How a Former Troubled Teen Turned His Life Around: The James Lehman Story

By Janet Lehman, MSW

Imagine a child born to alcoholic parents who abandoned him when he was still a baby, leaving him in his crib wearing nothing but a diaper. Miraculously, the child was discovered by the landlord, but was so sick he nearly died. The landlord’s son and his wife decided to adopt him and raise him as their own. Thinking they were unable to have children themselves, they went on to adopt another boy, and then ended up having two more biological sons. Their first child, the one who they’d rescued from that basement apartment, never quite felt like he fit in, and the boy began to act out at home and school, where he was labeled “incorrigible.” His parents loved him but were overwhelmed with his behavior—and with parenting four active boys. Out of frustration they became progressively more heavy-handed with their punishment. At the age of 13 the adopted child began running away and began to live on the streets for weeks at a time.

No matter how bad things may seem, there is always hope—whether you have an addiction or an acting-out teen who seems beyond help.

In his teens, the boy started drinking and doing drugs and eventually got hooked on heroin. To support his habit, he began to steal things—small items at first, until he graduated to grand theft auto. He was in and out of jail for nearly 8 years until one day in his mid-twenties, he came before a judge who told him that he was going to “lock him in prison and throw away the key” unless this now-adult child cleaned up his act. Because he argued his own case so persuasively, the judge had a change of heart and agreed to send him to an accountability-based rehab program where he was able to get off heroin. While there, he also learned to start taking responsibility for his own actions. The rehab program required him to help other people get sober; through this process he discovered he had a gift for helping teens. He had already received his GED in jail, and after getting out of the rehab program, he was motivated like never before. He got into a well-respected university and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in social work. He went on to help thousands of kids during his 30-year career—and later, hundreds of thousands of people with the program he and I created together, The Total Transformation.

This may sound like a movie synopsis or the plot of a novel, but it’s the true story of my husband James Lehman’s life. James passed away two years ago this week, which is why I wanted to tell you more about him and our work together; I thought it was important for readers of Empowering Parents to understand why we committed our lives to helping kids and families. I also want you to know why I believe down to my bones that change is possible if you really want it and are willing to work at it. No matter how bad things may seem, there is always hope—whether you have an addiction, or an acting-out teen who seems beyond help.

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Let me pause and say that I don’t know where you are in your journey with your child right now. Perhaps he is young and throws tantrums or rages at you to get what he wants. Maybe you have a teen daughter who talks back and is being rude and disrespectful. Maybe your son is sneaking out at night and drinking and doing drugs. Or you might have an adult child living at home with you who is verbally or even physically abusive. Believe me, I understand that any of these situations alone is enough to overwhelm and exhaust most parents—and it’s easy to lose hope and get discouraged about your child, his or her prospects, and your future relationship with them when you’re in the thick of it. But I’ll say it again—there’s always hope.

I can say this because I lived it—both with James, and the kids and families we worked with in residential treatment and group homes. And if you looked at the life of James Lehman on paper, you would not think he would succeed in life, let alone survive. From the time James was 11, he was out of control and incorrigible. There were no programs back then—there were no social workers that helped families or special detention centers for behaviorally disordered kids. When James would do things that were illegal, the police would throw him in jail. In fact, until he came before that judge in his mid-twenties, he was never offered counseling, rehabilitation or help of any kind.

But when he finally was given that chance, he changed. He was able to see that he needed to take responsibility for his actions—and that no one else could do that for him. And he stopped blaming the world for all his problems. “No one has a choice over the hand they’re dealt in life,” he would tell the teens he worked with when he became a therapist, spreading out a deck of cards in front of him on the table. “It’s what you do with what you’ve got now that counts.”

When I met James, he was very professional—he was the director of a residential treatment center near Morristown, New Jersey, and I was a probation officer. When I saw James, it was love at first sight. Even when he was a respected therapist, there was an edge about him. I think that’s part of what contributed to his brilliance. He wasn’t afraid to say how he felt or let you know if he disagreed with your opinion—and above all he understood kids and was committed to helping them and their parents.

It wasn’t always easy though—far from it. In the early days of our marriage, James was still abusing alcohol. There were some very difficult years during which he was using. Through support groups, we were able to pull our lives together and to build a really healthy, normal life for ourselves and for our son. I believe we were successful at helping people turn their lives around because we had been through difficult times ourselves. We weren’t asking people to do anything different than what we had done. The other piece is that we didn’t allow ourselves to be victims. Certainly, it would’ve been very easy for me to have done that. But I believed in James—I believed that he could get sober and be healthy. Initially there was a lot of denial on both of our parts. I had never lived with addiction. But once we were able to break free of that and be able to openly look at ourselves and own our part of the problem in the marriage and with the addiction, we were able to grow. And our clients benefitted from our experience—they knew we meant what we said and had walked the walk ourselves. We had taken responsibility for our part—and we had worked to change our behavior, and as a result, our lives became so much better.

One of the keys to James’ success with families was his keen understanding of what it was like to be a defiant child who doesn’t behave, who has learning disabilities or a disorder like ADHD or ODD, and who acts out at home and at school. He also was very empathetic to parents, who he saw as being the solution, not the problem, to their kids’ acting out behavior. James was very supportive and non-judgmental of parents and really got how hard it was to parent a difficult child. He and I both understood that as parents, kids don’t always respond when or how you want them to respond. James and I believed—and saw firsthand as therapists—that if parents changed and stopped enabling their kids, started laying down some healthy expectations and were able to begin to set limits, that their children changed. This is why we created The Total Transformation Program, and why we both believed it was such an important tool for parents.

This was the message we wanted to bring to parents. We saw for years that there were social workers and psychologists who meant well but were very ineffective. And they were ineffective because they were either colluding with the kid and buying everything that the child was saying, or they were enabling the parents and not coming out and saying, “Look, what are you doing here? When you do x, y and z, look what happens. Something has to change. Let’s look at when this started. Let’s look at why it came to be. And then let’s talk about what you need to do now. You can’t change the past, so let’s work on the next right thing you can do.” After we worked with them, their kids would say to us, “What’d you do to my parents?” I would always reply, “I didn’t do anything to your parents. I guess your parents are doing something different, huh?” They had no idea what was in store for them—a parent who wasn’t going to let them run over them anymore, who was going to start holding them accountable, set limits and give out consequences. And we had the toughest of kids at the adolescent treatment centers where we worked. If those kids could change, anyone is capable of changing.

Another important part of James’ story is that his adoptive parents never gave up on him—they believed in him until the end of their lives. So much so that they went to visit him in prison every time he was sent away. That’s probably part of the reason why he was so fiercely loyal—and why he was always such a great advocate for parents. Although James’ parents were lacking in the tools they needed to be effective with him, he didn’t blame them. “They didn’t know how to handle me,” he would say, “they loved me, but the only way they knew to parent me was to give out harsh punishments when I did something wrong—but that never changed the way I acted.” He devoted much of his life to making sure all parents have the tools they need to actually change their child’s behavior effectively. James and I came to believe that a lack of problem-solving skills lay at the bottom of acting out behavior, and that by challenging our kids’ thinking errors, we can teach them an alternative response to their problems—in other words, how to “react differently the next time” they get angry, frustrated or upset.

Remember, you have a right to a good life and to enjoy your life. You don’t have to be held prisoner by your child’s behavior. A lot of kids who are defiant or behaviorally disordered in some way hold their parents hostage with their behavior. It’s very complicated for parents, because there’s your love for your child, there’s other people looking at you and blaming you, there’s the sense that you’re failing, and there’s the knowledge that there’s this good kid inside of your child that you’ve seen and know is there. There’s so much judgment that goes down. That was the other reason James and I wanted to help parents, because we felt like parents were really being judged by therapists, teachers, their relatives, and the world at large—and they felt powerless. We found that blaming doesn’t help anything. It’s about who’s going to take responsibility now—and doing the next right thing.

We found that nothing changes until you begin to be responsible for your actions: You have to be willing to change. Parents would say to us, “My child is not able to do this.” I’d say, “What do you mean, he’s not able?” If you’re not doing anything to make your child uncomfortable enough to change, nothing is going to happen.

Anyone can change at any point in time in their life. You just have to want it, and you have to be willing. As hard as it might be, it’s important to understand that you can do things differently—whether there’s an issue with an out of control child, or an out of control addiction.

About Janet Lehman, MSW

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. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

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