I’ve counseled 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, is verbally abusive, destroys your property, or 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 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 essential 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, hoping that feeling better will improve their behavior.
Here’s the truth: acting out kids don’t improve their behavior because they learn to feel better; rather, they feel better because they learn to stop acting out. In other words, when kids learn to behave better, their self-esteem and self-worth improve.
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 they try to solve these problems with various forms of defiance and abuse. 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. And in the end, the goal should be appropriate behavior regardless of how they feel.
When kids don’t learn the skills to solve those kinds of problems, they develop compensatory behaviors instead. Compensatory behaviors compensate for the feelings they have and the situations they get themselves into because they can’t solve life’s problems.
People change when they learn how to solve the problems that impede their growth and no longer resort to compensatory behaviors. It’s human nature for us 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 indeed, you’ll see adults in prison who don’t know how to get along with people, respond to authority, and show self-discipline. They have fundamental life problems that they never learned to solve. Instead, they turned to 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 is caused by their poor parenting or 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 helpful when dealing with kids. Parents often get stuck thinking about blame because they feel the problem is hopeless and 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 to deal with a challenging child. When faced with a defiant or oppositional child, many parents feel unprepared and have no idea what to do. They may suspect 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 through support groups, parent coaching, family therapy, or a parenting program like The Total Transformation.
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, you’re going to slide back to the same old errors. It’s human nature: you get frustrated, tired, and overwhelmed, and 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 steps to learn how to set up a more effective system to improve behavior, then nothing will change. People hope for better lives all the time, but lives improve only when hope is combined with action.
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.