How do you know if your child is going through an adolescent phase or if their 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 behaviors are 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 genuinely 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 a normal adolescent phase, understand 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 they’re stealing, if they’re coming home high or drunk, or they’re not coming home at all, that’s the line.
Parents may be in denial for a while, but at some point, they 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 the 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. Instead, 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 a phase” or “it’s what teenagers do” are setting themselves up for a rude awakening later on.
If any of this is happening in your home, remember that the earlier you intervene with your child, the better. The sooner you tell your child what they’re doing is unacceptable and give them the tools they need to behave differently, the better.
Related content: Is Your Child Engaging in Delinquent Behavior? 4 Ways to Manage It
Understand that kids who don’t know how to solve problems seek control by acting out, being physically or verbally abusive, being destructive, or abusing substances. They don’t know how to make friends or communicate to meet their needs. 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, “If you’d leave me alone, I’d behave better.”
Or they’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 their inability to solve problems such as getting along with other people, managing impulses, and following directions. Their anger and frustration also come from an unwillingness to do the right thing or ask for help.
A child in this situation is making what psychologists call thinking errors. Just as there are spelling and math errors, there are also thinking errors. When your child blames somebody else for a problem they caused, that’s a thinking error. It’s also a thinking error when they tell you that it’s somebody else’s fault that they broke a window.
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, they might try to control you through behavior, manipulation, and dishonesty. And if you ask them what they feel, they won’t answer—or they’ll become more aggressive.
That’s because they genuinely don’t know how they feel. Their feelings are often so uncomfortable that they won’t acknowledge them in the first place. That’s why it’s essential 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 improve your mood and feelings. Contrary to popular belief, behavioral psychologists don’t tell you to “get in touch with your feelings.” Rather, they tell you to change your thinking so that your feelings improve.
Here’s the truth: acting-out kids lose control 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 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 because you believe it’s just not worth the fight.
This is pretty normal for most parents. They stop their child from acting out by no longer asking them to do their homework or whatever they need to do.
But here’s the danger: now your child has gotten more control over you. It seems as if they lost control, but in the long run, they gained control. Their out-of-control behavior has gotten you to stop telling them what to do. And it’s gotten them out of doing their homework. They’re in control now.
But understand that it’s an unhealthy kind of control. Believe me, if your child is doing this already, they will increase your tolerance for deviant behavior. They will get you to accept their bad behavior and may even get you to consider it normal. They will push you beyond the limits of what you used to believe was wrong and inappropriate.
At the same time, they will decrease your expectations for appropriate behavior. You won’t expect as much from them. Little by little, your child will become comfortable using acting-out to solve their problems.
The 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 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 destructive behavior is unrealistic. Understand that if your teen is acting out and using intimidation to get their way, they’ve already put this behavior into place as their problem-solving mechanism.
And the sad thing is, it works for them. The people in their life back down and let them have their way until they reach adulthood. But then they have real problems.
If your child reaches adulthood and doesn’t learn the all-important life skills of compromise, acceptance, and appropriate behavior, they will have trouble holding a job or staying in a healthy relationship. The harsh reality is that letting a child get away with these behaviors will handicap them for the rest of their lives.
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.