“I feel alone,” a mom of an out-of-control teen said to me recently. “I don’t go out much anymore, and to be honest, my family isn’t really invited to things because of my son’s behavior.” If you have an acting-out child or teen, you probably feel isolated. You’ve gotten tired of hearing criticisms from family and friends, and perhaps you’ve pulled back from social functions. I think when you have a child who’s out of control, in many ways it’s like living with an alcoholic family member. After a while, parents give up trying to change anything, and they often don’t talk about it, either—they just keep all their shame, blame and sense of failure inside.
“Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you’d had.”
You’re likely to isolate even more as your child’s behaviors become more extreme. You question your parenting ability, even though your child’s behavior may not have anything to do with what you did or didn’t do. Here’s the simple truth—some kids are just more difficult than others. That is why it’s so important to “parent the child you have, not the child you wished you’d have.”
Related content: A Day in the Mind of Your Defiant Child
It’s important to stress that anyone can change at any time—even your acting-out child. Part of what kids need when they’re out of control is for parents to make some changes so that the child can feel safer. No matter how they act, kids don’t really want to be that out of control, because it doesn’t feel safe. Here are—6 things I suggest to parents in this situation to help them take back control of their homes and start parenting differently.
1. Know your bottom line. Know your bottom line and stick to it. Developing self-respect helps you set more limits; it also builds on itself. When you set limits, be ready and willing to follow through. Don’t use idle threats because your child may call your bluff. For example, your bottom line might be that your teen won’t be allowed to take the family car out on the weekend if he swears at you or calls you or other family members names during the week. Again, if you’re going to set a limit, stick with it. Don’t let him have those car keys on Friday night if he called his sister a “b—h” on Wednesday. Don’t be surprised if there is a negative reaction from your child. Just remember, he needs to own his behavior and be accountable for it. Things won’t change for your teen if he’s making it your problem as a parent.
2. Teach your child to problem solve. As a parent, you are the teacher, coach and limit setter for your child. Part of your job is to teach her how to solve her problems appropriately. When things are calm, you can say, “This behavior won’t solve your problem. Yelling at me because you’re angry about having to go to bed won’t help you—it will only get you into more trouble. So how can you solve this problem differently next time?” Listen to what she has to say, and suggest ideas if she can’t come up with anything. Some examples might be: “You could walk away. You could write down how you’re feeling on a piece of paper or in a journal. You could listen to music.” This is really powerful because you’re saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about you. And it’s not in your best self-interest to behave this way. How can you change what you’re doing so you don’t get into trouble next time?”
3. Aim for small victories. Take small steps and look for gradual change. The change could be as small as disengaging from an argument rather than getting drawn into a power struggle with your child. One way to start is to stand up for yourself. Saying something like, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it” is an immediate victory and it starts to shift your behavior. It helps you to start moving forward as a positive, effective parent. Look for small successes and take a moment to acknowledge them when they happen.
4. Work on one behavior at a time. Choose the behavior that’s the most serious to address first and begin to plan the steps to change this. Work on getting that under control and then move onto the next behavior on the list. Let’s say you’re the parent of a teen who’s engaging in risky teen behavior and breaking curfew, swearing, not doing his homework, and being disrespectful. What can you realistically aim for here? You have to figure out as a parent what you can live with and where to start. You can’t tackle everything at once or you’re going to fail. Look for safety issues first. Ask yourself, “How do I keep the rest of my family safe? How do I keep my teen safe the best I can?” Work on getting your teen home by curfew by setting limits around it and enforcing consequences, and then move on to the next thing on your list.
5. Be “planful.” Plan out what you’re going to say to your child ahead of time, before he acts out again. Deliver your message in as matter-of-fact of a way as possible. Besides helping you to remain businesslike and objective, this also helps you to separate from your child’s behavior by not getting drawn into a fight. The conversation can be, “Your behavior isn’t acceptable. I’ve decided it has to change, and this is what the plan is.” Or “We as parents have decided to change to this plan.”
6. Ask for help. Stretch your expectations of your support system. If you stay isolated, things often get worse, making you feel more alone than ever. You might not think there’s anybody out there who will listen or help, but you might be surprised at how people react. A friend might be willing to meet you for coffee once a week and talk, for example, knowing that you’re going through a bad time. As a parent, it’s critical to ask for help and talk about what’s going on, whether you go to a therapist, find a support group, talk to folks at your child’s school or find a trusted family member or friend to confide in. Just put it out there and be open to feedback.
When Kids Push Back After You Make Changes
You can’t always predict what will happen when you start making changes in your parenting style. Some kids will “push back,” but others might not. Your adolescent may say she hates you, but if she’s doing exactly what you wanted her to do, you’ve won a small victory. If your child does push back and act out, respond with consistency.
Understand that once you start saying, “This is the way I need things to be,” and holding firm, you’ve made a decision. You’ve done something that brings respect back. It doesn’t mean the behavior will immediately get better—it may take months or years of ups and downs. But the important thing is, you’ve broken that cycle. Once you make a decision and set a limit, you’ve broken the cycle of being at the mercy of your child and his behavior.
I truly believe that no matter how bad things feel, change is always possible. Remember, as we change, we help our kids change—and even small shifts in behavior are important. When we become stronger, we set an example for our kids in their own lives. There’s no magic to any of this, it’s really about you as a parent altering how you respond. Realize that once you take on the role of a more effective parent, you will likely keep things moving forward, and with each new success, you’ll feed on your ability to parent more effectively.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.