Does Your Child Say This? Translating the Secret Language of Acting-Out Kids

by James Lehman, MSW
Does Your Child Say This? Translating the Secret Language of Acting-Out Kids

When kids act out, they have an arsenal of comments they fire at you in order to put you on the defensive—a secret language that’s designed to win them control and absolve them of responsibility. If you take those comments at face value—or take them to heart—you’ll always be on the defensive, constantly reacting to a child who’s out of control.

James Lehman examines the most common words kids hurl at their parents when they act out, what they really mean, and how to respond to them in an effective way that puts the responsibility to behave appropriately where it should be: on the child.

  1. “It isn’t fair.”

Translation:I feel what you’re asking me to do is unfair. Therefore, I don’t have to do it.

Ineffective parenting response: “I don’t care if you think it’s unfair. Do it!”

Effective parenting response: “We’re not talking about fairness right now. We’re talking about you getting your homework done on time. Do the first math exercise now, and I’ll check in with you in fifteen minutes.”

  1. “You don’t understand.”

Translation: I’m unique. Therefore, I don’t have to follow the rules.

Ineffective parenting response: “I understand plenty. I suppose your friends are the only ones who really understand you, right?”

Effective parenting response: “The problem is not me understanding. The problem is you didn’t finish your homework.”

  1. “I don’t care if he’s littler than me. He hit me first.”

Translation: I’m a victim. I’m always the victim, so I’m justified in hitting my little brother.

Ineffective parenting response: “I don’t care if he hit you first! You’re grounded!”

Effective parenting response: “I understand he’s annoying to you. Let’s figure out how to deal with him without hitting him.”

  1. “I’m sorry I punched the wall, but you yelled at me.”

Translation: False apology. I’m not really sorry. It’s your fault that I punched the wall.

Ineffective parenting response: “I’m sorry I had to yell at you, but you can’t punch walls.”

Effective parenting response: “You’re still blaming me for your behavior. I know you’re sorry. I want to hear you say you were wrong to break the wall.”

  1. Josh’s parents are letting him go to the party.”

Translation: The limits you set on me are way too strict. You are unreasonable. So I should be allowed to go to an unsupervised party.

Ineffective parenting response: “Well, they seem like nice people. Maybe you can go”

Effective parenting response: “That’s up to Josh’s parents. The rules in our family are no unsupervised parties.”



Enter your email address to receive our FREE
weekly parenting newsletter.

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."


effective parenting is about respectful communication; children learn it from their parents ( their 1st teachers) and also about being pro-active instead of reactive.... leave the emotion out of it when dealing in the heat of the moment, no matter what anyone says....but also be aware the most educated, empowered parent is still human and it's much easier to say & to read about than it is to implement. Yet without knowing the set of skills and practicing; you;ll never be good at it...just like everything else in life... it's the hardest job you'll ever do; parenting and yet if done right, there is joy to be had for a very long time; a lifetime.. I wish I'd known about good paretning classes the day I gave brith or before... I did take one too late for my comfort; but it is still invaluable information and generally will help us still. I need to practice on rating with stars; I didn't have much luck... all of the comments are right on! Thank you for caring about our children; our world!

Comment By : GYC moam!

I hear these exact words come out of my boys' mouths (ages 8 and 13). These small adjustments to how I should respond are so signficant becuase it brings the issues back to the child...they own it! Thanks!

Comment By : Anonymous

I'm just learning, but your responses appear to be good. I will work to give the correct response.

Comment By : Anonymous

what about when my child calls me names? what is a good effective parenting tool for that?

Comment By : Anonymous

* ***The response to our August issue of Empowering Parents has been overhwhelming--the staff here at EP thanks everyone who has written in to ask the hard questions, leave comments, and tell us about your own parenting experiences. We noticed that the word "consequences" keeps popping up in your comments: Namely, what if kids don't pay attention to consequences once they've been dealt, or seem unaffected by them? In response to the deluge of mail, our lead article in October will deal with this difficult issue. So stay tuned, and let's keep the conversation going!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins
Editor, of Empowering Parents

Clear, helpful and effective contrasts of statements by child and parent.

Comment By : ?

When my kids tell me "It isn't fair", I reply "You're right, it isn't fair that I have to listen to you say that". When they complain that I'm more strict than other parents, or that our consequences are harsher than someone else's, I remind them that I simply love them too much to let them behave that way or get those grades or be disrespectful, etc.

Comment By : Cris

Hi - how do I handle my 11 year old who keeps saying "I forgot". He is using this excuse for not doing things (even using "I forgot to write that down; I forgot to look at my list of things to do). I don't know how to effectively parent him towards personal responsibility.

Comment By : Hello Kitty

Wow this is pretty accurate n makes sence n I'm 14 so yeah

Comment By : LoveChloeM.

Help 14 year old daughter - her younger brother was angry with her and blurted out to us that she had tried a beer and a cigarette a few months ago. Started a huge fight. I questioned her and she was honest and said she did try them and did not like them. I explained the harm of smoking and drinking. She said she was not going to do it again. Later, I sat her down with my husband and I told him what she had done. He blurted out "you are grounded for a month". she jumped up and ran off. She was gone for two hours. She is now not speaking to me. I felt that she should not have been grounded for something she did awhile ago. I was pleased she was honest with me. He felt she needed punishment. She is not ignoring me and giving me the evil eye and being kind to him. I give up.

Comment By : banananana

Rate this article by clicking the stars below.

Rating: 3.0/5 (215 votes cast)

Related keywords:

Effective parenting, Does Your Child Say This?, Acting Out, Consequences, Problem solving, The Total Transformation, James Lehman, child disciplining tips, Children behavior help

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

We value your opinions and encourage you to add your comments to this discussion. We ask that you refrain from discussing topics of a political or religious nature. Unfortunately, it's not possible for us to respond to every question posted on our website.
If you like "Does Your Child Say This? Translating the Secret Language of Acting-Out Kids", you might like these related articles: