firecop207

My daughter is 15 years old, has run away from home a few times has been arrested twice and I am terrified for her safety. She is now in Ministry care(social workers) and has 2 court dates coming up.Im not sure if she is too far gone for this program...please please help!!!

Comment By : Pebbles

Thoroughly enjoyed this article, has made understand a lot as well. Thank you.

Comment By : roxy

I enjoyed reading this. It helps confirm what I already know. But sometimes what you know and what you apply in the heat of the moment are two different things. Thank you for the article.

Comment By :

* Hi Joann. It’s so hard for a parent when a child they raised with good values makes poor decisions that contradict those values. It sounds like your son is not in your home right now and you are providing the best consequences you can—no financial help so long as he is being irresponsible. That’s the best that you can do. I wish there was something we could suggest that would make him care more, but you can’t control how he feels. You only have control over yourself. Eventually your son’s resources will run out and he will have to change what he’s doing—people don’t usually change unless they’re uncomfortable. What we recommend is that you take care of yourself and don’t give his resistance to your consequences any power. When your phone calls start to become arguments, end them. Focus on yourself and doings things that help you to feel better. Here are some articles that might be helpful: Adult Children Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy & Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care, Joann.

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

* To ‘firecop207’: It’s so hard when your child doesn’t seem to care about or respond to any consequences you try. We’re glad to hear you’ve been working with your son’s school and professionals in your area, and we recommend that you continue to do that. Your son is still very young, and with a child of this age you might need to adapt the tools in this article a bit. Specifically, we recommend putting a really strong emphasis on problem solving—having conversations when things are calm about what your son can do differently when he is angry. While consequences are important, they are not enough on their own to change behavior. James Lehman stresses the need for giving kids different skills they can use. Otherwise, if your son doesn’t know what he can or should do instead of being defiant or destructive, that behavior will just continue. You can use role-playing and incentives to support the practice and use of better ways to manage his anger. Also, we don’t find it to be effective to use long-term consequences with younger children, as their sense of time is so different than ours. We want him to learn to manage his anger better, not to live without his Leap Pad. We would recommend using consequences that last no longer than 24 hours. This way, your son won’t end up in a position where he has nothing to lose. Here are some articles that might be helpful: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems” & Managing the Meltdown. We know this is incredibly difficult and we wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

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

* To ‘Pebbles’: I can see why you would feel so worried about your daughter. It sounds like she has made some pretty poor choices and is facing some natural consequences for those choices. We can’t predict what will happen with your daughter’s court dates or how long she will be in ministry care, but this could be an optimal time for you to learn some new ways to communicate with your daughter and manage her behavior. The ODD Lifeline gives you the skills as a parent to guide your child toward better decisions and hold your child accountable effectively for poor choices. It also teaches parents how to work with these community agencies and systems, such as the courts. It’s never too late to change how you parent your child. Feel free to read through Kim and Marney’s other articles here. You can also learn more about The ODD Lifeline by clicking here. We wish you and your daughter luck as you work through this. Take care.

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

I love every one of your articles.I have learned so much.My son isn't physically destructive, but he is emotionally destructive.Four years of dealing with failing school grades,smoking cigarettes and pot,constant lying,and temper tantrums that include hurtful insults has taken it's toll. I have so much guilt because even though I love my son more than anything,I have times during a crying moment when I wonder why I had kids.I learned that kids with ADHD are prone to also have ODD because not only can't they deal with change, but they can only think in the moment.They don't think about the trouble that they'll be in after they disobey or break the law.My problem is figuring out how to parent a child who thinks illogically.Sometimes, I'm just speechless because my questions is always,"how could he not know that would happen?"

Comment By : tiredmom

I need help with my kindergarten....he is 6 yrs old and very smart but he is having major issues with his behaviors. He destroys he classroom atleast once a week. The school is now trying to get me to put him in special education because of these behaviors....I truly need help with dealing with this and what way I should go with this. Should I put him in special ed although he is one of the smartest kids in his class or should I look for another solution? i am so overwhelmed

Comment By : Overwhelmed Mother

* To 'Overwhelmed Mother': It is hard when you have a child who is continuously acting out in class. Ultimately, it will be up to you and the school as to whether your son remains in his kindergarten class, or is moved to a special ed classroom. It might be helpful for you to try to do some problem solving with him at home about what is going on for him right before he decides to be destructive in class, and what he can do differently instead. We also recommend role playing the new behavior with him so he has practice doing it before going back to school. You might find it useful to work with someone in your local area to address these behaviors as well. If you and your family are not currently working with anyone to get support in your local community, a good place to start is www.211.org. 211 is an informational service that can help to connect you with resources in your area. You can also reach them by calling 1 (800) 273-6222. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

This article brought a lot of great insight. As of late my 11 year old son has become extremely destructive. Each time he does something requiring consequenes he then retaliates by destroying something and it has become a domino effect. It has been so frustrating. It is hard to remain calm when you see something you saved for get destroyed without a rational reason. Well at least a reason that doesn't seem rational to me.

Comment By : stressed out mom

Great articles for me. Our granddaughter lives with us and has ODD. It got way out of hand with hitting us, kicking, breaking cell phones, eye glasses, throwing books at our heads, throwing boots breaking windows, pulling off cabinet doors, making holes in the wall while throwing things, trying to hurt her motherin her knees while recovering from knee surgery... We were advised to call the police, that abuse and property damage was not acceptable for anyone. Her mother did so (lives with also ...I know...need to move her out) and went through the court system and found help. If you have a difiant child with severe abuse issues, do not hold backk from calling the police and doing what is needed. In the long run your child will learn the hard way through residental home help. It has changed my granddaughter alot but still she has ODD issues we handle. like all of us. Now she uses her coping skills which is to remove herself from the room or person, she listens to music with headphones to drown out her thoughts and calm herself down. She reads constantly also as a coping tool to take herself out of herself for a while and into a book. There is help, it works.

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