For many children, behavior problems are not universal; they’re targeted. Targeted at dad, at mom, at the stepmother, at the fiancé, at a sibling. The following two case studies reveal how normally charming and compliant children can become defiant or even abusive with one person in the family. James Lehman examines why this happens and what parents can do about it.

Case study #1: When Lisa remarried, she was confident that her three kids would grow to love David as much as she did. Her oldest daughter, Danielle (16), had never really warmed up to David, but she thought she’d come around. Danielle had always been a sweet and pretty resilient kid. Lisa was wrong. Within a few weeks after the wedding, Danielle’s behavior toward David became openly hostile. If he so much as tried to assert himself in a parenting role, Danielle would blow up. After one epic argument involving curfew, she stopped speaking to David altogether—and hasn’t uttered a word to him in the last two years. Danielle will speak to everyone in the family, except David, who remains the object of her unending wrath.

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Case study #2: People who know Brian, Susan and their four children always tell them they look like “the perfect family” and compliment them on how polite their children are. But inside their home, they are far from perfect. Their 15-year-old son Jacob is a tyrant, particularly toward his mother and his youngest brother. He uses intimidating language with Susan and is physically abusive with six-year-old Tyler. “Jacob is all smiles when we’re in public,” says Susan. “But when we come home, he turns into this whole different kid.”

Kids recognize and deal with people in different ways almost from birth. As infants, they respond differently to their mother, a caregiver or a family friend. This continues into childhood and adolescence. They recognize the differences in adults, and those differences often fall into two categories. Which adults have power and which adults don’t have power? Which adults can you manipulate with bad behavior and which adults can you not manipulate? As kids grow up, they recognize which adults cannot follow through on consequences, which ones accept their excuses for inappropriate behavior and which ones buy them things to win their allegiance. They learn which adult is always making excuses for them and which one sets limits.

When a child targets one person when he acts out, it’s an indication that he has learned he can feel powerful at the expense of that person, whether it’s a parent, a stepparent or a sibling. On the surface, you won’t see the kid getting anything out of this targeted behavior. It’s not like he gets out of a consequence by calling his mother abusive names. He does it because he feels like a zero, and when he can bully his mother, he feels powerful. He feels weak and shaky about himself and lacks self-confidence. When he puts her down, he gets self-confidence. It’s a simple, basic behavioral dynamic.

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To understand what kids get out of this, imagine you have a boss that you don’t like. Let’s say that boss is a constant pain in the neck for you. How often do you dream about telling him off? You imagine what it would be like to tell him off and think about how great you’ll feel. It probably will feel great for fifteen seconds, until you figure out how you’re going to find another job. It’s the same thing for these kids. They are telling off their boss, and they get the same sense of gratification out of it. To make it even better, they get to tell their boss off every day. In Danielle’s case, she has been telling off the boss for two years.

When children target a parent with their inappropriate behavior, they have most likely seen that there is a division in how the parents deal with the child—that the parents are not in alliance. They get two different messages from the parents, and they get power by picking on the weaker of the two parents, confronting the parent who challenges their power base or lashing out at the parent they deem is “unfair.” Children who target parents or siblings by acting out often don’t have high self-esteem. They are afraid to feel certain things or be confronted with certain situations. So they try to control people by making one of the parents or a sibling a victim.

When a child targets one person when he acts out, it’s an indication that he has learned he can feel powerful at the expense of that person, whether it’s a parent, a step parent or a sibling.

It’s a natural reaction for parents to become divided when this targeted behavior is going on in the family. Parents become angry at the child and at each other. It’s somehow easier for parents to argue with each other over the child’s behavior than it is to demand that the child change. But this is exactly what parents need to avoid. Parents have to join together and decide what they’re going to do—together—when the child is abusive. Whether both parents witness it or not, both parents have to say, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Say this directly, clearly and firmly to the child who is acting out. Don’t look to blame the other kids in the family. Don’t blame each other. Put the responsibility for the behavior back on the child who is acting out.

Whether you are parenting the child as parents, step parents or foster parents, the most important word to remember is “We.” In Danielle’s case, when she rejects her stepfather, she is rejecting is the authority figure that he represents. Lisa shouldn’t try to shoulder the burden of this conflict alone, and David should neither withdraw from the parenting role to avoid conflict nor incite it by getting into shouting matches with Danielle. Lisa and David need to stand together and be very clear with Danielle, saying, “We are both your parents. And if you act in a disrespectful way with either one of us, you will be held equally accountable.”

The case of Jacob reminds me of my days working in youth detention centers. One day I remember asking a kid, “Do you curse at the staff in here?” And he said no. I asked him, “Why not? You curse at your mother.” Kids know who has the authority and who doesn’t. The kid in the detention center knew the staff members had authority and wouldn’t put up with being cursed at. His mom didn’t have authority over him, so he cursed her. What Brian and Susan need to realize is that Jacob understands if he disrespects people outside the home, the consequences will be clear, swift and uncomfortable. So when he disrespects his mother or his little brother, the consequences should also be clear, swift and uncomfortable. They need to observe what is different and what works about his behavioral responses outside the home and apply those things to their home.

The child who bullies specific people in the home has to learn the skills it takes to feel powerful and competent in more age appropriate ways. Parents should address two things:

  1. They need to help the child develop specific social skills in the areas of conflict resolution, negotiation and compromise.
  2. Parents have to work together to set clear and powerful limits to manage the behavior, always remembering to be united and use the word “we.”

The end result is that the child learns more skills to manage his feelings and not to abuse one person or take things out on them. He learns to manage those feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness, confusion and helplessness himself. When parents teach these skills and kids learn them, both sides end up happier. Even though the child doesn’t get his way as often and even though the parent has to work at it a bit, they both feel happier because they know things are working in the family. In The Total Transformation Program, I provide parents with a step-by-step way to teach these life skills to your children.

Related content: Manipulative Child Behavior? My Kids Are “Too Smart for Their Own Good”

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 (16)
  • Christina F

    I can agree with this, however with my now

    6 yeare old son, he has been the opposite of how you describe. I was a stay at home mom until a year ago and he has always been more defiant and out right rude and disrespectful to me. I am the parent that is more firm, diciplines and doesn't let him get away with his bad behavior or words without a consequence such as time out or losing a privilege(tablet or game console etc.). My husband is a school psychologist and takes on a different approach and does more calming the situation/behavior vs. giving consequences for it. He also gives him and my 4yr daughter(which doesn't exert this same problem) gifts often when they are out places. I don't see the need for getting my children toys all the time Cuz they already have so many and I don't want them spoiled and taking advantage of the toys they already have. I say this because Gift Giving seems to be one of my son's major love languages.

    Have you had experience with my situation of a child at a very younge age (1yr) behaving like this? If so, please give me any advice you may have.

    Sincerely,

    A Mother Feeling Hopeless

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Christina F It can be so difficult when you are experiencing defiant behavior from your young child, and it’s also not uncommon for this type of disrespectful behavior to occur.  We typically find that a combination of setting clear, firm limits around appropriate behavior, being calm when tantrums occur, asMore well as recognizing when kids are behaving well tends to be the most effective approach.  You might find additional guidance in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-discipline-young-kids-effectively-4-steps-every-parent-can-take/.  Please be sure to check back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • Ashley_M696

    I am having some trouble with my and my boyfriends children. He has two girls, 11 and 8. I have one girl, age 6. They all play ok for the most part; however, we have problems with his 8 year old trying to manipulate my 6 year old. For example, yesterday we went for a walk, came back, and our 6 and 8 year old went inside to get a snack. I followed them and told them to come outside when they were done to clean up their chalk. I walk back outside with my boyfriend and we talk in the drive way for a while. Thirty minutes go by and he get a phone call from his 8 yr olds mother asking where we were because his 8 year old called her on the house phone telling her that we left them and they can't find us, or a bad guy was in the house. This started when my 6 yr old came looking for me (forgetting I was outside) so the 8yr old told her bad guys might be in the house and we left them or something, which obviously terrified my 6 yr old. 

    Once everything was calmed down my boyfriend asked me if we were doing right by my child by putting her in a home with his 8 yr old, which in his opinion is problematic. I explained that I know the 8 yr old is a little more problematic but she is only 8 and has a strong personality, but I understand his side too. His concern is that his 8 yr old might have a long term impression with my 6 yr old, corrupting her behavior and from becoming a good person because of this influence. However, it does not happen all the time and they are only together maybe 3 days out of the month during school year and every other week in the summer. So are they really together enough to make a difference with my child? 

    My thoughts are that I can teach my child how to deal with a child like the 8 yr old, but my boyfriend argues that she is too young to learn that, that she is at the age to be influenced. Also, another issue is that her mother thinks she does know wrong, she only has an infant and the 8 yr old in her home so of course she doesn't see how the 8 yr old can be. 

    I understand my boyfriends concern; however, with the little time the girls are together, goes it really matter? Is this really something serious enough to end our relationship over just to protect my child from corruption? Im confused and at a lose. Please help.

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Ashley_M696 I hear you.  It can be difficult when it appears that one child might be negatively influencing another in the home, and can be even more challenging in a blended family.  Ultimately, it’s going to be up to you and your boyfriend to decide whether this is a seriousMore enough issue to end your relationship.  In the meantime, I encourage both of you to address your biological daughter’s behavior.  The truth is, we are all surrounded by numerous influences, both positive and negative, every day, and in the end, we are each responsible for the choices we make.  You might find some helpful information in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/no-such-thing-as-a-bad-apple-fix-the-behavior-not-the-kid/.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
    Frustrated stepmom11 I hear you, and it sounds like a very challenging situation right now, not only with your stepson but also with his mother.  While ideally all parents (bio and step) would be able to work together and provide consistent rules and structure at each house, that doesn’t alwaysMore happen in practice.  The most effective thing you can do is to focus on the rules and expectations you have for him at your house.  In addition, I’m glad to hear that you are working with local supports, such as a therapist and child services, to help you address your stepson’s sexual acting out.  I encourage you to continue to do so, and to view them as a resource to assist you in keeping everyone in your house safe while you address this behavior.  I recognize how difficult this must be for all of you right now, and I wish you all the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • Priseis
    I am struggling with my 6 year old and my boyfriends 5 year old daughter. My son keeps causing her pain, both emotionally and physically to the point where it is causing a lot of strain to my boyfriend and i. He also chooses to hide her securityMore blanket with the intention of causing her hurt and loss. I dont know what to do. His older sister (8 years old and also mine) has zero issues with my boyfriend or his daughter but is also struggling dealing with her brother. Its to a point where im tempted to see if their dad could take him on a more permanent basis but its the last thing i want to do :( i feel so helpless and like a horrible mother.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Priseis I hear you, and I recognize how much your son’s behavior toward your boyfriend’s daughter is affecting everyone in the house.  As James points out in the article above, it’s common for kids to act inappropriately toward one person because it makes them feel powerful as a result.  It’sMore likely that your son is acting this way toward your boyfriend’s daughter because it makes him feel powerful and in control.  It’s also pretty common for kids your son’s age to act out aggressively because they to have a low tolerance for frustration and few appropriate coping skills to use when they are experiencing strong emotions such as anger or jealousy.  This doesn’t mean that your son’s actions are appropriate or acceptable, though.  It could be useful to talk with your son during a calm time about other strategies he can use the next time he gets upset instead of taking it out on your boyfriend’s daughter.  You might find some useful ideas in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/sibling-fighting-5-ways-to-teach-your-kids-to-get-along/.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • Heather Hill
    I'm the Guardian of my 17year old nephew. He steals our things from around the house, lies about everything it seems like, skips school, does drugs, and refuses to take responsibility for anything. I'm at my wits-end..... I've put him in a couple of places to get helpand nothing seemsMore to work, because he manipulates them in believing his crap. I NEED HELP ASAP, PLEASE
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Heather Hill 

      I’m so sorry to hear about all the challenges you are

      experiencing with your nephew, and I’m glad that you are reaching out for

      support, both in your community as well as online.Something that can be useful is to focus on

      one or two of the most troubling behaviors, so that you are not quite so

      overwhelmed with trying to address everything at once.Based on what you have written, it could be most

      helpful to begin with his https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/kids-stealing-from-parents-what-you-need-to-know-now/

      and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-using-drugs-or-drinking-alcohol-what-should-i-do/.In addition, if you are looking

      for additional assistance in your community, you might consider contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.211 is a service which connects people with

      resources in their local area.I

      recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I wish you and your family

      all the best moving forward.Take care.

  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    @Donna

    What a tough situation. It’s understandable you would be

    concerned about the possible future effects of your stepson’s current behavior.

    Unfortunately, neither you nor your husband are going to be able to control

    what happens when his son is with his mom and if she doesn’t want to bring in

    outside support, there really isn’t anything you can do if there isn’t an issue

    of abuse or neglect. In two household families such as yours, the most

    effective approach is going to be to focus on what happens in your home in

    terms of establishing a culture of accountability. We have several articles

    that give tips for how to establish a culture of accountability. Two in particular

    you may find helpful are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-create-a-culture-of-accountability-in-your-home/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/angel-child-or-devil-child-when-kids-save-their-bad-behavior-for-you/ Best

    of luck to you and your family moving forward. Take care.

  • Erin

    I am in a serious power struggle with my 6 yr old daughter. I had a medicinal psychotic breakdown when she was 3 yrs old and was in and out of psych wards for a while. on top of that, I have severe pain in my hips and cannot do much physically bco of them. I have recently had hip surgery. Hopefully, it will help. Obviously, she has had a very unusual childhood.

    I am a very devoted mom emotionally. I am also not a pushover. Ellie fights me over every single thing I have her do. Every chore, anything extra, anything that might not be fun. She stated a while ago saying very mean things to me- "you never let me do anything fun", "you always let my brothers do that", "my brothers never get in trouble", "you like my brothers more than me", you always make me do the cleaning", I never get to watch my shows", and the new one, "you force me to play with my friends just so you can watch tv". This bc I was watching my own show. When she says these things, u have either ignored her or given a consequence. The last one,I day down and firmly explained that I am her mother and she will not disrespect me like that, it is unacceptable. She had since said similar things 3 times.

    She used to hit me 6-10 times a day. She did it sneakily, though, making it look like an accident, so I actually didn't realize she was purposely hurting me for quite a while.

    For everybody else she is an absolute angel. I constantly get comments about how kind and sweet she is. My husband sports me 100%. When he sees it, he will discipline her. But she's smart. She usually doesn't do it when he is around. She saves it for when he is home. Her brothers have stayed asking what is wrong with their sister.

    I am lost. I am terrified my "dark time", as we call it, had really damaged her.

    What can I do? This article is the first thing I've read that actually speaks to my situation. Do you have any advice?

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Erin  

      I’m sorry to hear about the ongoing situation with your

      daughter, and I understand your worries that you have “damaged” her.  The

      fact that she is well-behaved around others shows that she has the skills to

      act appropriately.  Now, it is more a matter of applying those skills to

      her interactions with you.  Sara Bean offers some suggestions for doing so

      in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/angel-child-or-devil-child-when-kids-save-their-bad-behavior-for-you/.  We

      appreciate you writing in, and wish you all the best moving forward.  Take

      care.

  • organicchef
    Hi James, I am the mother of a 17year old daughter. We used to always be close but lately she wants o help from me at all. I offered to pay her car insurance if she needed a day off from work and she yells at meMore that she's fine. She is in a lot of activities, works and is taking college level classes. My husband often sides with her and says I'm being mean to her. This is ridiculous. She wants to go away to Clegg and at this point I almost can't wait. Please give me some advuce. My husband thinks nothing is wrong as we are not united in anything. He is more of a free spirit whatever type and it drives me crazy.
  • MelissaPerez3
    Hi I recently gained custody of my eleven yr old daughter whom I've not had since she was a baby. In the meantime I had three other kids and since I got custody she is nasty mean and rude to me and her stepfather. Her father and I agreed heMore can have custody because she is so out of control I am afraid she will hurt someone. What can I do while waiting for the judge to say yes to our agreement.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      MelissaPerez3

      Transitions such as you describe can be tough. It’s not

      unusual for kids to act out in these situations because they lack the skills to

      cope with the changes taking place.  What steps you take will depend on

      the behaviors you are seeing. For most acting out behaviors, holding your child

      accountable with task oriented consequences, as discussed in the article http://www.empoweringparents.com/authoritative-parenting-consequences.php , will be an effective way

      of addressing the behaviors. If there are safety concerns, it would be useful

      to reach out to your local crisis response to develop a safety plan that can be

      implemented should your daughter’s behavior become so out of control that she

      puts others at risk. The 211 Helpline can give you information on crisis

      response as well as other supports for your family. You can reach the Helpline

      24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto http://www.211.org/. We appreciate you writing in. Take

      care.

  • how to be better
    I'm a step father of two really good kids one 6 daughter and son 12 recently the son is getting more out of control,more defiant and now I fear he may be abusing his sister to make matters worse his biological father past away I don't know how to helpMore with his anger and grief and I don't know how to unite my wife and I to be able to get control of our children and become a loving functional family
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