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.

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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.

How Do You Differentiate Between Normal Adolescent Phases and Inappropriate Behavior?

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.

Normal Teen Behaviors

During normal adolescence, you might observe any of the following about your child’s behavior:

  • Is moody and secretive
  • Spends much of his time alone in his room
  • Gets frustrated easily and stomps out of the room
  • Is short-tempered and impatient, especially with parents
  • Doesn’t want to spend time with the family
  • Is late for curfew
  • Says things like, “Only my friends understand me! I hate it here, I wish I could leave.”
  • Is discontented and restless

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.

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Out-of-Control Teen Behaviors

But some behaviors are not normal. Rather, they’re warning signs. The following behaviors fit into this category:

  • Stealing
  • Being physically abusive to others or destructive in the house
  • Being verbally abusive, intimidating or threatening
  • Abusing a younger sibling
  • Coming home drunk or high
  • Staying out all night
  • Getting arrested

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.

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.

Dealing with Your Child’s Thinking Errors

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.

Focus on Thoughts and Behavior, Not Feelings

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.

Kids Lose Control to Get Control

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.

Kids Can Make Appropriate Choices

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.”

Conclusion

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.

About

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.

Comments (10)
  • Concerned Parent (probably the 20 000 000th)
    So the article is good to a point....but leaves you hanging with nothing to take away...Yes, our teenager is Out of Control....but now what? We all know it will lead to even more issues and trouble as they get to adult hood....what do we do as parents now to intervene?More We have school, school counselors, counselors out side of school, taken the child out of school for a time, letting the child stay with family for a time, we have other people (with qualifications) meeting with our child... but it still continues. SOOO....the big missing information is How/what way(s) can an out of control, or acting out teenager be taught to fix the "thinking errors" or learn to choose different behaviour? Can anyone help with this?
  • CC
    What impact do other mental health issues in the home have on a child's behavior? My son is almost 16 and he is very irresponsible with chores and he has a foul mouth and tries to intimidate his mother with by invading her personal space. At the same time, hisMore mother has some traits similar to a personality disorder that makes both of us crazy. His behavior around dad is not perfect but much better than around his mother. How do you compensate for the impact of this parental behavior that doesn't make sense to adults let alone for a half-baked prefrontal cortex, hormonal teen boy?
  • CS
    My 17 year old daughter has been lying and sneaking around for the last few months, maybe longer. We have caught her staying the night at her boyfriends house, but she will still lie about it. She got pregnant and lost the child and has gotten worst since.More Drinking, smoking pot, and not picking up her phone when we call. She is always at her boyfriends house and claims she isn't. He is 18 and his mother is always gone. She has become more and more disrespectful over the last year and we aren't sure what to do. She seems to do whatever she wants and we are at a loss.
  • JR
    My 14yr son doesn't do drugs or steal. He doesn't even lie. He is verbally abusive and mentally abusive. He yells and screams, destroys everything in the house. His 4yr old brother and 12yr old sister are scared of him. I am too. IMore have brought him to counseling with no luck. His father tries to control the fighting but then it gets more scary with the yelling. I don't know what to do. I don't know where to start.
  • TS
    I really enjoyed this read so thank you for that. I'm not sure how long ago this was written but I couldn't help but leave a comment anyhow. My 15 year old daughter has been extremely out of control for over 2 years now. I have exhausted all of myMore local resources and don't have the money to send her to any of the places I have called like Turn Around Ranch along with others and the state centers are horrible. She has been arrested for drinking and drugs and I've had to call the police on her myself for being violent with me and the house like punching walls and breaking things and screaming at the top of her lungs all kinds of horrible things and refusing to stop. I am a single mom and when she gets this way if I try to intervene she can easily over power me physically. She leaves when she wants to and comes back when she wants as well. I've gotten need as far as to block the door but she just walks right through me. I've called the police to report her missing several times but even they are sick of dealing with her and don't really do anything anymore. She says horrid things to anyone who is an authority figure either to her or just in general. I've talked to so many people and therapists and doctors and have had her in intensive therapy but she just uses it to her advantage in a bad way and I have been told by her therapists before that she is so munipulitive and she is so caculated in her actions and behavior that until she is really ready to get help they can't continue to see her. I've also been trying told she shows sociopath tendesies also that she may have some type of personality disorder. She steals and lies constantly I can never believe a word she tells me. I didn't raise her to be like this. I raised her to be loving and respectful. I'm literally not sure where to go from here.
    • Concerned Parent (probably the 20 000 000th)
      Hello, I wanted to try to encourage you. Not sure how. We have a 15 year old, and have been experiencing life in a similar manor as you. You can only do so much. Try no to threaten consequences you will not do...but keep to every single one youMore do (even make them small, but at items or things that impact her -don't drive her anywhere, don't get things/food around the house she likes, if curfew is -whatever time, lock the door at that time -you may have to let her back in, but she may have a moment of thinking, maybe take her phone away, or cancel it (we keep suspending service as lost/stolen), change internet password at the house, get rid of something in her room (or take it away for awhile)....she can earn that back with following your rules for a period of time)...if you cannot over power her, then do not ever even try to..."you are not allowed to leave(or whatever the rule is), if you choose to, then this will happen"...then it happens. Don't even yell or get worked up..act like you don't even care, but be firm. Let her fully choose to break the rule. She will 100% break the rules you set for the first while until she learns you always keep what you say, Try to let her do it when in a normal emotional state of mind. Use your words and your Adult brain (one advantage you still have). However, the reality is she is going to do what she wants....but you can stop tolerating certain things in your home (I don't mean you can actually stop the behavior..but if you always give the consequence for the violation you are not tolerating it)...but it's hard...we have not solved things in our house, so try what you can..maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn't. For us the phone and internet and a boy she likes are the only cards we can play that have any impact....however, not the behavior changes yet though, but there still are moments we see our little sweetheart! Also, When she is acting out, don't ever ever ever give in to the demand....say if you are good for a day, or even 2 hours, or (whatever)..but never in the moment of acting out do you give in...be more stubborn than her! you can do it!! But always keep in mind, you are accountable for your actions, she is for hers...you are not accountable for her actions. God bless! it is very difficult!
  • Emma

    Daughter and friend stealing spirits from shop. She won’t tell me what shop and I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to force them to return what they stole and take the flak.

    Risk taking behaviour, drinking and smoking pot. Lethargy, secretive and staying out very late and not keeping in touch.

    Have seen doc for depression so ongoing support is forthcoming. No drugs prescribed.

    But what to do about the drink I have confiscated?

    What consequence that is realistic and practical?

    What the heck have I done wrong?

    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I can understand your concern. It can be tough to know what to do when your child is exhibiting risky behaviors. We have several articles that focus specifically on this topic here: Substance abuse and risky behaviors. Thank you for reaching out and sharing your story.
  • LS
    This is a great read, however, what if the child still defies the rules and still goes ahead and does whatever he/she wants even knowing the consequences and when the consequence is known, ignores it.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Hi, Isheldon. You may want to review this article on fail proof consequences: How to Make Consequences Work. You can find lots of other great articles on consequences here: Rewards and Consequences. We appreciate you reaching out. Be sure to check back and let us know how thingsMore are going.
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