Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: How Do You React When Your Acting-out Child Starts Behaving?

Posted November 16, 2012 by

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When your acting-out child’s behavior changes abruptly for the better, it feels surreal — like you’ve stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

This happened recently with my 12-year-old stepson, and now I am waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” I have told myself the old child will return, that this is a “honeymoon period” just like we had for a few months after he moved in. We had a 4-month period where we saw none of the behaviors we had all seen previously. We thought the love and attention he was getting from us was all he needed. Then, surprise! Three years of stealing, lying, destroying property, school issues and even a run-in with the law!

We all want our children to be successful. We fight for their rights and advocate for them and give out consequences and hope they learn from natural consequences. The goal is for them to learn from past mistakes and move forward in positive ways. We hope they will make informed decisions. When you have a child who is troubled and seems to “screw up” all the time, you spend so much of your time meeting with the school, going to therapy, making medication choices, and trying to lead the child in the right direction.

Obviously as children get older and mature, you hope to see subtle changes. The changes are typically slow and come over many years. What happens when suddenly the changes are just THERE? I’ll tell you — it throws you for a loop! It’s like the child woke up one day and said, “I am sick of how I have been behaving and am turning over a new leaf TODAY.” And then they actually DO IT.

I am not ready for this. I am on RED ALERT. Some might say that’s a way to feel prepared, but when this new situation came up, I started looking at that expectation as a negative, not a positive. Is it really possible my stepson has not stolen a thing in months? Is it possible that nothing has been broken, either? This was a child who was always in trouble. He is my 12-year-old stepson, and due to these behaviors he was sent to live with us 3 years ago. He’s lied, he’s stolen; he’s broken things. His school work was rushed and dismal, at best.  He lost gloves and jackets and school supplies; he could not remember which days to have his gym uniform ready for school.

He goes to therapy weekly and sees a psychiatrist. We enrolled him in Cub Scouts when he moved in and the last 2 years he’s played soccer. We have sent him to the same summer camp for the last 4 summers.

Obviously the goal has been for him to be independent one day, take responsibility for his actions, and even make some changes to his behaviors. Could it be that what we’ve been doing is finally working?? How can that be? I know we are supposed to encourage children that they CAN do it, even if they fail each time they try. It is hard to remain optimistic and not let the child know that really deep down you’re afraid they’ll never get it. You expect the bad behaviors and the failures. When something is missing, you automatically go to that child. When the teacher calls, you are not surprised. That, to you, is NORMAL.

But what about when the homework gets done? What about when the gym uniform gets to school on the right day and you did not even remind him? What about when he comes home from school each day and talks about what he learned and says he has to go do his homework without prompting?

I’ll tell you how it feels. It feels weird. I feel like I have stepped into an alternate reality. I am waiting for that other shoe to fall.

In all seriousness, I do hope that all of the hard work we’ve put in with the structure and routine we have provided, along with the work he’s done in therapy, will help him continue to make better choices and that he will continue along this path.


I am a mom of two boys, ages 16 and 22, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. I have remarried and my husband has 2 boys, ages 13 and 16. The 13 year old lives with us, and has some behavioral problems and attachment issues. There is always something happening at our house!

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