Empowering Parents editor Elisabeth Wilkins talks with James Lehman about his life, his book, and the hard-won lessons he discovered growing up as a defiant, acting-out child. From being abandoned in a basement as an infant to a life of crime and drug addiction in his teens and young adulthood, learn how James transformed his life—and how he’s teaching parents across North America to do the same thing with their own children.
Q: James, you had a difficult childhood and adolescence, and were headed down a dangerous path. Today you’re a nationally renowned child behavioral therapist who’s helped hundreds of thousands of families turn their kids’ behavior around. Did you ever imagine this role would be in your future when you were growing up?
James: It’s funny, I never saw myself becoming a therapist when I was a kid—far from it. I expected very little out of life. I had a very chaotic and painful childhood. I was abandoned in the basement of a building at around the age of 18 months, and then adopted by the man who found me, Ted Lehman. I wound up having some really serious behavior problems, both at home and in school. I was 13 years old the first time I ran away. And the truth was that I liked living out on the streets better than living with my family, because I felt like a loser and a failure at home; I hated myself. In contrast, there were no responsibilities when I lived on the streets, and since I had a hard time meeting the expectations my parents had for me—such as homework and appropriate behavior at home and at school—it was actually much easier for me to live as a runaway.
Looking back, I realize there were a lot of social problems that I couldn’t solve—I simply didn’t know how. My parents tried their best, but because I had conditions which weren’t very well understood at the time, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attachment Disorder (AD), I was incapable of learning. And so I solved my problems through the most basic, instinctual problem-solving mechanism: fight or flight. I was defiant, which was “fight”—up until I became old enough to start running away from home, and that was “flight.” Those were my only coping skills.
I dropped out of high school at a young age and got into trouble with alcohol, drugs and the police. I wound up doing a significant amount of time in prisons and institutions during my teen and young adult years. I didn’t know how to deal with the obstacles life presented, so I turned to drugs and alcohol. Crime gave me access to and the means to buy both. From the age of 17 to 20 I was in prison, and that’s where I got my high school diploma. In my early adulthood, I hitchhiked across the country twice; I was trying to leave behind the life I’d created for myself. But no matter where I went, I couldn’t get away from drugs and alcohol, which always brought me back to criminal behavior—which in turn, brought me back to jail. It was a dangerous, negative cycle I couldn’t seem to escape from on my own.
Q: Sadly, many people aren’t able to escape from this cycle—they are never able to change the course of their lives after making those choices early on. What changed all that for you?
James: In 1973, a judge sent me to a responsibility and accountability-based treatment program, where I was really forced to confront many of the errors in thinking I’d made to justify being a drug addict and a criminal. Before I went into that program, I expected very little out of life; I thought I was just doing the best I could every day. (For me, that meant getting enough money for drugs and alcohol.) But in that program, I was forced to look at myself and my faulty thinking. After about 14 months, I had really learned to be responsible for my behavior. I learned to stop making excuses, blaming others, and thinking I was a victim of someone or something. And I learned how to accept accountability for the result of my actions.
A key part of that program included helping the other addicts who were in there with me. If I didn’t, my group leader would say, “Why aren’t you helping Tommy out with his problem? You know, he’s going to die if he doesn’t change, man. And it’s your responsibility to challenge him and help him in the same way other people helped you.” They pointed out your thinking errors to you, but they were also there to support you. They kicked your butt in that program—not physically—but both emotionally and mentally, they didn’t let you off the hook. They didn’t let you make excuses or lash out at others without being held accountable for your behavior.
I ended up graduating and staying on as a staff counselor. One of the things I learned about myself there was that I really liked the idea of talking to people and solving problems. I volunteered to be trained to work with others; I was one of the lucky few who got picked. That decision literally changed the course of my life.
Q: Was that when you decided to focus on working with acting-out kids? Or did that come later?
James: I actually started working with struggling teens while I was still in the program. First, I did it voluntarily, because they seemed to gravitate towards me. I think they felt comfortable talking to me because I was able to recall how painful my own adolescence was. I combined that understanding with what I had learned about getting people to take responsibility for their actions, and I helped them learn how to be accountable. I found I really enjoyed working with the adolescents who were there—they were more open than the adults, and I had a knack for helping them. So when I left, I applied for jobs where I’d be counseling kids.
I was hired by an agency to work in one of their group homes for acting-out kids and teens. From there I went on to work in a series of residential and outpatient adolescent treatment centers, where I continued to take on more and more responsibilities. My work with adolescents and families progressed for the next 13 years. During that time I had supervisors who urged me to go to school and get the credentials necessary to complement my skills and life experience. In the end, I took their advice, studying and working full-time until I acquired my Masters in Social Work from Boston University.
At that time I was a treatment supervisor at a residential treatment center for adolescents and children. Eventually I was responsible for many different programs, which meant I developed a treatment plan, supervised staff regarding its implementation, and was responsible for the treatment of around 40 children at a time. Later, I sat for an exam in Clinical Social Work and began a part-time private practice. This was very fulfilling for me because it allowed me to really train parents how to be more effective with their kids. Both the parents and I began to see real change occur in the behavior of their children, both at home and in school. In fact, I structured my book, Transform Your Child, in such a way as to give people an idea of what it was like to “sit in” on my meetings with parents and kids. I believe this allows the reader to see how I helped families deal with their various emotional issues. Although the characters in the book are fictitious, the situations are very real; I’ve worked with hundreds of parents who had the very same problems you’ll read about in this book.
Q: Transform Your Child certainly puts the reader in the room with you and those parents! It also lets people see how you helped acting-out kids. Besides your ability to remember the conflict of adolescence, what else made you such an effective therapist when it came to children and teens?
James: I believe part of the reason is because I focused on actions, not feelings. Many counselors are taught to deal with kids by asking, “How did it feel when that happened?” I was taught, “What can you do differently the next time that happens?”
And I would lay it on the line with kids right away by asking, “Where would you like to be in ten years? What would you like to have? The answer was usually what everybody wants: a car, a job, an apartment, a nice girlfriend or boyfriend. And then I showed these kids how their current behavior wasn’t taking them in that direction; I told them that if they wanted these things out of life, they had to learn how to act differently. One of the reasons that kids responded well to my approach was because I was working in terms that were realistic to them. I also didn’t get into arguments with them about their feelings.
So instead of saying, “How did you feel when you punched the wall?” I’d say, “Let’s look at what you do when you get angry.” This is a very different sentence, although the goal is the same. And if that child replied, “Well, I wasn’t angry,” I’d say, “Well you know, you punched a hole in the wall—usually happy people don’t do that. But if you were happy, let’s talk about what you’re going to do differently next time you get that happy. Because you can’t punch holes in the wall, no matter how you feel.” It was—and still is—a very different way of coming at the problem of inappropriate behavior.
You know, kids—and teens especially—often don’t know how they feel or why they feel that way. They might acknowledge they were angry when they punched that wall, but they can’t see that they’re angry all the time. And why are they angry? In The Total Transformation framework, my approach is that it’s because they’re confronted with social situations and problems which they don’t have the skills to solve. In fact, their best coping mechanism is to punch a hole in the wall, threaten you or throw a chair to make you stop. When they get a little older, they learn to run away or use drugs and alcohol. Then that becomes their highest coping skill. So you’ll see defiant, acting-out kids verbally abusing or threatening others, breaking things or running away.
I also think talking about emotions makes kids feel vulnerable. They don’t want to let go of that feeling, because holding onto their anger gives them a sense of power. They certainly don’t want to answer the question, “Why did you get angry?” Believe me, by the time they’re adolescents, kids have learned that if adults ask why, it means they’ve done something wrong. Adults very rarely say, “Why did you get an ‘A’ on your test?”
So, instead I focused on identifying the feeling and moving on to, “Let’s look at what you do when you get angry. Because the problem is not that you get angry—the problem is what you do when you get angry.”
Q: In The Total Transformation, your articles in Empowering Parents, and your new book, you talk a lot about problem-solving. Why is this such an important concept, in your opinion, for kids and parents to grasp?
James: Fairly early on, I recognized that one of the common characteristics of the kids I dealt with, regardless of their age, was their inability to solve both simple and complex social problems. These are the kids who are defiant at age three and don’t grow out of it. These are the kids who won’t sit down in kindergarten. These are the kids who turn everything into an argument, starting at a very young age. And in fact, in case after case, their acting-out behavior forced other people to solve their problems for them; they never had to deal with the stress and frustration of working through a problem on their own. As I thought about this more, I realized that these acting-out kids came from a wide range of backgrounds. In fact, a lot of them came from intact families—the kind of family where people would say “Gee, I wonder why that kid is acting out? He has his whole family behind him.”
I started to think, “Well, maybe this child has some type of learning disability which prevents him from learning problem-solving skills. So he falls into the same pattern of behavior as children who don’t learn those skills because their home life is so chaotic. Perhaps for some reason their parents have been unable to teach them those skills.”
I put some research and thought into ways I could teach kids to solve social problems. As soon as I started using these new techniques with them in my office, I started seeing changes in their behavior. I found that once kids had other ways of solving a problem that didn’t depend on processing things emotionally, they were much better able to engage in constructive conversations about their behavior and what triggered it.
Q: How did The Total Transformation Program come about? And why did you decide to write your book?
James: In my private practice, I was working with a lot of sincere, caring parents who were doing their best to raise kids with mild to severe behavior problems. In fact, often the family dysfunction emanated from the parents simply not having the skills and the training to deal with children who had behavior problems. I realized that parents needed help in managing their kids—they needed a different type of intervention than the ones they’d already gotten, because by the time I saw their kids, they’d usually been to two or three other therapists.
My vision and motivation as I wrote the Total Transformation was the realization that there were a lot of families across the country living in little prisons—and they were being held prisoner by their kid’s behavior. I began to see that these parents were often the victims of their kids’ acting-out issues, not the cause of them. And I believed that these parents needed to learn effective ways of dealing with their kids; I reasoned that if they learned the skills, their kids’ behavior would turn around.
Transform Your Child came about because parents kept asking to hear more about the techniques I used in the office when I dealt with various behaviors, from lying, to defiance, to anger and verbal abuse from their kids. In the book, I try to empower parents by showing them that with commitment and the right parenting skills, there is hope to turn their child’s behavior around.
One way of looking at a parent’s job is to see it as a responsibility to empower kids with the skills they’ll need to make a good start when they reach adulthood. Here’s the bottom line: unempowered parents cannot empower their children. So, parents need to be empowered with the right skills and techniques so they can turn around and empower their children to start making better choices. I know how important this is, both because I lived it, and because of all the families I’ve helped over the years who’ve been able to implement these changes—and take the bars off their own little prisons and step outside.
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.