How do you know if your child is going through an adolescent phase, or if his out-of-control behavior is here to stay?
“Every teen goes through this,” you tell yourself. But in the back of your mind, you wonder if your child’s disrespect, acting out, and destructive behavior is normal.
When you’re a parent, it’s troubling and sad to think that your son or daughter has a serious problem. And it’s painful to think they might be different from other kids. It’s why many parents say “Oh, it’s just a phase. My teenager will grow out of it.”
Calling it a phase is a way for some parents to avoid the unpleasant feeling in their gut that their child’s acting-out or destructive behavior is a significant problem.
Other parents truly believe that it’s just a phase. Perhaps friends or relatives have assured them with these words. And our media and some counselors may even tell them that what their child is doing is normal. Parents get a lot of misinformation today, but it’s just the nature of our culture. Parents are bombarded with information—but not all of it is effective for their child.
When you look at what is considered to be a normal adolescent phase, understand that there’s a continuum. And within that continuum, you’ll see different types of behavior, depending on where your child is developmentally.
So picture a line with a well-behaved child at one end and an out-of-control child at the other. I’ve found that most kids are somewhere in the middle.
I believe most parents instinctively know where the line is between normal and inappropriate behavior. For example, if your child’s behavior becomes verbally or physically abusive, if she’s stealing, if she’s coming home high or drunk, or she’s not coming home at all, that’s the line.
Parents may be in denial for a while, but at some point, they simply won’t be able to deny it any longer. They’ll know.
Below are some examples of what I would consider normal versus out-of-control teen behaviors.
During normal adolescence, you might observe any of the following about your child’s behavior:
As unpleasant as it is at times, this is all part of their way teens and pre-teens individuate from their parents—it’s part of the transition from childhood to adulthood.
But some behaviors are not normal. Rather, they’re warning signs. The following behaviors fit into this category:
Make no mistake—there’s something wrong with these behaviors. Parents who tell themselves “it’s just phase” or “it’s what teenagers do” are setting themselves up for a rude awakening later on.
If any of this is going on in your house, remember that the earlier you intervene with your child, the better. The sooner you tell your child that what he’s doing is not acceptable and give him the tools he needs to behave differently, the better.
Related content: Is Your Child Engaging in Delinquent Behavior? 4 Ways to Manage It
Understand that kids who seek control by acting out—by being physically abusive, verbally abusive, destructive, or abusing substances—don’t know how to solve problems. They don’t know how to make friends or communicate in a way that gets their needs met. So they turn to other ways to get their needs met—they turn to drugs and alcohol and inappropriate behavior.
I’ve had parents of acting-out kids ask me, “Is my son angry? Is he frustrated?” My answer is usually, “Yes, he is. But probably not for the reasons he’s telling you.”
An acting-out child will say things like: “If you’d leave me alone, I’d behave better.”
Or he’ll tell you it’s the school’s fault: “They don’t understand me there, they keep picking on me.”
The reality is that your child’s feelings of anger and frustration are coming from his inability to solve problems such as getting along with other people, managing impulses, and following directions. His anger and frustration are also coming from his unwillingness to make the right choices or his inability to ask for help.
A child in this situation is making what psychologists call thinking errors. Just as there are spelling errors and math errors, there are also thinking errors. When your child blames somebody else for a problem he caused, that’s a thinking error. When he tells you that it’s somebody else’s fault that he broke a window, that’s also a thinking error.
You see kids employ all kinds of thinking errors: they’ll blame you, justify their behavior, and lie. And acting-out kids are willing to back up their thinking errors by punching a hole in the wall or calling you foul names.
If your child doesn’t know how to get along with people, he might try to control you through behavior, manipulation, and dishonesty. And if you ask him what he feels, he won’t answer—or he’ll become more aggressive.
That’s because he truly doesn’t know how he feels. Many times, his feelings are so uncomfortable that he won’t acknowledge them in the first place. That’s why it’s vitally important to focus on thoughts and behavior, not feelings.
If you get your thoughts and behavior under control your feelings will generally improve. It’s why most behavioral psychologists teach you to act and think differently-to eliminate the thinking errors-so that your mood and feelings improve. Contrary to popular belief, behavioral psychologists don’t tell you to “get in touch with your feelings.” That’s just not effective.
Here’s the truth: acting-out kids lose control as a way to get control. And it works.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you tell your 14-year-old that it’s time to put down his phone and go do his homework. He doesn’t want to and starts freaking out and punching holes in walls. After a few such incidences, you stop telling him what to do altogether—it’s just not worth the fight, you reason.
This is pretty normal for most parents. They stop their child from acting-out by no longer asking him to do his homework, or whatever it is he needs to do.
But here’s the danger: now your child has gotten more control over you. It seems as if he lost control, but in the long run, he gained control. His out-of-control behavior has gotten you to stop telling him what to do. And it’s gotten him out of doing his homework. He’s in control now.
But understand that it’s an unhealthy kind of control. Believe me, if your child is doing this already, he will increase your tolerance for deviant behavior. He will get you to accept his bad behavior and may even get you to consider it normal. He will push you beyond the limits of what you used to believe was wrong and inappropriate.
At the same time, he will decrease your expectations for appropriate behavior. You simply won’t expect as much from him. Little by little, your child will become comfortable using acting-out as a way to solve his problems.
The whole idea that an out-of-control teen or a kid with behavioral problems can’t make appropriate choices is a patent falsehood. I’ve worked with these kids for many years, and even the most difficult ones can make appropriate choices—and they do so every day. That’s why they act out with some teachers but not with others. Or they act out at home but not at school. Or with one parent but not the other.
In my practice, I’d see parents of kids who were supposedly out of control. Then I would go visit these kids in the youth detention center where their probation officer sent them and they weren’t cursing out the guards there. They were saying “yes sir” and “no sir.”
The idea that a child will grow out of this type of destructive behavior is not realistic. Understand that if your teen is acting out and using intimidation to get his way, he’s already put this behavior into place as his problem-solving mechanism.
And the sad thing is, it works for him. The people in his life back down and let him have his way until he reaches adulthood. But then he has real problems.
If your child reaches adulthood and doesn’t learn the all-important life skills of compromise, acceptance, and appropriate behavior, he will have trouble holding a job or staying in a healthy relationship. The harsh reality is that letting a child get away with this type of behavior will handicap him for the rest of his life.
Related content: Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure
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.