The Jekyll and Hyde Child: Targeted Behavior Problems

by James Lehman, MSW
The Jekyll and Hyde Child: Targeted Behavior Problems

For many children, behavior problems are not universal; they’re targeted. Targeted at dad, at mom, at the stepmother, at the fiancť, at a sibling. The following two case studies reveal how normally charming and compliant children can become defiant or even abusive with one person in the family. James Lehman examines why this happens and what parents can do about it.

Case study #1: When Lisa remarried, she was confident that her three kids would grow to love David as much as she did. Her oldest daughter, Danielle (16), had never really warmed up to David, but she thought she’d come around. Danielle had always been a sweet and pretty resilient kid. Lisa was wrong. Within a few weeks after the wedding, Danielle’s behavior toward David became openly hostile. If he so much as tried to assert himself in a parenting role, Danielle would blow up. After one epic argument involving curfew, she stopped speaking to David altogether—and hasn’t uttered a word to him in the last two years. Danielle will speak to everyone in the family, except David, who remains the object of her unending wrath.

Case study #2: People who know Brian, Susan and their four children always tell them they look like “the perfect family” and compliment them on how polite their children are. But inside their home, they are far from perfect. Their 15-year-old son Jacob is a tyrant, particularly toward his mother and his youngest brother. He uses intimidating language with Susan and is physically abusive with six-year-old Tyler. “Jacob is all smiles when we’re in public,” says Susan. “But when we come home, he turns into this whole different kid.”

Kids recognize and deal with people in different ways almost from birth. As infants, they respond differently to their mother, a caregiver or a family friend. This continues into childhood and adolescence. They recognize the differences in adults, and those differences often fall into two categories. Which adults have power and which adults don’t have power? Which adults can you manipulate with bad behavior and which adults can you not manipulate? As kids grow up, they recognize which adults cannot follow through on consequences, which ones accept their excuses for inappropriate behavior and which ones buy them things to win their allegiance. They learn which adult is always making excuses for them and which one sets limits.

When a child targets one person when he acts out, it’s an indication that he has learned he can feel powerful at the expense of that person, whether it’s a parent, a stepparent or a sibling. On the surface, you won’t see the kid getting anything out of this targeted behavior. It’s not like he gets out of a consequence by calling his mother abusive names. He does it because he feels like a zero, and when he can bully his mother, he feels powerful. He feels weak and shaky about himself and lacks self-confidence. When he puts her down, he gets self-confidence. It’s a simple, basic behavioral dynamic.

To understand what kids get out of this, imagine you have a boss that you don’t like. Let’s say that boss is a constant pain in the neck for you. How often do you dream about telling him off? You imagine what it would be like to tell him off and think about how great you’ll feel. It probably will feel great for fifteen seconds, until you figure out how you’re going to find another job. It’s the same thing for these kids. They are telling off their boss, and they get the same sense of gratification out of it. To make it even better, they get to tell their boss off every day. In Danielle’s case, she has been telling off the boss for two years.

When children target a parent with their inappropriate behavior, they have most likely seen that there is a division in how the parents deal with the child—that the parents are not in alliance. They get two different messages from the parents, and they get power by picking on the weaker of the two parents, confronting the parent who challenges their power base or lashing out at the parent they deem is “unfair.” Children who target parents or siblings†by acting out often don’t have high self-esteem. They are afraid to feel certain things or be confronted with certain situations. So they try to control people by making one of the parents or a sibling a victim.

When a child targets one person when he acts out, itís an indication that he has learned he can feel powerful at the expense of that person, whether itís a parent, a step parent or a sibling.

It’s a natural reaction for parents to become divided when this targeted behavior is going on in the family. Parents become angry at the child and at each other. It’s somehow easier for parents to argue with each other over the child’s behavior than it is to demand that the child change. But this is exactly what parents need to avoid. Parents have to join together and decide what they’re going to do—together—when the child is abusive. Whether both parents witness it or not, both parents have to say, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Say this directly, clearly and firmly to the child who is acting out. Don’t look to blame the other kids in the family. Don’t blame each other. Put the responsibility for the behavior back on the child who is acting out.

Whether you are parenting the child as parents, step parents or foster parents, the most important word to remember is “We.” In Danielle’s case, when she rejects her stepfather, she is rejecting is the authority figure that he represents. Lisa shouldn’t try to shoulder the burden of this conflict alone, and David should neither withdraw from the parenting role to avoid conflict nor incite it by getting into shouting matches with Danielle. Lisa and David need to stand together and be very clear with Danielle, saying, “We are both your parents. And if you act in a disrespectful way with either one of us, you will be held equally accountable.”

The case of Jacob reminds me of my days working in youth detention centers. One day I remember asking a kid, “Do you curse at the staff in here?” And he said no. I asked him, “Why not? You curse at your mother.” Kids know who has the authority and who doesn’t. The kid in the detention center knew the staff members had authority and wouldn’t put up with being cursed at. His mom didn’t have authority over him, so he cursed her. What Brian and Susan need to realize is that Jacob understands if he disrespects people outside the home, the consequences will be clear, swift and uncomfortable. So when he disrespects his mother or his little brother, the consequences should also be clear, swift and uncomfortable. They need to observe what is different and what works about his behavioral responses outside the home and apply those things to their home.

The child who bullies specific people in the home has to learn the skills it takes to feel powerful and competent in more age appropriate ways. Parents should address two things:

  1. They need to help the child develop specific social skills in the areas of conflict resolution, negotiation and compromise.
  2. Parents have to work together to set clear and powerful limits to manage the behavior, always remembering to be united and use the word “we.”

The end result is that the child learns more skills to manage his feelings and not to abuse one person or take things out on them. He learns to manage those feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness, confusion and helplessness himself. When parents teach these skills and kids learn them, both sides end up happier. Even though the child doesn’t get his way as often and even though the parent has to work at it a bit, they both feel happier because they know things are working in the family. In The Total Transformation Program, I provide parents with a step-by-step way to teach these life skills to your children.

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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."


great article!

Comment By :

I can't believe I'm saying this but this applies to my 28-year-old brother!

Comment By : Need help...

This was very helpful article because this is a very real situation in my home. I thank you for the insight

Comment By : ravenhawkeyes1031

exactly my situation mu husband feels that because i am the mother and the adult theat i should adjusting and avoiding disputes and conflict because this would be easier for him and i feel doubly hurt because my husband feels that I am the problem.

Comment By : mab

Good article overall. I would, however, like to see some examples of appropriate consequences for typical scenarios, like being verbally disrespectful to a parent. I need some ideas. Thanks!

Comment By : LW

Although I totally agree with you, you fail to mention that if the bio parent continually allows this behavior and does not correct, but instead holds their partner contempt for upsetting their darlings, it becomes a no win situation. That parent has clearly informed his bio children that his partner is unfair and should not be respected. He hasn't said those exact words, but his actions are clear. The message he is sending to his bio children is, "kids we have an outsider here, your Stepmom/Stepdad and since I don't want you to feel bad nor do I want to become your enemy, you don't have to address them in any way, I will take care of you, because you are my ultimate responsibility". Guess what????? I filed for divorce after this scenario played over and over again in different situations, but pretty much the same message is what the kids received!! My job as a Stepmom was not to create havoc, but certainly not to be stepped on either, especially by my Husband who caters and can be so easily manipulated that he actually, non-verbally and verbally chose his daughters over his wife. These children in our society are so lost. They have no real boundaries, no real consequences and no empathy or compassion for anyone except themselves!!! This is why they are so out of control!!!! They have no structure, nothing they can really hold on to, nothing concrete in their lives, so they constantly act out the imbalance they feel inside and continually seek instant gratification instead of meaningful relationships showing dignity and respect for grown ups, much less their own parents and siblings!!!

Comment By : Anonymous

Amen to that last comment.Kids today have no respect for anyone in control.What tools can we teach them,if they will even try or listen to make them better communicators.Dave

Comment By : Dave

seems to me the parents of these children weren't taught as children themselves how to handle certain situations. what do you do then?

Comment By : mdk

Great article. I would love to see more concrete, specific consequences or ways that parents can use to reverse this behavior.

Comment By : MEB

Ihave a step grand daughter who fits this type totally. She is a monster when in the company of her mother and her step dad(my son) alone she is fine. Her mother protects her every move and comes to her defense every time she displays bad behaviour. No one is allowed to say or even suggest she be punished or set straight. I am currently barred from the home and can not see my grandson due to saying this child needed to be put in her place.What can be done in these cases when the childs behaviour effects the entire family.

Comment By : beingpunished

Great article!! It is so true if we do not support and respect each other as partners, children get the message loud and clear they can divide us as parent. My youngest son was the target of my husband's out of control supposed discipline and now the tables have turned and my son either ignores or tries to intimidate my husband (his bio father). My husband has thrown his hands up and quit altogether (5 years)! My son listens to me but ignores and has nothing to do with his dad, and regardless how I support or try to bring my husband on board he continues to be off hands and helpless or out of control making parenting hell for me. Parenting doesn't have to be this hard!! So, I don't include him anymore. Unfortunately my son is looking to all of the wrong male models for compaionship and a connection.

Comment By : Anonymous

To Article-13: Writing of your husband's out of control supposed discipline sounded so familiar to me! I want to encourage you because it's hell to be a single parent in a dual parent home. But since your husband's out of the parenting role, KEEP HIM OUT! Mine became involved when the kids were older, and it's been disaster ever since. They've joined dad in abusing me. We've got drugs, alcohol, permissive sex, multiple suicide attempts, and no matter what interventions I've made legally or medically, dad has vetoed. Our legal system is pathetic.

Comment By : Anonymous

I also need guidelines for this behavior. My 15 yr old daughter verbally abuses me because I feel she sees me as the weeker of the 2 parents. I can not involve my husband in any parenting issues. He will go blastic and use any info from years past wrong doings. There is no "we" in parenting. I try to discipline, but then he will undo the punishment. my daughter see this and knows that nothing with happen. It breaks my heart. I know that she is a wonderful child. We (me and her) needs examples.

Comment By : mw

My 9 year old son is perfect at home with me but...when he's away from me at school or with anyone else, that's why he lies, cheats, uses bad language, steals, and gets into fights. How do I deal with this? s

Comment By : djb

I've noticed a couple of people talking about how their kid is different with other people than they are at home. We went throught that and here's what I did. I asked my ex to talk to me about before he drove my son home. All three of us had a conversation about it as soon as they arrived. I think this helped alot. I think it sort of freaked Thomas, my son, out that I knew the details at first :) but the message was clear - your behavior needs to be good no matter where you are.

Comment By : SonyaG

This is a great article. I could use more examples. Our family has had many counseling sessions group individual etc for our 18 year old low self esteem anorexic daughter. She is abusive to all of us in the family. Not one counseling session has mentioned what this article has said.I could of used this common sense wisdom when she was 14.

Comment By : kh

What do you do when your 17-year old child defies any authorithy from parents (although we have tried to have rules all his life)? He does not care to confront anyone, And gets loud and threathening. Recently he defied someone he had looked up to and told him he lied. He is not hesitant to tell anyone off. He defies curfews and all rules.

Comment By : Anonymous

I too love the article... I actually have the Total transformation Program but when it comes to having consequences that work that is where we have problems. NOTHING seems to affect my boys.... I would love some examples of consequences and situations.

Comment By : TammyB

This also applies to caretakers, like babysitters that may not have the authority to discipline children.

Comment By : maturenewmom

I am a single parent(mother) of a 17 year old son. He will defy any rule and has called me every insulting name you could imagine. He refuses to do any chore or help around the house at all. I reall am at aloss and very discouraged.

Comment By : Hoping for Change

Just to add to my last comment, my son only exhibits this behavior with me. He even gloats about how he only acts out to me and no one else in his life. This makes the sitaution more painful for me.

Comment By : Hoping for Change

At my house there is no "we". I am a single parent, and my son takes advantage of that. His dad is totally uninvolved, unless it has to do with school, and then he brings his wife (which I believe is totally inappropriate). I have to work during the week and every other weekend. I'm screwed. I have NO support system.

Comment By : Weary Mom

I too am being beat 'up' by my 15 year old daughter. I am her mom, divorced from her dad. Dad's parenting is complete hands off. I am the one that has always provided structure and discipline. He took her from me a year ago and I am now in court fighting to get her back. Of course, she doesnt want to come back but her grades have gone down the toilet and she is involved in smoking pot, lewd sexual acts, drinking etc. She is verbally abusive to me and disrespectful because I am trying to get her back. Her father and I have zero communication because he is so bitter over the divorce so the way I see it he is using our daughter to get me back. Meantime, her future is hanging in the balance. I am tired of being the bad guy while he looks like he is a saint. And my daughter can't/won't see what is going on.

Comment By : beaten-up mom

I see a lot of us (single parents) are desperate for "examples" of how to get the job done. I, too, have a son (11)who only gives me, or doesn't give me any respect. His father is hands on, in fact it got bad enough that I had to have my son move in with his dad because of all the damage he had done to my house, ie. punching holes then picking at them to make them bigger, etc... so now I have guilt for kicking him out of the house and making him move in with the one person I didn't want to have influence on my son. The whole situation is a catch 22, and my boy ends up the loser. He thinks his mother doesn't want him, and his dad is a bully. Where does a parent go from there?

Comment By : Ilovehimwithallmyheart

This is an area that we are struggling with also. I am stepmom to my husband's two children and we have two together. Brent, the oldest who is twelve, has been angry since he was two. He is abusive and choses to not listen or do as told. He rebels and continues to draw terrible attention to his self. I try my best to discipline and guide him, but I am the evil person with all the rules. He has been quite abusive to me and his father just gets mad at both of us. Sometimes we are on the same page, but most of the time my husband doesn't want to hear anything about what I have to deal with or how mean and disrespectful Brent is to the other kids. Sometimes he is okay in public, but most of his outbursts are at home and some at school. I could also use some consequence suggestions for his outbursts, disrespect, lies, stealing, hurting others and not doing as he is told.

Comment By : frustrated beyond belief

* Sonya G. Involving your childs father in the expectation for appropriate behavior in both environments was a great way to show your son the important and powerfull adults in his life are going to act as a team where his behavior and daily functioning are concerned. Too often we give kids too much power in divorced families and the outcome is usually parnts who distrust each other and kids with no sence of global expectations.

Comment By : James Lehman,
Creator of The Total Transformation Program

* MW. There's no limit to the damage a parent can do when he or she doesn't support their partners efforts to challenge and manage inapproprite behavior. My experience is that one parent can create a "culture of accountability" between themselves and the child. If that doesn't happen, the childs power increases with the chaos. Beware of marital partners who act out their own personal problems or unhappiness with the marital relationship by sabatoging the other parents role.

Comment By : James Lehman,
Creator of The Total Transformation Program

James Lehman's comment that "there's no limit to the damage a parent can do when he/she doesn't support their partner's efforts to...manage inappropriate behavior..." is right on target. I've lived it and now divorced, still find no solution to this problem. Though, at least now the one child still with me has one stable home. However, I do find myself walking a fine line as I don't want our son to choose to live with "good-time, no consequences daddy" as our daughter has - with disastrous consequences. I'm not looking for an easy answer, just a workable one!

Comment By : cm

I can definitely relate to the destructive acts performed by my child. When she gets upset she destroys the house. I also agree that more concrete consequences need to be mentioned so that parents have tools they actual use to combat this issue. These kids are getting out of control and the parents are suffering at all costs. We love our children however we cannot let them run the house and that seems to be the case with these kids. I've tried so many things such as taking away privileges, alone time, talking, counseling on 2 seperate occasions and now I have sent her to spend some time with her dad because it was unbearable. Now I want her back home but I cannot tolerate her behavior so I suffer emotionally and am trying to ride it out but it is very hard.

Comment By : desperate mom

WHOA... there is no way that all of us single parents suffer from the same disaster without a solution to this. I can relate to almost every comment in here, being a divorced single parent of five - my kids playing me like a YoYo since I am -and always have been- the disciplinarian while Dad is the Mr.-Goody-two-shoes escape with no rules and regulations. Every discipline issue I address gets turned ompletely around and I am the one that is "incapable of dealing with issues". Now - what DO you do? Do you say 'The heck with it, I am so worn out from this daily battle, let 'em live with Dad' (that didn't work for the 14-year old one either), or am I going to lose my mind by trying to stick to my guns and enforce respect, discipline and rules? One revolting teen is bad enough, but try this with 4 other kids around. I don't get ANY compliance from my ex with whatever I am trying to do, he is using our kids to get back at me by influencing them in a negative way. And no - what happens at our house does not stay at our house and vice versa. Kids know very well how to play their cards. So - who is teaching me how to play mine?

Comment By : Losing my marbles!

Great article! my stepson is very disrespectful towards me. my mother-in-law seems to encourage the behavior. my husband has tried to correct the behavior but my mother-in-law seems to step in every time. We have a special situation my husbands ex made up lies about him so he now has supervised visitation at his parent house. I have stopped going to there home altogether because of the abuse that i endure from my stepson and my mother-in-law. I no longer know what to do.

Comment By : completely lost

I'm completly lost on how to deal with my 7 year old son whom is very disrespectful to me and abusive to his 2 year old sister. We are a blended family and trying to figure out the best consequences for my son. He has watched a lot of abusive behavior in the past with his bio dad. I fear for not only my sons life but as well as the rest of my family. I need non abusive consequences for this child that are effective please help me with this. I fear that my son is becoming more abusive with his sister despite my best efforts to keep them at arms length of each other.

Comment By : hopeless mom

* Dear Hopeless Mom: Iím sorry to hear that your family was exposed to domestic violence. It is good that you are watchful of your sonís behavior and that you remain concerned for him. According to the American Psychological Association, "Violence and the Family: Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family,1996," ď A child's exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.Ē It is also important that your daughter is protected from being the current victim of abuse. She needs to feel safe and comfortable in her environment. Do not allow your son to be abusive to her. You may need to always have a parent present when they are together to intervene. Tell your son when he begins to misbehave that it is ďnot okay to act that way.Ē It is not simply a matter of giving him a non-violent consequence for this behavior; he needs to know what else to do. If despite your best coaching and teaching efforts he is still not able to successfully learn appropriate ways to express his emotions, please consider family therapy that specializes in trauma. A therapist can help you learn to recognize the impact that violence has had on your family, teach you how to talk about this experience with your children, and assist you in coaching your son to use appropriate coping techniques to manage his feelings.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My stepson (12) is very abusive to both me, his Step Mother and his Bio Mother. According to my stepdaughter he is much worse at his Mom's house. I started listening to the TTS and so many of the behaviors are dead on descriptions of my Stepson. I have started using more clear communication and not engaging in the "why are you yelling at me... or But you ..." types of responses that I now understand are to put me in a defensive mode. Recently my stepson was suppose to be doing his homework but when I checked on him, he was listening to his I-touch and texting on his cell phone. Both of which his mother bought him, despite the on-going issues he has had with getting his homework done without distraction. Because I found him using both devices when he was suppose to be doing his homework, I advised him that the following day after school, prior to starting on his homework, he would be required to give me possession of the I-touch and cell phone until he could show me his homework was done. He reluctantly agreed. However, the next day when I asked for the two items, he gave me the cell phone and said he would be keeping the I-touch (gives him access to the internet, You Tube, etc.). When I told him to "Give me the I-Touch now" several times, he tossed it into a drawer and proceeded to stand in front of the drawer to block my access to it. This is where I need some feedback.... I moved him from in front of the dresser by physically pushing him away and grabbing the I-Touch and leaving the room. This errupted into him yelling obscenities at me, telling me he hates me, that I'm ugly, that he wished he could squish my head until I'm dead, etc. He used the obscenity FU, but did not actually say the words. I did not engage in the screaming, but went into my room and calmly sat on the bed. When he came in yelling at me, I just told him to go to his room and advised him the at cell phone and I-Touch would remain in my posession for the remainder of the weekend due to his behavior. My question is should I have just walked out when he hid the I-Touch in the drawer rather than physically moving him over? His anger level when he does not control a situation is unreal. I'm trying very hard to provide a stable atmosphere and be consistant, but his angry outbursts and refusal to do what I ask can be incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately when he is at his Mom's, he yells at her, tells her she is stupid, throws things, etc. and she does takes it. In fact she rewards him often the day after an outburst for "having a better day". When he wanted the I-touch (a $400 gadget) he begged he for weeks all the while treating her disrespectfully, not getting his homework done, etc. and she still bought if for him. My step daughter said being in her Mom's home with her Mom and brother fighting all the time is awful. In response, my stepdaugter treats her brother kind of mean. She recently revealed that she is mean to him to get back at him for making her home environment a "living hell". I wish I could get the kids Mom to listen to the TTS because she is clearly a significant contributor to the problem. Unfortunately she would only turn the tables and say we are accusing her of being a bad parent. Dealing with an angry child is so difficult in one home and in two homes where there is a total lack of uniformity in parenting makes it feel a bit hopeless. I will continue to press on. Both kids are very special to me and I know my stepson has the ability to make changes if he receives a consistant message, at least in our home.

Comment By : Confused Cat

* Dear Confused Cat: It is so great to hear you say you believe in your step-son and his ability to change. Our children are sensitive to our feelings and this can help him find the energy to try to make positive changes. In a blended family, it is important for you and your wife to coordinate the house rules in your own home. If your children remark that there are different rules at their motherís house, tell them, ďThat may be, but in this house these are our rules. When you are at your motherís house, you must obey her rules.Ē Even though you have strong feelings about their motherís ability to manage her household, make sure that your stepson never hears negative remarks about his mother. I agree with you that it would have been better if you had not physically pushed your step-son to get his I-Touch away from him. This probably increased his negative feelings instead of helping him to get control of himself. When you find yourself in these power struggles, donít try to force him to change. Or add additional consequences that were not part of your original agreement, such as, ďNow you wonít get this back all weekend.Ē Instead give him a choice. Tell him that if he does not bring the I-Touch to you in the next 30 minutes there will be additional consequences, but donít say what those will be. Then walk away and let him have time to calm himself down and decide what he will do. Your role here is limit setting and coaching him calm himself down.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am a single mom with three children 2 boys 11 & 12 and one girl 6. So many of these issues and comments sound so familiar to me. My 12 year old is abusive at times to myself and the younger two, that I'm not sure what to do with him. He and his brother get into physical altercations with one another very frequently and I always step in and play referee, and I've never been hit by either of them, but I'm quite sure my time is coming, and then I send them to neutral corners (their bedrooms to cool off). Also, there are times when they will hit their little sister or push her or take things from her, just because she isn't in trouble and I fear that the older she gets the worse their actions with her will get. The boys are only 11 months apart and that has always been a sore spot with my oldest. Their father has visitation with them every other weekend and he calls them a couple of times a week, most weeks, but not all. We have very different views on discipline and he doesn't see the sides of the boys that I do, so therefore, most of the time, he believes I'm crazy and is very unhelpful. He will get angry with them and say that he is going to drive to our house and deal with them face to face if they don't straighten up, but never follows through, but at the same time, I feel as if he is doing more bullying than he is helping. I try to give the consequences, but my oldest just says that I let the younger two get away with everything and he's always in trouble and just becomes angrier with me and more abusive with me and the younger son always says that he doesn't care, what I take away from him or how I punish him. I'm not sure what to do with either of them. We are beginning to have problems at school with the younger son, which has not been the case for the most part with him, he is acting out, trying to be a clown of sorts and not getting his homework or classwork done and is now failing school....My oldest has changed his behavior at school and gets his work done and has begun bringing his grades up, but still has his issues at home. I too need some examples of consequences for these boys, because I am also seen as the weaker parent, no doubt! I find it very discouraging and very difficult to be consistent with these two!

Comment By : discouraged mom in SC

Examples of consequences are critical. Each situation is different because each child's currency is different. We have an abusive 5 year old whose currency is unknown. We have tried everything (at least we feel so). We have removed favorite toys for periods of time, canceled attending events that would sure to be fun for him, time outs, and the standard litany of other "sure fire" consequences. No good so far. We've been to psychologists, behaviorists, and are now at the end of our ropes. Things have gotten so bad in our fractured little house that we have decided to start him on a small dose of Abilify, which scares the heck out of me but we seem to have tried everything else. I feel good about the decision, remarkably. I feel that we've tried everything else and this is the last resort. But a crucial piece of the medication is to supplement it with behavior modification techniques that work. I'm just hoping that some of the techniques that we've used in the past will have a better effect while on medication. But it sure would be nice to hear of some real world consequences that will work. We feel we've tried everything.

Comment By : Discouraged dad in DC

to "Need Help" I can believe it as it seems to apply to my 27 yr old son.

Comment By : can't wait till he moves out

Here are some consequences I use for my fourteen year old son. Keep in mind I try to keep these "punishments" as brief stints, because as Jim said, they don't get long time periods. My son has a favorite "skater hoodie" that he wears to school everyday. It could have a barbeque stain on it the size of Texas, and he'd still wear it. When he is disrespectful, after being told "Don't talk to me that way, I don't like it", he loses the hoodie for the next school day. We also do a three-strike week. If there are three strikes in one week of disrespect, he gets a haircut of OUR choice. The teachers love this because they can always tell when he has gotten into major trouble. We also take away two other of his favorite things for the day any disrespect happened by taking away phone and computer privileges.

Comment By : CommittedParentsInNC

I want to encourage every parent here who hasn't gotten the Total Transformation to get it. Today. It isn't a panacea, but it gives you many many examples of what to do. I only wish I had found it before my son was 16 and completely out of control, even with much counseling and other support. Even so, it helped me enormously. The only thing I have a problem with in Dr. Lehman's approach is the issue of calling the police. I did that, and the reality is that there are not enough decent programs for kids that really help. I was able to get my son into a mental health residential program at one point using my health insurance and it helped some. On the other hand, kids cannot be allowed to physically abuse parents, other kids or their living environment and the criminal justice system is your only option, as bad as it is, if your child is physically abusive. What the Total Transformation did for me was to help me to see some ways to cope and to try to help my son learn some of the skills he was lacking. I really think if I had found it earlier, we would have had a better chance of things not getting as bad as they did. But, I did use the TT techniques to keep myself sane and to try to help him. My son is now 19 and just recently has started to get it together. I know that we have a chance that he will turn out to be a decent human being and not be incarcerated. You have to keep that hope alive so that your kid knows that you believe in him or her. Underneath all that nastiness is someone who is very scared and hurting, as Dr. Lehman has said. It's hard to remember that when they are so abusive and hurting you and wrecking your life. But, if you can stay calm and have a plan, it helps a lot, rather than feeling out of control yourself. I want to encourage people to try to get their kids to take vitamins and Omega 3 too. My son had a problem with his stomach, which the medical doctors could not find a cause of -- probably anxiety, which many of these kids have. And of course, as he became a teenager, he refused to take any medications which helped when he was younger. But because his stomach got so bad, I was able to get him to see a shiatsu and acupuncture practitioner who put him on herbs and Omega and I can't believe the difference. So, keep trying people. Don't give up. Get the total transformation -- I used to listen to it in the car, over and over. I would write out scripts for myself for having talks with my son, anticipating what he would say and what I would say. It's a lot of work, but you can do it!

Comment By : Still struggling, but seeing some light at the end of the tunnel...

Oh no, what have I done? My son who is adhd and has an anger management problem has been bullying me and disrespecting me for a long time now. He hates his step dad and I may have had somethng to do with it to an extent as I have not allowed them to hash out their problems or bond without my intrusion and I have always stood up for my son because my husband never has understood or wanted to understand the behavior complications in adhd kids. My husband thinks I use adhd as an excuse. I try not to ever use it as an excuse but there are real behavior problems that directly come from the syndrome such as forgetfulness, anger, poor self esteem, impulsiveness, rebelliousness and more. My husband is just now beginning to see this but its too late I fear. My son hates him, has stolen from him and says my husband is a Piece of ---- (to me not to my husbands face except when they are in an argument)...My son is not on meds because he had very bad side effects from strattera and ritalin and I am afraid of unknown side effects and long lasting problems with lesser known meds. so, I have a kid who is out ther driving, has lost his car once already and now has another ticket, is very smart and has graduated hi school in his junior year on May 21 08. Time on his hands , no job and lacks the sticktoitism to keep searching for one. I am exasperated and so afraid what will become of him. He self medicates with pot and drinks at times although he does not drink while driving, he claims he drives better when on pot and focuses better. ( I do believe that as he also behaves better and is calmer and more accomodating when he comes home high). I am at my wits end. Counseling helps but it is not quick enough...he will be 18 dec 22nd. Any ideas" I am afraid that my son will have so many problems behind his adhd and anger such as relationship problems, problems on the job, (he has already lost one job), driving, partying, and to top it off, he thinks he is a responsible young adult and that I should let him do whqat he wants and answer to the adult world if he needs consequences. (he does not think he should be grounded anymore and should be allowed to do his chores whenever he wants as long as he gets it done.) He has fits of rage at times especiall ywhen I tell him NO about something or ask him to do something more than once. (low level of tolerance for authority and what he calls nagging)..How can you not nag a kid who forgets all the time and has no follow through? And wont make lists for himself nor be willing to use any tool that will help him live with adhd? very frustrating. Email me at Linda

Comment By : Linda

I read these comments from all of you dealing with real heavy issues with your teenagers and it puts fear in my heart! I know that my determination as a step-parent to put behavioral interventions in place and to ensure that the schools use the IEP effectively is because I don't want him to end up a juvenile delinquent! Step parenting can feel like a thankless job. I have once again learned more strategies for dealing with those power struggles moments from this article. I can't stress to parents enough, that the behavioral interventions are so important for family harmony and sanity! We were lucky enough to have the best Special Ed teacher from grade 1 for our son. She listened to what I said (yes we did disagree sometimes) and she was also able to correctly assess our son's behaviors and see what he needed in way of interventions. She worked with the teachers and she was always on hand to deal with him if he escalated in class. Part of his IEP also dealt with teaching him social skills and utilizing role playing as a teaching method. Now that he is nearly 13 and entering 7th grade, all these life lessons and discipline in the home have helped tremendously. I can't encourage parents enough to put faith in the TT methods and to fight diligently for your child in every aspect of their lives to ensure they grow to be responsible and contributing members of our communities. They are the future!

Comment By : khar59

i have a 14 yr step son and a 13 yr old daughter they all was fight i put my daughter in line but when i try to put my step son in line . i get nothing his mother & father don't back me up take thing does not work . please help

Comment By : Dawn

Oh wow, this fits my 6 year old to a T! She is mean to me and to her sister, and my husband (her dad) keeps saying it's because she feels bad, so she bullies. And we have recently come to agreement that it's unacceptable. What I don't understand is how to make her feel stronger and more powerful on her own. As long as she's in control, things are good. If I step in as the mom in anyway, chaos erupts and she takes a lot of it out on her sister. I see many symptoms of anxious attachment in her as well. What I don't know is exactly what to do about it.

Comment By : ainsleesmom

this fits my 54 year old b/friend he is an alcoholic, he is verbally abusive blames everyone for his bad behavior instead of being accountable himself

Comment By : @witsend

My son is 20, thru my divorce from his father, then 9 months later followed by his fathers death, great division has occurred and I can recognize such divided behavior in my son. I received such validation and understanding from this article thank you

Comment By : momlikespink

My son is 10. My husband (his dad) was killed in a car accident last summer. Before then we were always close and pretty "normal" Well, when his Dad died, my son had a nervous breakdown, he became violent with me and my other two sons. He has become another person. He was in a treatment facility for a week or so after Dad died. The problem now is that he has become such a bully. I can barley stand to be around him. Other people will comment to me about what a great kid he is how respectful, how charming...etc, but with me he is horrible. I don't understand his behavior at all. His counselor hasn't been very helpful either, he seems to think that in time, the behavior will settle down (once the year anniversary of dad's death comes) however, I am concerned because he is getting more dangerous and he seems to really NOT care about anything anymore. He was once such a bright and happy child.... I'm just so worn out and frustrated, I really don't know what to do next.

Comment By : Michelle

* Dear Michelle: Weíre so sorry to hear about your familyís loss. People can grieve very differently. Your son may feel particularly angry at his fatherís death and not know how to manage this. Itís really good that you are having him work with a professional counselor to help with the grieving process; however, he has to learn to grieve in socially appropriate ways. He still needs to be held accountable for his behaviors. Itís important to have a ďNo Excuse for AbuseĒ policy in your home. James Lehman recommends that you don't shut off communication with someone who bullies, but don't validate the thinking errors that go into the justification of abusive actions. This means you canít bully others because youíre upset and there should be consequences for abuse. Talk to him about appropriate ways to handle negative feelings. If your son needs to physically work out his anger, coach him to use more socially appropriate ways to reduce tensions; such as doing push-ups in his room, jogging, or doing some deep breathing exercises. And itís important for your son to learn how to recognize what Ďtriggersí him. Instructions for this are discussed in Lesson 7, How to Stop It Before It Starts: The Trigger Management Process, in James Lehmanís Total Transformation program. Itís understandable that it can be challenging to be around your son but try to do your best to give his as much positive attention as possible. Donít forget to praise behavior you like. We wish your family the best as you work through this difficult time together.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I loved the article and can relate to almost every comment written. I am wondering if I can still make an impact. My daughter is 18. She just graduated but still lives at home.

Comment By : Curious

* Dear Curious: Many parents use the Total Transformation Program with kids who are as old as 18 with good results. It is still possible to change behaviors at that age. James Lehman writes, ďItís never too late to deal with children in a teaching, limit-setting and coaching way. Parents can start anytime, as long as theyíre willing to deal with the discomfort of demanding that their kids change and holding them responsible. It may feel like the hardest thing youíll ever have to do. But it could save your kidís life.Ē

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This article very much applies to our home situation. I am remarried and have a very authoritative husband. My son resents his step-dad's presence in our home and almost seems to try to divide us. We are learning to stand together and have done the TTP together and implemented changes together --- as a unified bond. It angers my husband to see my 9 year treat me the way he does. But we're getting better at handling his outbursts and abuse towards me. It's definitely a work in progress.

Comment By : meeisdee

I am divorced from my children's bio father. He left 2 yrs ago and took the kids, who are now 14 & 17. The judge sent us to Clinic, which is a joke. I have a degree in Social Work and worked in the court system. I've researched this kind of situation since day 1. No one listens to what I'm telling them about the abusive situation I'm going through. The court has actually turned this on it's head and has said I"M the abuser!! My daughter has kicked holes in the wall, assaulted me, broken 2 doors, etc. When I've told our worker about the problems, she tells me it's me, or it was an accident, etc. I was told specifically to call 911 by this person, then she denied ever telling me so. I've voluntarily had psychological testing done and was found to be a normal, non-aggressive person. My ex a has been manipulating the situation and 'rescuing' the daughter if I try to do any kind of discipline or give consequences when she's been here. I praise God for something that most would say would be awful. After being a stay at home mother for 14 years, then having the kids everyother weekend, I now have supervised visitation. I have had a witness to what's been happening. Hopefully we will be going back to court soon. I want to see at least the 14 yr old on weekends and possibly more. My lawyer will not contest the custody. (had to borrow money from family to hire her). My therapist whose not charging me a dime, is praying my ex will be deemed an unfit parent. Believe me, what I've told is just the tip of the iceberg of what's going on. My friends cannot believe how far things have been allowed to go. I have basically been stripped of my right to discipline. Btw, the 14 year old has told me that his sister is acting out at 'home' but not as bad as when she's with me. My son is a loving caring person but for some reason will not tell anyone what's really going on. When he's with me he shows his affection towards me, and has become bolder around his father as of late towards me (hugs,etc). I am praying that when we go back to court, he will tell the judge the truth this time especially since there is a witness that will step forward. I really don't know what to do to get some peace during the visits with my daughter. I don't want to end my relationship with her. She stopped talking to me for the most part, almost a yr ago. Sometimes she is animated and will actually have a discussion with me and even laugh with me! I've tried everything I can think of and will try what Dr. Lehman has suggested which is what my therapist has suggested also.

Comment By : zrgbi

What if you have always been the singled parent and you are the only parent and your child is 15 year old girl. Bullying her mother daily.

Comment By : Miki

* To ďMikiĒ: Being a single parent can definitely be difficult at times, especially when you have a child who bullies you to get her way. This can be a challenging behavior to address. What is going to be most effective is to work with your child to develop better problem-solving skills. As James Lehman points out in his article The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do Itóand How to Stop Them, most kids bully as a way to solve a problem. Say for example you tell your daughter she canít go somewhere and in response she becomes disrespectful and threatening. Your daughter doesnít know another way of dealing with the disappointment of being told no, so, she bullies you to try to get you to change your mind. We would advise for you to sit down with your daughter during a calm moment and problem solve with her different ways she can deal with disappointment, frustration or whatever problem she may be trying to solve. Here is a great article that explains how to problem solve with your child: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". In closing, I would also like to stress the importance of being safe. If there is ever a time when you feel frightened of your daughterís behavior, I would encourage you to call your local crisis number to discuss an appropriate course of action for your situation. You can find out the crisis number for your area by calling the 211 National Helpline at 1-800-273-6222 or by logging on to We wish you and your family luck as you address this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My twin 13 yr old daughters, who I let run amok for years to make up for the problems their father and I were having until the divorce, had taken up a stand against my live in boyfriend when he asserted alittle verbal discipline. They started acting out and disrespecting me which didn't go over well. After 1 particularly HOT argument between the girls and us, things deteriorated drastically to where the girls would no longer speak to my boyfriend and blamed me saying I was letting him change the rules in the house. I was at my wit's end with all of it until I started reading your website articles. This article really hit home and with unity between the adults in the house as to what is expected, the girls seem to be opening up more and letting the wall come down. They see that their behavior was unacceptable and not helping any of us. Thanks for such a great website.

Comment By : Laurie

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