There are times when your authority as a parent just isn’t enough. There are times that you may need to call the police on your child.
If your child’s behavior has escalated to the point of physical abuse, assault, and destruction of property, or if he is engaging in risky or dangerous behavior outside the home, then getting the policed involved might be the right thing to do.
But calling the police on your own child is a difficult decision to make. And there are several factors that you need to consider before doing so.
I’ve heard many parents say to me: “My teenage son is bigger than me. He threatens me physically. I’m afraid of him. What can I do?”
To parents who tell me “I’m afraid of my teen,” I say, I believe you. Our kids can be scary and threatening. They are often bigger than we are. And we are not quite sure what they are capable of doing to us, to others, or to themselves.
I’ve seen too many parents who live as prisoners in their own home—prisoners of a threatening child. These parents are often the victim of their kids’ acting out issues, not the cause of them.
That is why if your threatening child doesn’t respond to your authority, then you may need to bring in another authority, and that’s the police. But should you really call the police on your own child? Aren’t we supposed to protect our kids from getting into trouble?
(By the way, I use the pronoun “his” in this article, but girls can be just as threatening as boys and this article applies equally to both.)
Think about your child’s school for a moment. Does the school tolerate assault, punching holes in the wall, or speaking in a verbally abusive way to others? Of course not.
In fact, all the schools I’ve worked with call the police if a student assaults someone, uses drugs, or destroys property.
Schools take action because they understand something that parents can lose sight of—kids make the choice to do these things, and as a result, they should be held accountable.
Kids with behavior problems seem to have no self-control, whether it’s managing anger or acting out. In fact, they’ll say and do things to give you the impression that they’re out of control as a way to avoid responsibility.
But remember, everything they say and do is a choice. And it’s important for parents to understand that your child makes his own choices, even when he seems out of control.
When you focus on your child’s choices, you begin to realize that it’s your child, through his bad choices, who is responsible for the police involvement.
Your child made the choice to hit you, take drugs, or destroy your neighbor’s property, and he should be held accountable for his choices. And this may mean answering to the police.
Most parents, even those who fear their kids, are uneasy with the idea of calling the police on their kids. And believe me, I understand that. You’re getting the law and the government involved in your home. The parent’s I’ve worked with fear many things about police involvement.
Parents fear that if they call the police that they will lose control of the whole process. They fear that the police and courts will now be in charge.
Parents fear the social stigma attached to calling the police. What will the neighbors think if they see the police at their house? No one wants that kind of attention in the neighborhood.
Many parents are embarrassed and ashamed of themselves. They think they are bad parents who can’t handle their own kid.
And parents fear that calling the police will harm their long-term relationship with their child. They worry that their child will never forgive them for calling the police.
Believe me, these are all normal and legitimate fears. I’ve heard these fears from many parents.
I want to be very clear here: whether or not to call the police is a very personal decision. It may not be for everyone. And sometimes you just have to trust your gut.
After all, you have to live with this decision. Twenty years from now, your child’s teachers and counselors will be out of his life, but you will still be his parent. And you want to act in a way that you won’t regret later.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: when you fear your child more than you fear calling the police, then it’s probably time to call the police.
This point is reached when you have a child who willfully violates the rules of your household and threatens you, other family members, or your property.
If calling the police is a choice you’re ready and willing to make, then you should tell your child your intentions in a clear and direct manner. In a calm moment, when things are going well, you can say:
“The other night you pushed your mother. If that happens again, I’m calling the police.”
Be matter-of-fact and business-like about it. Just let him know what you will do. And mean it.
If you don’t mean it, if you don’t follow through, then your words are empty. It’s just another empty threat. And with each empty threat, your child’s contempt for you grows. And your authority shrinks until your authority is gone and your child is in charge.
Related content: How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse
It’s important to have a plan in place for exactly the circumstances in which you will call the police. A plan helps you make the decision calmly and reduces the likelihood of things spinning out of control.
Your plan may include contacting the police ahead of time to discuss your child and to let them know that you may call them the next time he is abusive. The following related content is an excellent article by Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner, author of The ODD Lifeline, on how to talk to the police about your child.
Related content: How to Talk to the Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive
Let’s say you don’t have a plan and you wind up hitting your child in self-defense. You’re the one who will be arrested and penalized. And not only may you wind up in jail, but the courts are going to blame you for all your kid’s previous problems. I’ve seen this happen. So make a plan.
Parents who are willing to get the police involved ask me how to know when it’s actually time to call the police? In other words, what specific behaviors would constitute a good reason for calling the police?
Call the police when safety is an issue or when the behavior crosses the line and becomes criminal. This includes when your child is breaking things (significant property damage) or hurting or threatening to hurt others.
For example, if your child grabs a book and throws it across the room, I don’t think you call the police. Hold him accountable with an appropriate consequence, but minor damage is not worth calling the police.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
But if he punches holes in the wall, smashes furniture, or does more serious damage to your home or property, I think you tell him:
“Next time you lose control like that, I’m going to call the police.”
And if he does it again, you follow through. That’s when you make the call.
To put it another way, I think you should consider calling the police when you see a pattern of behavior that’s unsafe and threatening to others.
Make it clear to your child that calling the police is the consequence for his abusive, destructive, or criminal behavior. Make it clear that his choices determine whether or not the police show up. And, if the police are called, then he has the opportunity to learn from that consequence and to make a better choice next time.
You also need to consider the other members of your family. They need to be protected.
Siblings who grow up with a violent, destructive, or explosive brother or sister can be severely traumatized. These siblings don’t know when they’re going to get hit, pushed, or verbally abused next.
I know from personal experience that many siblings of kids who act out—the brothers and sisters of kids who are violent, abusive, or destructive—develop PTSD-like symptoms. Indeed, it is a traumatic environment.
When I hear from parents in this situation, I think of the terms “domestic violence” and “domestic abuse.” Because that’s what it is. Somebody in your home is taking advantage of weakness and physically assaulting family members.
I think that’s when you have to ask yourself, “What do I have to do keep my family safe here? And what am I going to do to help my child learn that he can’t behave this way anymore?”
For me, calling the police is a legitimate part of the solution.
I think you should call the police for criminal behavior. This would include possession and selling of drugs or stolen property. Say to your child:
“I can’t stop you from using drugs and getting high. But if I find drugs, I’m calling the police. If I find stolen property, I’m calling the police.”
You want your child to know that you’re just not going to sit by and let him throw his life away and that you won’t tolerate criminal behavior in your home.
Parents ask me, “Will my child have a record for the rest of his life?” It really depends on where you live and the seriousness of the charges.
But, most states have provisions whereby juvenile records are sealed or expunged when they become adults. There’s no access to it and the public can’t find out about it.
Nevertheless, having a record can affect getting a job, joining the military, or even qualifying for public housing. That’s why I understand that parents don’t want their kid to have a record. That’s one of the reasons this is a hard decision.
So ask yourself, “Is this behavior dangerous enough that it warrants me taking this action? How dangerous is he, really?”
Personally, I’d rather have a child learn to be in control of himself and have a juvenile record than be out of control and have no apparent future.
Be aware that many kids blackmail their parents by saying, “If you call the police, I’ll get a record.” Or “They’re going to send me to juvie.” They manipulate their parents this way.
But I think if the abusive, violent, and destructive behavior doesn’t change then your child is going to have much bigger problems than a juvenile record. Make no bones about it, someday he’s going to get an adult record. Out-of-control juvenile behavior becomes adult criminal behavior the day he turns 18. And if he’s already 18 and his behavior is criminal, then maybe he needs a criminal record.
That’s a legitimate fear. I can’t in good conscience tell you that won’t happen, because it does.
But in my 25 years of working with the juvenile justice system, I’ve found that the wheels of justice turn very slowly. If the police come, they might write a report, but they can’t do anything if you don’t want to press charges. And they’ll usually encourage you not to press charges the first or second time you call them.
Look at it this way: nobody wants to take custody of your son or daughter. Nobody wants to take responsibility for your teenager.
But why are you calling the police in the first place? You’re calling them to send your adolescent a strong message that you’re not going to tolerate his behavior and that you’re not helpless.
And if the behavior continues, the parents should press charges—especially if a parent or another sibling gets hurt. Understand that virtually nobody goes to jail on their first charge. It just doesn’t happen that way. The state doesn’t want to take care of him so they’re going to try all kinds of non-institutional remedies first. They may even set you and your child up with counseling.
If the abusive, destructive, or criminal behavior continues, the main thing that you want is for your child to be held accountable on another level.
One way the courts do that is by putting your child on probation. Having a probation officer adds another dimension of accountability. Once on probation, if your child punches a hole in the wall, not only do you tell him to stop, but you call his probation officer. When your teen meets with him, the probation officer says, “Your mom told me you punched a hole in the wall. I thought we said you were going to work on that. I thought you promised me you weren’t going to do that anymore.” Think of the probation officer as another level of authority for you.
I’ve seen probation officers and judges work out plans for kids who are aggressive and violent. They’ll put them in juvenile detention for a weekend or two. It can be very effective. They don’t send the child away forever.
After his time is up, they bring him back to court and say, “So what do you think? You think you can stop hurting people?” If the kid smarts off, they send him back for another weekend. They’re trying to teach him to be accountable.
Ideally, a counselor or therapist says to your child:
“I’ve noticed that you’re not punching any holes in the walls in here. That’s because we’re holding you accountable and you know we won’t tolerate your disrespect or abuse. You’re making different choices about how you treat people and property. You can punch a wall here, but you’re choosing not to. Now let’s figure out how you can make those same choices at home.”
That’s how coping skills are developed by professionals. These punishments and consequences are all designed to teach your child to make different choices—choices that are healthier and safer.
Expect your child to be angry if you call the police. He’ll say, “You stabbed me in the back.” He’s going to feel a sense of betrayal. He’ll play the victim.
Don’t waver. This is just what abusive people do when you stand up to them. I think when things are going well, you want to say:
“If you make different choices, we never have to call the police again. But if you assault somebody, if you break people’s stuff, if you bring drugs into the house, if we feel intimidated by you, or if I’m afraid somebody’s going to get hurt, I’m calling the police. And I just want you to know that.”
What your child will learn to say is, “So what, they won’t do anything anyway.”
But then just say:
“That may be, but I’m still going to keep calling them.”
By continuing to call the police, you are adding to the paper trail on your child. You need that paper trail as evidence that your child is out of control. The police may not do anything the next time, but they will eventually as long as you have that paper trail.
By continuing to call the police you are also showing your child that you mean what you say.
I understand that it’s just very difficult to raise a child with serious behavior problems. It’s a terrible situation for parents.
But it’s important for parents to remember that these kids make their own choices. Even when they seem overwhelmed by feelings, they’re making conscious choices—but that’s not what they want you to believe.
They want you to believe that they become overwhelmed by anger and so they really can’t control themselves, even if they want to. I think that’s an out-and-out lie. Don’t believe it.
Your child makes choices all the time, and I think one way or another they need to be held accountable for those choices. If they are not held accountable now, then they will be held accountable when they become adults. And the older they get, the more severe the consequences. So, the sooner they are held accountable, the better. And that may mean involving the police.
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.