In my office, I’ve dealt with many, many parents through the years who were discouraged about their kids’ behavior problems. They felt hopeless and wondered if things were ever going to change. They would ask me:
“Will my kid be messed up forever?”
Their feelings are understandable. When you have a child who acts out in very aggressive and destructive ways, who is verbally abusive, who destroys your property, or who even assaults siblings and parents, you feel powerless.
And if nothing changes after seeking help from your child’s school, therapists, or counselors, it’s easy to get discouraged. You start feeling hopeless.
But I think in many cases parents and kids can turn their lives around, and I’m saying that out of my own experiences with families and kids.
I think that it’s important to understand a few things. First of all, people can change. Our kids can change. It happens all the time. So, the question that matters is not “Can kids change?” The question that matters is: “How and why do kids change?”
Unfortunately, I think many parents use ineffective methods to try to change their child’s behavior. Too many parents try to get their children to feel better in the hopes that feeling better will improve their behavior.
But, I don’t believe kids change because they feel better—I believe they feel better because they change. I don’t believe they change because they get higher self-esteem or self-worth—I believe they get higher self-esteem and self-worth because they change and learn to develop the problem-solving skills they need to deal with the issues that trigger their acting out.
Understand that most acting out behaviors are triggered by the child’s inability to solve life’s basic problems such as frustration, anxiety, and procrastination. So he or she tries to solve these problems by acting inappropriately. And this snowballs until you have kids who act out all the time because they haven’t developed any emotional maturity.
With kids who act out all the time, you have to look at feelings and emotional situations almost like problems, rather than feelings and emotions. Anger, fear, and frustration are problems that your child has to solve in a way that doesn’t interfere with others or his ability to function.
When kids don’t learn the skills to solve those kinds of problems, they develop what we call “compensatory behaviors.” That is, they develop ways of acting which compensate for the feelings they have and the situations they get themselves into because they can’t solve their original problems.
People change when they learn how to solve the problems that are impeding their growth and no longer resort to compensatory behaviors. My philosophy is that it’s human nature to want to be better. If you can show someone a better path to take, they’re more likely to go down that path.
Don’t get me wrong, learning how to solve social and emotional problems is a big task. It’s the key to getting along and making it in life. And certainly, you’ll see adults in prison who don’t know how to get along with people, who don’t know how to respond to authority, who don’t know how to be consistent in their work ethic, and who don’t know how to keep their commitments. They have basic life problems that they didn’t learn to solve. Instead, they learned to deal with them through aggressive, anti-social, and even criminal behavior.
From time to time, parents come to me believing that they did a lot of things during their child’s development that are irreversible. They worry that their child’s acting out was caused by their poor parenting or by not providing a stable family life. Maybe it was a lack of resources in the family. Perhaps there was divorce, family chaos, or serious illness. Whatever the situation, these parents blame themselves for their child’s current behavior.
Do parents mess their kids up? Yeah, they do. Do they know they’re doing it while it’s going on? Most often they don’t.
All I can say to them is that blame is not useful when you are dealing with the lives of children. I tell parents that they often get stuck thinking about blame because they feel the problem is hopeless. Because they think blame is all they have left.
Listen, if you’re ready to help your child grow, blame is not important. What is important is responsibility. Who’s going to be responsible for getting your child the skills they need today? And if you’re taking on that responsibility, how are you going to carry it out? These are the critical questions.
Parents are not taught the skills they need before they have kids. When faced with a child who acts out consistently or who has tough behavior problems, many parents feel grossly unprepared and have no idea what to do. They may suspect that there is a better way, but they don’t know what it is. And they don’t try to find out.
But when parents decide to take responsibility for finding a better way, that’s the day they start to be effective. That’s the day they seek out parent support either through support groups, parent training, or family therapy.
Related content: The 3 Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior
People change. But to change, your child has to learn new skills and adapt to new situations. If you say, “I’m going to parent my child differently,” and then you don’t learn other skills, eventually you’re going to slide back to the same old errors. It’s human nature. You get frustrated. You get tired. And you get overwhelmed. Then, you wind up doing the same things again.
To put it bluntly, parents have to learn new skills if they’re going to make changes in their kid’s behavior.
Is there hope for parents in this situation? Yes, there is. There’s always hope. But if you don’t take certain steps to do things differently then nothing’s going to change. If you don’t learn how to set up a more effective system to improve behavior then nothing’s going to change. People hope for better lives all the time, but lives improve only when their hope is combined with action.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
Being a parent is hard work. And being a child in our society today is risky. Nobody teaches parents what to do when their child starts acting out and challenging their authority. So the quicker you can acquire effective skills, the better off you and your child will be.
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.