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

By James Lehman, MSW

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.”

About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, 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.

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