Do you feel like your family members, your kid’s teachers, and even counselors blame you for your child’s acting out behavior? You’re not alone. As James Lehman says, there are countless parents out there “living in little prisons”—feeling trapped, isolated, and ashamed of their child’s defiant or out of control behavior. If you’re in this situation, James has a message for you: you aren’t your child’s problem—you are the solution.
Q: James, in a recent article in EP, you said “I don’t think parents are the problem—I think they’re the solution.” That really resonated with a lot of our readers. Can you explain what you mean by that a bit more?
J: Parents of acting-out kids are often perceived as being the problem—or that they’ve created their “problem child”. I think when parents are labeled this way, it becomes extremely discouraging for them. They’re out there trying their best and looking for answers, but they’re being told that their child’s behavior is their entire fault. The attitude of many professionals today is also that parents are the reason children behave inappropriately—and that the parents aren’t committed to helping their kids change. In my experience, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
By the way, while it can’t be denied that some parents out there are abusive or neglectful, I’m focusing on the “good enough” parents in this article. “Good enough” parents provide for their children and try their best to keep their kids safe. They are trying to raise their children the best they can, even if their methods aren’t always effective. I personally think parents who are trying their best should not be blamed for their child’s acting-out behavior—they need training, not blame. And it’s not only that they need help, they need the right kind of help. If we put half the resources into training parents that we do into family therapy, I think we’d see some real change.
Parents are out there trying their best and looking for answers, but they’re being told that their child’s behavior is all their fault.
Q: So you don’t think it’s the parents’ fault that their children behave the way they do?
J: Let’s face it, blaming people never gets anybody anywhere. Of course we influence our children, but personally I think there is every reason to believe that our kids also shape our behavior.
Let me break it down for you. If you have an acting-out child, you might react to him in a variety of ways. Let’s say you try to reason with your child, but he throws a tantrum—and doesn’t learn more appropriate ways of behaving as he develops. Or maybe when you go to hug him he pushes you away. Later, when you attempt to set limits on him, he calls you foul names. As he gets older, if a given situation isn’t going the way he likes, he breaks things or hits his siblings—or you. And when he’s asked to account for himself he usually blames you or some other person, place or thing. Remember, blame is infectious.
Make no mistake, a family in that situation is going to treat this child in a certain way. And while to outsiders it may look like the parents are triggering the inappropriate behavior, it’s actually the child who has shaped theirs.
By the way, I’ve talked in other articles in Empowering Parents about how children blackmail their parents into giving in. Often, for example, you’ll see families with parents who appear to be too tolerant or passive. But sometimes their child has trained them through years of acting out and aggressive behavior. And what he’s taught them is not to demand or expect a lot from him. The inherent threat is “if you try to set limits on me, I’ll act out—and you’ll be sorry.”
Q: Why do you think other people, and especially professionals, tend to blame the parents?
J: I think it’s often easy for them—and other people outside the family—to paint with too broad a brush. People look at the family of an acting-out, defiant child and tend to criticize the parents. And frankly, I think it’s easier to blame parents who use ineffective strategies with their children instead of taking the time to educate them about more effective ways to manage their child.
It’s a lot easier to blame parents than it is to change children. In my opinion, it’s important to understand that there are ineffective parenting strategies, but there are also effective ones that can be learned. Unfortunately, most parents are referred to family therapy before they’re ever referred to parent training. When they show up, they’re often treated as if they are “guilty until proven innocent” instead of the other way around. This is because many therapists are trained to validate that there’s something wrong with the family.
Q: What happens when the parents are blamed for their child’s behavior?
J: When you’re a parent in that situation, it’s very easy to feel attacked. You feel like there’s a suspicion that you’ve done something wrong, and that your mistakes are causing your child to have problems. Compounding that, many parents feel somewhat guilty about their kid’s behavior because they don’t know what went wrong. It’s easy for them to fall into the trap of blaming themselves.
Parents also tend to get discouraged and distrustful. And in addition to professionals, families are often told by other family members, teachers and people in their community that they’re not doing right by their kids.
If you’re a parent stuck in this situation, it’s easy to look out your window and see your neighbors’ kids playing nicely with each other while your child can’t play with other kids. It’s very easy to get the sense that people think you’re the problem. Many parents of acting-out kids carry a lot of guilt around with them—they immediately assume their child’s behavior is their fault. Then when they try to get help for it, what they often get is more blame. Or sometimes, just as bad, parents might assume their child’s behavior is the fault of someone else. I try to tell them that blame does no one any good. Rather, the important questions to ask are, “Who is taking responsibility for this child?” and “What are you willing to change in order to accomplish that?”
The first place they go for help is usually to their own families. Sadly, if they get blamed there, they will often try to keep their problem a secret; they won’t ask for help in other arenas. Many parents experience a certain amount of shame over their acting-out child.
Q: Parents do experience shame over this, but why is that?
J: The ideal in our society is children who behave. The formula is the following: if you’re the right kind of parent, your child will be well-behaved. Of course, I think that there’s another formula for parenting which I mentioned earlier called the “good enough” parent. They’re not being abusive or neglectful, they provide for their children, but they may not be using effective techniques to solve their kid’s problems. They might be doing things they learned from their own parents or that they saw on a talk show.
Sometimes parents might simply be following their own instincts, but that information can be ineffective with certain kids. Why is that? This is because we’re talking about a 21st century child with 21st century problems. It’s simply a different time, and it’s also a much more difficult time to be a parent as well as a child. Let’s look at the demands that parents are under. First of all, they’re under a lot more economic stress and anxiety. In most families today, both parents have to work to stay above water, and sometimes each parent has more than one job. And this stress affects a parent’s ability to function and to act. Children and adolescents are also under more stress, and they have more ways of rebelling than ever before. Many parents are simply overwhelmed.
I think helping parents find solutions and teaching them problem-solving skills is the most effective thing we can do. I believe that parents who feel like they are under suspicion of being “bad parents” are often going to be very defensive. They won’t be open to new ideas or to learning new things. They feel like they have something to prove—what they’re trying to prove is that they’re not bad parents.
Q: James, how would you help parents in this situation?
J: I try to distinguish the difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is not helpful, ever. And the people who are showing up and trying to find ways to help their child are taking responsibility.
In my own life, I grew up with three brothers. We all had the same parents, but I was out of control. My siblings were pretty well-behaved kids all the way through high school and into adult life. Even though we had the same parents, there were very different outcomes in terms of our behavior. My parents were “good enough” parents, and it showed. Unfortunately I had special needs and there was no one around to show them how to manage me.
I also understand that parents of acting-out kids have a more challenging time of raising their children. Everybody knows how to handle a child who doesn’t have behavior problems. So I think if ineffective parenting contributed to the behavior problems that a child has, it just makes sense to me that effective parent training will contribute to positive change: not blaming, pointing the finger, or arm-chair diagnosing.
Q: So why are parents the solution, in your opinion?
J: I think parents are the solution because they spend the most time with their children; they create the environment their children live in. They are the primary role models because their children spend the most time with them. The family is the center of a child’s life. I believe that if parents get the proper training on how to be more effective, and they’re willing to use those techniques, then they’re going to have children who can solve their developmental life problems effectively.
I also think parents are the solution because they love their kids. They have the most invested in their children because they are going to be related to them for the rest of their lives. So they are the most motivated to help their child change his behavior. I used to tell parents, “If we do these things now, maybe your child can avoid getting into further trouble. But if he continues the way he’s going, you’re going to be the ones visiting him in prison, lending him money because he won’t get a job, or raising his kids because he’s either too irresponsible or addicted to raise them himself.”
The good news is that once parents have techniques to use in their home, they can use them all the time. And I absolutely believe if parents work on having a more effective parenting role in their child’s life—to not be a Martyr, an Excuse-maker, or an Over-negotiator—it’s more likely that things will change for the better in their family.
If you’re the parent of an acting-out child, ask yourself, “What do I want to see change and how can I make that change occur?” And then be honest with yourself when you look for answers. I believe that’s the first step toward creating positive change in your child’s—and your family’s—life.