Kicking holes in the wall. Breaking and throwing things. Smashing in the windshield on your car. Most of us never expect to face these behaviors from our children, and certainly not when our child is “old enough to know better.” If you have a child who purposely destroys family property out of anger or spiteful, vengeful reasons, you naturally feel a variety of hurtful and negative emotions. It feels like a punch in the stomach. First comes shock—how can my child be doing this to me? Anger, resentment and guilt follow: What did I do wrong for my child to end up like this? If you’re like other parents in this situation, you probably also take an aching heart to bed with you every night. The fact is, your child is having a problem coping with strong emotions. This is their “cope of choice” right now, which is self-destructive in the long run. So why do they cope by damaging things when they’re angry or upset, and what can we do to teach our child healthy boundaries and limits? How can we motivate a child in this situation to develop healthier, more mature coping skills? Kim Abraham, MSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner, MSW, creators of the ODD Lifeline, explain how.
No matter what the reason is for your child’s behavior, she needs to be held accountable. Just like when you’re in a store: you break it, you buy it.
Why Some Kids Resort to Destructive Behaviors
We know that kids use destruction as a coping mechanism, but why? What led them to this extreme place?
Low frustration tolerance: Children are generally known for having a low tolerance for frustration. They want things to go their way. When something happens that’s unexpected, disappointing or requires the use of coping skills, many children have a difficult time handling such situations effectively. Some older children and teens still engage in “tantrum behaviors” long past the age we might expect. Why? They may not have the skills to handle the stress they’re experiencing. Physically releasing that energy helps them relieve their distress for the moment—even though it’s unpleasant for everyone around them. This is particularly true for children with an underlying condition such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Asperger’s Syndrome or a mood disorder. The father of a 10-year-old diagnosed with ADHD shares, “My child has a very hard time when plans change. If we were going to the movies and we have to cancel because the road conditions are bad, she’ll start throwing her things around the room. She knows that’s not going to change the situation, but she just gets so angry when she’s disappointed that she explodes.”
Intimidation: Sometimes destructive behavior serves a different purpose: intimidation. A child may learn that by breaking things, punching holes in the wall and behaving in a violent manner he will effectively frighten a parent into doing what he wants, such as giving in or allowing him to have his way. One adolescent shared in therapy, “I know how to get ungrounded. I just start throwing things around the living room and my mom tells me to get out of the house.” Intimidating parents and family members may also give a child who’s feeling powerless a sense of control. It’s important to note that teens and older children who destroy property as part of an overall pattern of violating the rights of others (stealing, destruction, violence, breaking the law) have moved beyond Oppositional Defiant Disorder and into what we term Conduct Disorder.
Misery enjoys company: Ever have a bad day, come home and picked an argument with a “safe person?” Sometimes misery enjoys company and you just want to spew out those horrible feelings and let them land where they will. Our kids feel this way sometimes, too. When your child is feeling miserable, he probably won’t pick the neighbor to share his misery with—he’s going to pick you. Things can escalate and before you know it, your child starts releasing his feelings physically, not just verbally.
Payback: Often the most frustrating situation is when a child behaves in a passive-aggressive manner, breaking things out of revenge for anger they’re feeling toward a parent. You may find something of yours broken—perhaps particularly sentimental or valuable—you know your child did it, but you can’t prove it. Your child will deny until there’s no breath left in her body that she’s responsible, yet your gut tells you she’s getting even for something she isn’t willing or able to share with you.
What Can I Do about My Child’s Destructive Behavior?
- Be proactive. Make sure your child knows right off the bat that while you understand he gets frustrated sometimes, destroying property is not acceptable – not in your home—or in the rest of the world either. Be clear in your expectations and what the consequences will be if your child does destroy your property.
- Offer alternatives. Talk with your child during a calm moment about things she can do instead of breaking things when she gets upset. Give her the opportunity and space to calm down when she’s upset. If she needs to release some physical energy, what are some non-destructive activities she can engage in? How can she learn some more effective ways to cope with her emotions? One mom told us her 12-year-old daughter has a trampoline she jumps on to release pent-up energy. Another parent bought his child stress balls to use so he can squeeze when he’s feeling as if he’s going to lose control. The child was able to use these at school as well. You can also let your child know she can count in her head until the negative feeling goes away. This will help her realize that eventually the feeling does start to alleviate on its own, even if she doesn’t act on it. Your child can also use journaling, music, drawing, clay, Play-Doh or any other non-destructive activity they might be interested in to release feelings.
- Determine if natural consequences are enough. Some children break their own things when they’re upset or angry. If your child gets angry, throws his iPod and it breaks, the natural consequence is that he no longer has an iPod. Don’t buy him a new one!
- Hold your child accountable. No matter what the reason is for your child’s behavior, she needs to be held accountable. Just like when you’re in a store: you break it, you buy it. If your teenager puts a hole in your wall and it will cost $100 to fix it, how will you get that money back? You may offer opportunities for him to “work it off” around the house through chores. If your child is truly remorseful for his behavior, he’ll be willing to do so. If not, you’ll need to use more creative ways of recouping that money. How much do you normally spend on school clothes at the mall? $200? Well, if your child isn’t willing to work off her debt, you may choose to give her $100 for her clothes instead. She’ll still get clothes, but maybe from a less expensive store. Wearing no-name jeans might make her uncomfortable enough to stop and think before she breaks things again in the future. Take a minute to identify in what ways—even small ways—you spend money on your child. Think of things that aren’t necessities. Remember, there’s a difference between needs and wants. Your child needs to be fed; but he wants McDonald’s. You’re obligated, as his parent, to provide the first, but not the latter. Instead of a Big Mac, he may get peanut butter and jelly at home. (In The ODD Lifeline, we explain specific ways you can regain money spent to repair damages or replace broken items that have proven very helpful for parents.)
It’s a good idea to wait until your child has calmed down before telling him what the consequence will be for his actions. Don’t say to your child, “Well, I hope you liked that vase you just broke, because that just became your Christmas present!” That will only escalate the situation. Instead of stopping and looking at you calmly and saying, “Oh, Mother, what was I thinking? I’ll go calm down in my room now,” he’ll be more likely to smash something else! Instead, wait it out. Later, when the storm is over, you can let him know how he’ll be making restitution for the damages he made.
- Determine if parental consequences are enough. You will likely respond to your child’s destructive behavior based on several factors: your child’s age, the extent of damage that was done and the frequency of your child’s destructive behavior. You may choose to make a police report if the destruction of your property is severe enough or is happening frequently in your home. In the "real world," consequences depend upon the degree of destruction. If your 12-year-old breaks one of your knick-knacks, you may decide it’s sufficient to have him “brown bag it” to school rather than pay for hot lunches until his debt is clear. On the other hand, if your 15-year-old smashes your car windshield causing thousands of dollars in damage, you may decide it warrants a police report. It may be something that actually requires such a report for insurance purposes, but that’s a decision only you can make as a parent. The benefit to making a report is that, even if your child isn’t charged, you’re starting a paper trail. This is particularly important if your older child or teen has moved into Conduct Disorder, where he or she is violating the rights of others and believes there will be no consequences. If your child is at a point where he’s enraged, breaking things left and right, and appears to be escalating to the point of being a danger to himself or others, that’s a time when calling the police is appropriate as a safety precaution. When in doubt, ask yourself, “What would I do if this was a neighbor kid?” If your neighbor’s 11-year-old-son causes minor damage to your property, you might work something out where he makes restitution to you. If that boy breaks a $10 vase, you’re probably not likely to call the police. At what point would you consider the damage serious enough to make a police report? And how do you think a neighbor would respond to your child, if he exhibited the same level of property damage while at their home?
- Think of this as an opportunity. Your job as a parent is to prepare your child for Adult Life with a capital “A” and “L.” In society, if you destroy property, there are consequences—financial and sometimes legal. You want to respond to your child’s destructive behavior in a way that leaves no doubt about what he will experience should he engage in this behavior outside your home. One parent shared his reluctance to give consequences for his child’s destructive behavior: “She was just really upset when she kicked a hole in the wall. She felt terrible afterwards.” Maybe so, and it’s good if your child appears to have remorse for her actions, but she still must be held accountable. In her adult life, if that same young lady is in front of the judge after smashing in her ex-boyfriend’s taillights, and says, “I’m really sorry, Your Honor. I was just so upset,” it’s not going to save her from consequences.
- Keep your own emotions in check. Parents often feel angry—even furious—when their child damages their property. That’s completely understandable. Property destruction is a personal violation and it hurts to have a child treat something that we’ve worked hard for with such little respect. One mom states, “I think I got so angry because while I watched my son kick a hole in the front door, I was thinking I’m going to have to pay for that. Once I made up my mind that I would hold him accountable for anything he purposely destroyed, making sure he paid for things by controlling the money I usually chose to spend on him, I didn’t feel as angry. I was able to respond more calmly because I knew he would be held accountable. Once I adjusted my thinking to, Well, I guess he won’t be getting any money for allowance or any extras this month, I was able to respond more calmly and follow through with consequences. And, once he learned that he would pay for the damages, it only took a few times for him to choose to handle things differently.”
On the flip side, remember, if you don’t hold your child responsible for his behavior, you’re not doing him any favors as he prepares for the real world. Just because this is your child, whom you love, you still have the right to assert that your property will not be destroyed as a result of your child’s negative behavior. Holding your child responsible for damages to your property is done out of love and respect. The bottom line is that you are teaching healthy limits and boundaries when you hold him accountable.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.