Arguing with kids often seems like a losing battle—and it is. No matter what you say, your child has a smart comeback that pushes your buttons or leaves you speechless. And worst of all, when your child is angry, nothing is fair, and it’s never their fault.
In any argument, your child might set different traps for you. Once you know what these traps are, you’ll be able to avoid them—and hold your child accountable. In this article, I translate what your child is really saying during an argument.
You’ll often see kids blame others and point the finger at someone else when you hold them accountable for their behavior. They often see themselves as the victim, no matter how aggressive or abusive their behavior is.
Thinking of themselves as the victim gives them the ability, in their mind, to not take any responsibility. And if they don’t take responsibility, then they don’t have to change.
If your child blames others or comes back with excuse after excuse whenever you call them on their behavior, I believe you need to start challenging their thinking. And if they act out or are destructive in order to get away with inappropriate behavior, know that this is a warning sign: you need to find ways to stop that pattern immediately.
Here’s an example of how a conversation with your child can quickly be derailed by accusations, blame, and anger. Let’s say the teen below hasn’t done his homework, and now he’s behind at school. He was in a bad mood when he came home, so he takes it out on his little sister by picking on her and calling her foul names. His mother is concerned and upset, and she attempts to talk to him about what’s going on. Soon, their conversation deteriorates into an ugly argument:
Parent: “Why are you falling behind in school and picking on your sister so much lately?”
Child: “It’s her fault that I call her names—she’s always bugging me and taking my stuff. I’m sick of her crap.”
When you try to hold kids accountable, they will often use excuses to deflect your attempts to make them take responsibility for their actions. And if the mother in this example asked her child to apologize to his sister, he would say, “I’m sorry, but…” And it would be, “I’m sorry, but you looked at me funny.” Or “I’m sorry, but you laughed.”
So whatever he says, he means, “I’m sorry, but it was your fault.” And again, what he’s really stating here is, “I’m not responsible for what I say. I’m sorry, but I’m the victim here.”
One of the big signs of whether your child is ready to change is whether they’re prepared to stop being the victim. If they can stop that victim thinking and start to take some responsibility for themselves, I don’t care if they’re 8 or 18, they have a better chance of changing than a child who continues to blame the world—and everybody in it.
Parent: “Well, why aren’t you keeping up with your work?”
Child: “The teacher didn’t explain the assignment to me. How should I know what she wants me to do? She’s an idiot.”
Again, what we see here is victim thinking. In this kid’s mind, it’s not his responsibility to get clarification from the teacher.
One of the problems with this kind of thinking is that kids honestly believe what they think. We all do this to some degree. So if your child thinks it’s somebody else’s fault or that something isn’t fair, they’ll be able to justify inappropriate behavior and neglect their responsibilities. Psychologists call these thinking errors (also known as cognitive distortions), and they cause many problems for kids and adults alike.
Understand that in their minds, they believe they’re right. Kids think, “My friends are allowed to stay out until 10 o’clock. Why can’t I?” Or “Why can’t I watch YouTube for another hour?” That’s victim thinking: they believe they’re a victim of your stupidity or failure to understand their world.
And then the next jump in their thinking process is, “It’s not fair.” When somebody thinks something isn’t fair, they are then able to reason, “This isn’t fair, so the rules don’t apply to me.” Next, they’re able to justify not following that rule.
Adults do the same thing. Very often, people know something is wrong, but they don’t see it as harmful. So they rationalize that the rules around that issue are unfair, and they choose not to follow those rules.
How many adults know they shouldn’t speed, but speed anyway? When you ask them about it, they have many reasons, excuses, and justifications why the rule isn’t fair and why it shouldn’t apply to them. We see this in children all the time. When kids start complaining or blaming teachers, they’re saying, “It’s not fair.” And once they believe that, they don’t have to do the homework assignment, clean their room or mow the lawn. And many kids are adept at making something unfair right away—they’re professional victims.
As soon as your child excuses their irresponsibility by saying their teacher is an idiot, you can bet they’ve found a way to rationalize not doing the work. And then they get abusive when you challenge them.
Parent: “Well, why didn’t you just talk to her after school if you didn’t understand?”
Child: “Why don’t you believe me? You’re always taking the teacher’s side. It’s not fair. Why are you always picking on me? God, you’re such a b—-.”
Once again, we see the victim mentality kick in. Kids with behavior problems and a lack of problem-solving skills see any questioning of their actions, no matter how benign, as an attack.
They start by saying, “I already explained that it’s the teacher’s fault, why are you bothering me?” And then they add some power and sting to their words by getting verbally abusive.
Verbal abuse is your child’s strategy of “agree with me, or face my acting out, face my aggression, face my verbal garbage.” So there’s the warning—agree with me or face my B.S. They start to escalate so that their parent will back down and leave them alone.
The worst part about this strategy is that it too often works for kids—and by the time they’re young adults, they’re left with no problem-solving skills in their arsenal except intimidation and aggression.
By the way, I think that you want to avoid letting your child gain control of the conversation by using curse words. If your child does this, make a mental note to deal with it later. That’s better than letting them push your buttons. Stay focused on the issue at hand. I advise parents to write down the key issue on an index card so they can refer to it if they begin to get sidetracked.
I counsel parents to accept no excuse for abuse. If your son verbally abuses his sister, there should be clear, firm, and immediate consequences for that. You don’t have to lose your focus to assign those consequences. Wait until the end of the conversation but make sure you address the abuse.
If your child starts to escalate and becomes verbally abusive, it’s easy to get upset and angry and lose your temper. And that’s just what they want you to do because then you’re stuck in a power struggle with them. And when you’re in a power struggle, you’re yelling and threatening, they’re yelling and threatening, and no one is talking about your child’s responsibilities anymore.
Parent: “What did you call me? How dare you talk to me that way—I’m your mother! “
Child: “Why do you hate me so much? No one understands me but my friends. I hate you!”
When the parent in our example finally loses it and responds to her son’s aggression, her son makes another personal attack upon her and tries to manipulate her emotionally. In the moment, he may believe what he says, and this is yet another thinking error.
His mother doesn’t realize that for her son, his solution is to attack. He wants to render her speechless. And if you’ll notice, he’s still not talking about taking any responsibility or solving the problem. They’re just going around and around because he continues to play the victim. And since his mother isn’t challenging him on that posture accurately, he’s just stepping up his verbal abuse and manipulation.
Parent: “I don’t hate you. Why would you say that?”
Child: “F— you, I’m out of here.” (punches the wall and leaves.)
Escaping a situation is the most primitive thing humans do when threatened: it’s the fight or flight response. When your child reaches a point where they’re out of coping or problem-solving skills, their fight response is to yell at you, break things, or hurt people. If they choose flight, they run.
This response is not good for their development of effective communication or negotiation skills, which are two fundamentals of problem solving. Their behavior doesn’t resolve the conflict. Instead, their behavior just makes things worse.
The antidote to fight or flight is developing the communication and negotiation skills that are the basics of problem solving. A child, who doesn’t want to communicate, has distorted thinking, makes excuses, and continually takes a victim stance, has run out of coping skills. And when they run out of coping skills, they start becoming verbally abusive and threatening. So they begin by fighting—and when that doesn’t work, they run.
The bottom line is that now this child’s escalation is getting physical. He went from verbal abuse to physical abuse when he punched the wall. This escalation is just another sign of his inability to communicate and solve problems, and his world view that he’s a victim and “It’s not fair.”
Again, if things aren’t fair, then the rules about cursing at people or breaking things don’t apply to him because it’s not his fault. And that lets him off the hook. These kids have a way of thinking that justifies inappropriate behavior, that justifies violating other people’s boundaries, and that sees them as a victim of everything. When you try to interfere with or challenge that kind of thinking, these kids will get more upset, threatening, or destructive.
As a parent, you have to challenge your child’s thinking errors and hold them accountable. Even though your child may try to shut down questions about his behavior, remember that you are the parent, and it’s your role to hold your child accountable. Don’t get sucked into a power struggle with your child, even when they leave in the middle of an argument. Just say:
“When you get back, we’re still going to have to deal with this.”
Realize that their thinking errors interfere with their ability to take genuine responsibility for their actions or inactions. They also inhibit a parent’s ability to teach their child how to communicate, negotiate, or solve problems responsibly. Indeed, thinking errors make communication impossible: they distort reality and allow the person using them to avoid taking responsibility.
As a parent, it’s essential to understand the thinking errors kids use so that you won’t fall into the traps they set for you during an argument. If you know what your child is doing—and how to challenge them effectively—you can stop the blaming, excuse-making, and victim thinking.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.