How To Parent: blaming Parents For Their Kid’s Misbehavior

“Parents Aren’t the Problem—They’re the Solution”


Parents Arent the Problem—Theyre the SolutionDo you feel like your family members, your kid’s teachers, and even counselors blame you for your child’s acting out behavior? You’re not alone. As James Lehman says, there are countless parents out there “living in little prisons”—feeling trapped, isolated, and ashamed of their child’s defiant or out of control behavior. If you’re in this situation, James has a message for you: you aren’t your child’s problem—you are the solution.

Q: James, in a recent article in EP, you said “I don’t think parents are the problem—I think they’re the solution.” That really resonated with a lot of our readers. Can you explain what you mean by that a bit more?

J: Parents of acting-out kids are often perceived as being the problem—or that they’ve created their “problem child”. I think when parents are labeled this way, it becomes extremely discouraging for them. They’re out there trying their best and looking for answers, but they’re being told that their child’s behavior is their entire fault. The attitude of many professionals today is also that parents are the reason children behave inappropriately—and that the parents aren’t committed to helping their kids change. In my experience, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

By the way, while it can’t be denied that some parents out there are abusive or neglectful, I’m focusing on the “good enough” parents in this article. “Good enough” parents provide for their children and try their best to keep their kids safe. They are trying to raise their children the best they can, even if their methods aren’t always effective. I personally think parents who are trying their best should not be blamed for their child’s acting-out behavior—they need training, not blame. And it’s not only that they need help, they need the right kind of help. If we put half the resources into training parents that we do into family therapy, I think we’d see some real change.

Parents are out there trying their best and looking for answers, but they’re being told that their child’s behavior is all their fault.

Q: So you don’t think it’s the parents’ fault that their children behave the way they do?

J: Let’s face it, blaming people never gets anybody anywhere. Of course we influence our children, but personally I think there is every reason to believe that our kids also shape our behavior.

Let me break it down for you. If you have an acting-out child, you might react to him in a variety of ways. Let’s say you try to reason with your child, but he throws a tantrum—and doesn’t learn more appropriate ways of behaving as he develops. Or maybe when you go to hug him he pushes you away. Later, when you attempt to set limits on him, he calls you foul names. As he gets older, if a given situation isn’t going the way he likes, he breaks things or hits his siblings—or you. And when he’s asked to account for himself he usually blames you or some other person, place or thing. Remember, blame is infectious.

Make no mistake, a family in that situation is going to treat this child in a certain way. And while to outsiders it may look like the parents are triggering the inappropriate behavior, it’s actually the child who has shaped theirs.
By the way, I’ve talked in other articles in Empowering Parents about how children blackmail their parents into giving in. Often, for example, you’ll see families with parents who appear to be too tolerant or passive. But sometimes their child has trained them through years of acting out and aggressive behavior. And what he’s taught them is not to demand or expect a lot from him. The inherent threat is “if you try to set limits on me, I’ll act out—and you’ll be sorry.”

Q: Why do you think other people, and especially professionals, tend to blame the parents?

J: I think it’s often easy for them—and other people outside the family—to paint with too broad a brush. People look at the family of an acting-out, defiant child and tend to criticize the parents. And frankly, I think it’s easier to blame parents who use ineffective strategies with their children instead of taking the time to educate them about more effective ways to manage their child.

It’s a lot easier to blame parents than it is to change children. In my opinion, it’s important to understand that there are ineffective parenting strategies, but there are also effective ones that can be learned. Unfortunately, most parents are referred to family therapy before they’re ever referred to parent training. When they show up, they’re often treated as if they are “guilty until proven innocent” instead of the other way around. This is because many therapists are trained to validate that there’s something wrong with the family.

Q: What happens when the parents are blamed for their child’s behavior?

J: When you’re a parent in that situation, it’s very easy to feel attacked. You feel like there’s a suspicion that you’ve done something wrong, and that your mistakes are causing your child to have problems. Compounding that, many parents feel somewhat guilty about their kid’s behavior because they don’t know what went wrong. It’s easy for them to fall into the trap of blaming themselves.

Parents also tend to get discouraged and distrustful. And in addition to professionals, families are often told by other family members, teachers and people in their community that they’re not doing right by their kids.

If you’re a parent stuck in this situation, it’s easy to look out your window and see your neighbors’ kids playing nicely with each other while your child can’t play with other kids. It’s very easy to get the sense that people think you’re the problem. Many parents of acting-out kids carry a lot of guilt around with them—they immediately assume their child’s behavior is their fault. Then when they try to get help for it, what they often get is more blame. Or sometimes, just as bad, parents might assume their child’s behavior is the fault of someone else. I try to tell them that blame does no one any good. Rather, the important questions to ask are, “Who is taking responsibility for this child?” and “What are you willing to change in order to accomplish that?”

The first place they go for help is usually to their own families. Sadly, if they get blamed there, they will often try to keep their problem a secret; they won’t ask for help in other arenas. Many parents experience a certain amount of shame over their acting-out child.

Q: Parents do experience shame over this, but why is that?

J: The ideal in our society is children who behave. The formula is the following: if you’re the right kind of parent, your child will be well-behaved. Of course, I think that there’s another formula for parenting which I mentioned earlier called the “good enough” parent. They’re not being abusive or neglectful, they provide for their children, but they may not be using effective techniques to solve their kid’s problems. They might be doing things they learned from their own parents or that they saw on a talk show.

Sometimes parents might simply be following their own instincts, but that information can be ineffective with certain kids. Why is that? This is because we’re talking about a 21st century child with 21st century problems. It’s simply a different time, and it’s also a much more difficult time to be a parent as well as a child. Let’s look at the demands that parents are under. First of all, they’re under a lot more economic stress and anxiety. In most families today, both parents have to work to stay above water, and sometimes each parent has more than one job. And this stress affects a parent’s ability to function and to act. Children and adolescents are also under more stress, and they have more ways of rebelling than ever before. Many parents are simply overwhelmed.

I think helping parents find solutions and teaching them problem-solving skills is the most effective thing we can do. I believe that parents who feel like they are under suspicion of being “bad parents” are often going to be very defensive. They won’t be open to new ideas or to learning new things. They feel like they have something to prove—what they’re trying to prove is that they’re not bad parents.

Q: James, how would you help parents in this situation?

J: I try to distinguish the difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is not helpful, ever. And the people who are showing up and trying to find ways to help their child are taking responsibility.

In my own life, I grew up with three brothers. We all had the same parents, but I was out of control. My siblings were pretty well-behaved kids all the way through high school and into adult life. Even though we had the same parents, there were very different outcomes in terms of our behavior. My parents were “good enough” parents, and it showed. Unfortunately I had special needs and there was no one around to show them how to manage me.

I also understand that parents of acting-out kids have a more challenging time of raising their children. Everybody knows how to handle a child who doesn’t have behavior problems. So I think if ineffective parenting contributed to the behavior problems that a child has, it just makes sense to me that effective parent training will contribute to positive change: not blaming, pointing the finger, or arm-chair diagnosing.

Q: So why are parents the solution, in your opinion?

J: I think parents are the solution because they spend the most time with their children; they create the environment their children live in. They are the primary role models because their children spend the most time with them. The family is the center of a child’s life. I believe that if parents get the proper training on how to be more effective, and they’re willing to use those techniques, then they’re going to have children who can solve their developmental life problems effectively.

I also think parents are the solution because they love their kids. They have the most invested in their children because they are going to be related to them for the rest of their lives. So they are the most motivated to help their child change his behavior. I used to tell parents, “If we do these things now, maybe your child can avoid getting into further trouble. But if he continues the way he’s going, you’re going to be the ones visiting him in prison, lending him money because he won’t get a job, or raising his kids because he’s either too irresponsible or addicted to raise them himself.”

The good news is that once parents have techniques to use in their home, they can use them all the time. And I absolutely believe if parents work on having a more effective parenting role in their child’s life—to not be a Martyr, an Excuse-maker, or an Over-negotiator—it’s more likely that things will change for the better in their family.

If you’re the parent of an acting-out child, ask yourself, “What do I want to see change and how can I make that change occur?” And then be honest with yourself when you look for answers. I believe that’s the first step toward creating positive change in your child’s—and your family’s—life.


“Parents Aren’t the Problem—They’re the Solution” reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Children Using Anger Tantrums Outbursts To Manipulate Parents

“Anger with an Angle”: Is Your Child Using Anger to Control You?


Anger with an Angle: Is Your Child Using Anger to Control You?Have your child’s angry outbursts worn you down so much that you’ve simply learned to give in? You should know that this is not a phase or a behavior that will “just go away on its own.” Read on to discover 5 things you can do to stop your child from using “Anger with an Angle” today.

Anger is a fact of life. Everyone gets angry, including kids—they get frustrated and disappointed just like adults do. The goal for children as they mature is to learn ways to manage their anger or, as I like to say, “Solve the problem of anger.” That’s because anger is a problem—it’s not just a feeling. And like many other problems, kids solve it in different ways. Some learn to solve the problem of anger by developing skills like communication and compromise, while other kids deal with it by becoming more defiant and engaging in power struggles.

You will soon see your child’s behavior escalate until you give in. That’s when anger and acting out do become premeditated.

As children grow up, most learn to manage their anger. Each time they experience new situations, they begin to draw on the skills they learned previously. Most kids learn that temper tantrums don’t work—that yelling will not help their situation and that hurting someone or breaking something will cause them more trouble in the long run. But other kids go a whole different direction and practice a thing I call “Anger with an Angle.” They learn at a very early age that if they get angry and act out—or threaten to do so—the people around them will give in. In effect, they’ve learned how to blackmail their parents to give them what they want.

If you were an outsider observing a child who uses “Anger with an Angle” you’d see him look as if he’s losing control. But what’s really going on is that this child is getting more and more control over his parents. He looks like he’s losing control, when in fact, he’s gaining control. And that’s the dangerous thing. The fact is, a child’s behavior won’t change until he’s not able to get power from it anymore. And certainly for a kid, control is power. As long as he gets power from that behavior, he’s going to continue to act out.

How “Anger with an Angle” Develops
As an infant, a child’s behavior is certainly not premeditated. But as kids develop, if they see that they get their way by throwing a tantrum or threatening to get angry, they will keep doing it until they’ve trained their parents to give them what they want. And many times, parents don’t recognize what’s happening. It’s a natural progression that leaves families frustrated and overwhelmed by the time their child hits elementary school.

If you’re in this situation with your child, you will soon see his behavior escalate until you give in. That’s when anger and acting out do become premeditated.

When your child is using “Anger with an Angle,” he’ll look like he’s going to take you right to the brink. He’ll act like he’s going to throw a temper tantrum in the store. And then you have a choice: deal with that temper tantrum or buy him a candy bar. Most parents buy the candy bar, which increases the probability this behavior will occur again. I understand why parents give in. They reason, “Well, it’s only a candy bar.” And I agree: I’ve got nothing against buying things for kids. But the bottom line is, how does your child go about getting that candy bar or comic book? Does he earn it with good behavior or buy it with his own allowance money? Or does he intimidate and bully you into giving in to him? If he’s doing the latter, you will probably see him act out in restaurants and other public places as well when he doesn’t get his way. At home, he will threaten to have a tantrum or lose his temper to get more power over you. This is “Anger with an Angle.” Make no mistake, kids use it to solve their social problems and dictate to their parents.

By the way, you’ll often see a child who uses Anger with an Angle go to school and do the same thing. That’s because this has become his primary way of dealing with problems. You’ll see him play brinkmanship; he’ll continually take all the adults in his life to the edge; it becomes his main coping skill. And when that doesn’t work, he’ll just act out. In this way, he keeps the threat of blackmail alive.

In my experience working with families, this problem just keeps getting bigger and more explosive as kids grow up. And by the way, some kids use “Anger with an Angle” by shutting down. For example, your teenage daughter may stop talking to you until you give in to her demands. If you give her what she wants, this ultimately gives her more control. Either way, if you let your child’s behavior control the situation instead of following your own parenting values, then you’re going to have a serious problem both now and as your child gets older.

How to Stop Giving in to “Anger with an Angle”
If your child has been using “Anger with an Angle” in your family, I think you and your spouse have to come up with a clearly defined plan of how you’re going to deal with this behavior. That plan has to include teaching your child other ways to solve the problem of anger besides intimidating you or misbehaving. The plan should also include how you will teach him other ways to solve the problem of not getting his way instead of manipulating you and taking it out on you and other family members.

I think that people have to deal with acting-out behavior in an organized way. You need to take away the power associated with the threat of your child acting out. Know that whether he acts out in the supermarket, your living room or a restaurant, you can learn a way to deal with that. Here are some of the things I recommend you do when your child is employing “Anger with an Angle” in your family.

1. When Your Child Threatens to Act Out, Ask Yourself This Question
As a parent, learn to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen if my child acts out?” If you determine that you can live with whatever happens, then you can move on to the next step. So ask yourself, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen if my child acts out in the supermarket?” Insulate yourself from real risk. If the worst that could happen is your child will run onto the highway, that’s too much to risk for that situation. But if the worst that can happen is that he’ll lie on the floor and kick his feet, let him go at it. I always recommend that parents bring a magazine or a book with them when they take their child in public. Have a seat and let your child scream away. It may be embarrassing for those few minutes it’s happening, but your indifference will eventually teach your child that his acting-out behavior does not control you any longer.

2. Decide What You’ll Do Ahead of Time: If your child frequently acts out in public or at home, plan what you’ll do before the anger and intimidation start. Will you leave the room, or tell him that he’ll have consequences for his behavior? Decide what you’ll do ahead of time. Try your best to speak clearly and calmly when your child is having a tantrum. Do not get into a power struggle with your child over whatever it is he’s trying to use anger to accomplish.

3. The Aftermath: Talk to Your Child about What Happened: After the incident, briefly discuss what happened with your child so he can learn skills that will help him deal with the situation differently next time. If you don’t do this, know that his behavior is not going to become extinct on its own. In most cases, it builds on itself over time. Remember, every time your child acts out over something he wants, a couple of things are happening.

  • He’s not learning to deal with his own urges.
  • He’s not learning how to manage immediate gratification.
  • He’s not learning how to get something appropriately if he wants it.
  • Acting out becomes his only problem-solving skill—his only way of getting things.

So always ask yourself, “What is my child learning, and what do I need to teach him to do differently?”

4. The Game-changer: After the incident is over, you have to sit down with your child and say, “You got really angry there and I understand why. You wanted a candy bar and I wouldn’t get it for you. But that behavior only got you into trouble. Next time we’re in the store and you want something and I tell you ‘no,’ what can you do differently besides throwing a temper tantrum or yelling at me that won’t get you into trouble?”

Your child doesn’t need to learn to understand his feelings; he needs to learn that when he gets angry, he makes choices. From now on, he has to learn how to make more choices that are positive. He also needs to learn ways of behaving that don’t get him into trouble.

5. Should You Give Consequences for Losing Control? The first thing you have to determine is whether your child is actually losing control or if he’s simply giving you cues and signs as a warning to give in to him. If the latter is the case, consequences are very much indicated. Many people will tell you not to give your child a consequence for acting out of control or throwing a tantrum. They reason that if the child loses control he shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions since he’s not actually making choices.

In my opinion, if your child loses control once or twice, you may want to hold off on consequences. But if losing control becomes a pattern–if this is how he deals with things on a regular basis—I think there should definitely be a consequence. His behavior both inconveniences others and might even put your child or others in danger. Let’s say you’re supposed to be getting home to your other kids, but your child is acting out at the mall, so you have to call a neighbor to run to your house. Your child’s behavior has now put everyone else at risk. If your child acts out in the car, he puts you and everyone else there in danger. I think there should absolutely be consequences for that behavior. Don’t pussyfoot around and let your child off the hook with “Oh, he lost control.” That’s exactly how he’s working you. His angle is, “I lost control—I couldn’t help it.” Many parents get suckered in by that excuse. But I would tell you that if this acting out happens more than once in a while, your child should be held accountable and there should be consequences.

6. What is Your Parenting Style? Let’s go back to the supermarket example. You see your child start to deteriorate—what do you do? When you use the Coaching style of parenting, you’d say something like, “Remember, we talked about this and you told me that the next time you were upset at the store, you would go over and read magazines until you calmed down.” Your child may not do it, but keep coaching him. Eventually, he’s going to respond appropriately. Believe me, behaviors for which people are held accountable and receive consequences tend to diminish over time. Conversely, behaviors that are rewarded tend to increase. It’s just that simple: if you reward the acting out or the threat of the tantrum, it’s never going to go away.

A child who’s blackmailing you with temper tantrums over a candy bar in the supermarket today is the same kid who’s going to stay out all night when he doesn’t get his way. And sadly, you won’t be able to stop him. The next time he says, “Well, if you let me stay out until midnight, I won’t have to stay out all night,” you’ll give in because you’re scared of what might happen if you don’t compromise. But again, I think you have to decide: “What’s the worst that could happen if I don’t let my child manipulate me?” Will your child’s behavior escalate when you start to deal with it? Yes, it will. But I think the more guidance and support you have, the better you’ll be able to manage.

Believe me, if your child isn’t taught these all-important problem-solving skills when he’s young, he’s at a higher risk of spending his adult life going from medication to medication, or maybe getting into some kind of social/criminal trouble. If he’s lucky, he might come to grips with his self-defeating strategies and his lack of appropriate problem-solving skills through some sort of educational or therapeutic process. This usually occurs after many failures and disappointments. As a parent, I want you to know that you have the power to help him face his problems now.


“Anger with an Angle”: Is Your Child Using Anger to Control You? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: What To Do When You Can’t Stand Your Kids Anymore

“I Love My Child…But Sometimes I Can’t Stand Him!”


I Love My Child...But Sometimes I Cant Stand Him!You’d do anything for your child, but you feel guilty about admitting the truth, even to yourself—sometimes you don’t like him very much. It’s a secret that many parents of acting-out kids share, but rarely confess to anyone. James Lehman explains how dealing with a difficult child can take its toll on the parent-child relationship, and he gives you some practical advice on how to handle it.

Not liking your child’s behavior is very different from not liking him as a person.

When parents say they don’t like their child, I think that dislike almost always stems from their child’s inappropriate behavior. These parents are understandably frustrated because they’re tired of the constant backtalk, yelling and arguing. Or they might not like the way their child treats them, their siblings, or their teachers at school. And personally, I can really understand that. This article is directed toward those parents.

I think there are also periods of time when parents don’t like their child because of a certain stage their son or daughter might be going through—adolescence, for example. As a father, I experienced this myself. When my son was eight or nine, he was a pretty good kid most of the time. I really liked being around him, and I couldn’t imagine him ever leaving home, with all the unpredictability and risks that were involved. But by the time he was in his mid-teens, I disliked his behavior so much that I was ready for him to go.

A child’s individuation process (the time, usually during adolescence, when kids are forming their identities) almost always includes breaking away from their family. Sometimes that translates into obnoxious, annoying or self-involved behavior on the part of teenagers. And because the parent-child bond is so strong, that individuation process often becomes very strained and stressed for everyone as time goes on. For adolescents with unstable behavior, it can even become destructive or violent.

Another important part of this separation process is that the parent learns to let go—eventually, they want to push the child out into the world. They get tired of having this strong-willed, opinionated person in the house, making demands and arguing with them all the time. When their kids are in their late teens, many parents want them to go to college, find a job, move out, or rent an apartment with a friend. And I think that’s completely natural—it’s all part of your child growing up and starting a life of his own, even if it’s painful at times. It also helps the parents complete the parent/child part of the relationship and begin the parent/adult child relationship. These transitions are rarely without friction.

Do You Dislike Your Child—or Do You Dislike His Behavior?
Here’s an important distinction I’d like to make again: not liking your child’s behavior is very different from not liking him as a person. That’s hard to define for a lot of parents, because a child’s behavior becomes part of his personality in some ways. In fact, you often can’t see where he ends and the behavior begins. And it’s not only his behavior—he also might be using his personality to confront, attack or demean you. Physically, you also associate him with his personality: the words are coming out of your child’s mouth, after all. You can see the nasty look on your daughter’s face; you can hear the rude tone in your son’s voice. It’s easy to get frustrated and annoyed with those behaviors, and it becomes easy not to like the child who’s performing them.

A lot of my direction for parents is to not take this personally. Although this often feels like a personal attack upon you, it’s actually driven by other forces such as your child’s fears, frustrations, and the need to develop their own identity. Try not to fight it. No matter how hard it may be at times, I think the point is to avoid screaming at your child and getting into conflicts and unnecessary power struggles. Parents often take that kind of behavior personally, but remember, there are irresistible developmental forces taking place here, for both the parent and the child.

When You Can’t Stand Your Kid…
I think it’s important to realize that sometimes kids can be a pain in the neck, just like the rest of us. As parents of teens know, that behavior gets even more intense when children go through adolescence. The good news is that when your kids aren’t being pleasant and you feel yourself getting angry, there are effective ways to avoid taking their behavior personally.

  • Flip the Script:

One of the things I try to teach parents is to talk more positively to themselves. This may sound simplistic, but think of it this way: we all talk to ourselves all the time, because we think in words—and perhaps too much of the time, we think in negative words. Let’s say you’re driving home from work and you’re about to see your teenager. You’re saying, “I hope he’s not going to start up again today. I’m so sick of his attitude.” Or, “I don’t want to hear about my daughter’s boyfriend anymore; I can’t deal with her moodiness all the time.” Here’s the truth: If you’re talking to yourself negatively on the way home, you’re feeding into the problem. Instead, I recommend that you say things like, “What can I do differently so we won’t get into an argument as soon as I walk in the door tonight?” In other words, think more about the solution, and less about the problem. Talk to yourself about the skills you can bring to the situation.

One of the things I recommend to parents who work is to have the following rule with their kids: For the first ten minutes you are home, your kids should leave you alone. That way, you have enough time to go up to your bedroom, change your clothes, and get your head ready for parenting your children at night. Transitions, and by that I mean going from work to home or school to home, are difficult for both adults and children. Try to organize your time so that you’re taking that into account.

  • Stop Comparing Your Insides with Other People’s Outsides

You may feel like people are looking at you and judging your parenting as inadequate when your child’s behavior is inappropriate. All of us hate being judged—all of us. And even if we deal with it effectively, that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem—it’s just that we don’t take it personally anymore.

If your child is acting out, you might have tried to tell your parents, other relatives or friends about it in the beginning. But if this is a persistent problem, most people eventually get tired of talking about it. Even family members and friends can be very judgmental and critical. And when they are, it’s easy to experience that judgment as shame and guilt—you may feel as if others don’t see you as a good parent. It also doesn’t help that you’re experiencing doubt about your own parenting techniques, because they don’t seem to be working. And then whenever your child behaves inappropriately in front of those people, you re-feel that sense of shame. Those are heavy, powerful feelings, and many parents wind up resenting kids who behave inappropriately because of them.

What I always tell parents is, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” So don’t compare the inside of your house with the outsides of other people’s houses—or the inside of your family with the outsides of other people’s families. Other parents in your community might look like they’re doing well and getting along. But you have to understand that from the outside, you may look good, too. The perception of your family might be that things are under control and everything’s rolling right along in your home, even though on the inside you have problems you’re having difficulty managing. So other people are looking at your outside, you’re looking at their outside, and everybody thinks everybody else is okay—but nobody knows the real truth unless they’ve lived it. This is also true on a personal level: comparing your emotional insides to other people’s physical outsides will only give you a skewed impression of what’s happening—and usually only makes you feel worse about your own situation. Don’t do it.

This is also one of the patterns that give adolescents so much trouble. They compare their insides to their classmates’ outsides—and the other kids may look like they’re popular and as if they fit in. This can cause your child a lot of distress.

My Child’s Inappropriate Behavior Embarrasses Me—What Should I Do?
I worked with a lot of parents who stopped taking their child to relatives’ or friends’ houses. This was because their child would act out in front of the relatives, and the parents simply didn’t want to hear it from their families and friends anymore. So they wound up giving in and letting their child stay home or go to a friend’s house because he behaved so inappropriately when they forced him to go anywhere. By the way, I’m not saying that finding an alternative place for your child to go is a bad tactic, depending upon his age and level of functioning. If your child is old enough to stay on his own and is stable, there’s nothing wrong with letting him stay home or go to a friend’s house if you take some safety precautions.

On the other hand, there are parents who believe their kids need to go with them to relatives’ and friends’ houses. And I understand that philosophy as well. Here are some things you can do to increase the chances that your child will behave when you take him somewhere:

Motivate Your Child to Practice Good Behavior: If you want your child to accompany you to a relative’s house but you’ve had trouble in the past, you can try the following things.

Tell your child you want to reward him for doing something that’s hard for him, like going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Two things are critical here: first, have your expectations for how you want your child to respond be both simple and clear. I suggest parents have an index card with three or four sentences on it. Each sentence should describe how you want your child to handle something. The card might read something like this:

  • Respond to first request.
  • Take a time-out when you need it.
  • Ask Mom or Dad for help if you’re having a problem.

As you go over these three sentences with your child, describe what they mean. For instance, “Respond to first request: I don’t want to hear backtalk from you when I ask you to do something.” Or “If you feel like you need one, just take a time-out for a minute or two.” Hopefully, you have developed things your child can do in time-outs that help calm him down. You should also discuss where he can take a time-out at Grandma’s house, so he knows where he can go. And finally, if he finds himself starting to escalate or if he has a problem while you’re there, tell him to come to you and say, “Mom, can I talk to you for a minute?” All these things are now in play before you leave.

The second thing parents need to know is that the reward you offer your child for behaving appropriately should be immediate and in a currency your child wants. This might mean renting a movie that he gets to choose, or getting an ice cream cone on the way home. But it should be something that is real to your child and something he might be willing to work for.

Of course, this isn’t appropriate for kids of all age groups. But as children reach the age of five or six years old, these ideas can be introduced. These concepts may not work the first or second time, but they give you a direction to move in. Remember, we have two goals with kids at any time: the first is to get to bed tonight without a crisis, and the second is for them to learn problem-solving and coping skills over the long term. Tools like these can help achieve both goals.

Kids who resist and refuse to act appropriately may be oppositional and defiant. And again, it’s easy not to like those kids. Most therapists will tell you that a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder is one of the hardest kinds of kids to work with. First they won’t talk to you, then they lie, then they’re abusive, then they’re negative, then they blame everybody else for their problems. These are tough kids, and they’re tough to like. Sometimes they’re tough to love, too.

But I’ve found that most parents do love their children, even if they don’t always like their behavior. The way parents express that love is by taking care of their children, by being responsible, and by not being abusive. They also show love when they try to give their kids the tools they need to be able to function and perform successfully and find some happiness in this world when they attain adulthood.

I think if you’re resentful of your child’s behavior, you can get help. After all, you have a much better chance of improving the situation if you find some true insight and receive effective coaching on how to manage your child. And don’t be afraid to ask others for help—or to ask how they deal with their families.

Remember, unless your child has severe behavioral problems, being argumentative and annoying—especially during adolescence—is usually a developmental phase they’re going through. Don’t get me wrong, it’s often a long phase and a difficult one. Sometimes kids don’t gravitate back to their parents until they reach their mid-twenties, or even until they start to raise families of their own. But in my experience, most of the time parents and kids are eventually able to find a way to have a good relationship again—especially if the parent is willing to put in the time to help their child change their behavior now, when it counts.


“I Love My Child…But Sometimes I Can’t Stand Him!” reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Parenting Facts And Myths

5 Parenting Rules That Don’t Work: How to Separate Fact from Fiction


5 Parenting Rules That Dont Work: How to Separate Fact from FictionEven before you become a parent, you start forming ideas about how you’ll raise your child. You get advice about it from all sides—your own parents and family, your friends, and books by so-called experts tell you “the rules” of good parenting. But most people soon find out that some of these techniques are simply fads—and many of them don’t work at all. Read on to see what James Lehman thinks are the top five most ineffective parenting concepts out there.

“The goal is not for our children to understand why they feel a certain way; the goal is for them to understand how they can behave no matter what they feel…”

1. “If you build up your child’s self-esteem, he’ll behave better.”
The theory today seems to be that if you can make your child feel good about himself, then somehow his behavior is going to change. I can’t tell you how many families I’ve worked with who’ve learned that this is a complete fallacy. Make no mistake, kids don’t feel their way to better behavior. But they can behave their way to better feelings.

Self-esteem and self-respect come from doing things that you can esteem and that you can respect. Self-esteem also comes from doing things that are hard for you. Look at it this way: if your child’s school is trying to build your child up by giving him high marks on work that’s mediocre or that’s too easy for him, do you really think your child is fooled? Soon he starts to think he can coast through school—and life. What’s worse, on the inside, he’s thinking, “No one expects much of me. That must mean I really am stupid.” So the intervention for the self-esteem issue—the rewards he’s given to feel better about himself—often have the exact opposite effect.

I think rewards have to be based on realistic actions that are performed by your child. If you use a star chart with your younger child, for example, there should be categories on it that are realistic for him—and by that I mean behaviors that are observable and performable. So “Respond to First Requests” is a lot better than “Have a Good Attitude.” Being specific with kids gives them a real chance to perform well.

It’s also very important for parents to understand that in order to get kids to develop their self-esteem, what they have to learn how to do is solve problems and function.

Consider this scenario: Let’s say one teen studies math and gets an A on his test. Another child doesn’t study and gets an F on the test and then goes to see his counselor that afternoon. When those two kids come home that night, they are not going to be the same. The teenager who’s going to have the self-esteem is the one who studied—who solved the problem of motivating himself to learn the math problems, even though he would have preferred to watch T.V. He’s going to feel like he made an effort and it paid off. But the child who failed the test because he didn’t study won’t feel better in the long run, even though he went to a counselor and talked about his feelings. He may feel better for a time after his session, but if he doesn’t change his behavior and do his homework, he’s going to feel just as bad the next time he fails a test. Talking to a counselor about your feelings may help your mood improve in the short term, but it won’t make you do any better. For that, you have to do the work.

If you want kids to have self-esteem, teach them how to solve problems, teach them how to perform. You can start with little tasks and then help them build their way up to bigger ones. Make no mistake about it; self-esteem comes from doing estimable acts; self-respect comes from doing respectable acts. If somebody isn’t performing those acts, they’re never going to have self-esteem.

2. “When your child gets upset, angry or hostile and acts out, talk about his feelings with him.”
When a child gets angry and acts out, many parents’ first reaction is to ask their child why he’s upset. They reason that if their child understands his feelings, he’ll be able to control his behavior better.

In my opinion, this is a misleading belief. Yes, we need to talk with kids about their feelings sometimes, and we need to discuss what makes them angry or upset. But often children—and I’m including younger kids, pre-adolescents and teenagers here—are not good at reflecting about their feelings. So whenever an adult sits down and says, “Well, how did that feel? Why did you do that?” you can see a child shutting down. I think one of the main reasons is because the child really doesn’t know how he feels. He’s upset, he’s angry, he doesn’t like something, or he thinks something isn’t fair. He has thoughts which justify his behavior and feelings. So he says, “I’m angry because it’s not fair. You let Tyler do it and you wouldn’t let me.” He becomes adept at blaming others for his behavior.

By the way, if you have a child who can process emotions and talk about them, that’s great. But in my experience, most kids can’t—and especially children who have problems with functioning and behavior. Those kids really need to be taught about their feelings, not asked about them. I think it’s much better to teach kids how they act when they feel a certain way. So instead of saying “Why are you angry, Connor?” you can say, “Let’s look at what you do when you get angry, Connor.” The truth is, understanding why you’re angry doesn’t really help if, as a result of your anger, you are disrespectful, abusive or destructive.

Remember, the goal is not for our children to understand why they feel a certain way; the goal is for them to understand how they can behave no matter what they feel—even when they think something’s not fair.

3. “Kids with performance or behavior problems need different rules—and should be held to different standards.”
It’s very tempting for many parents to go a little easy on the rules—or to try and get the school to bend the rules so their kids with behavioral problems or learning disabilities have fewer problems. Parents see that as a way out. So if Sam is allowed to curse every now and then in class and is not given a detention if he slips up, that’s okay because “Sam has a hard time with that.” And if he’s verbally abusive around the house, there’s more flexibility for him than there will be for his siblings.

The problem is that when your child gets older and his special education or therapeutic support ends (in many states that occurs when kids reach the age of 18), he will be in the same starting gate with all the other kids his age. And when that gate opens, he’ll be out there in the race. Make no mistake, if he can’t perform, he’s simply going to fall behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I well understand that not everybody is given the same academic proficiency in life. I have a son with learning disabilities and math proved to be a very hard subject for him. But here’s the truth: regardless of academic ability, everybody has to have the same proficiency in following cultural norms and meeting behavioral and performance expectations. So after high school graduation, one kid might go work at Home Depot and one might go to college, but they both have to be able to respond appropriately to authority, speak respectfully to other people, and manage their emotions effectively. They both have to solve the problems that people deal with every day when they interact with others and do it in a way that doesn’t make them strike out or become self-destructive. That’s all there is to it.

The problem is that kids with special needs may have different academic expectations, but their social expectations have to remain the same. And if they don’t learn how to behave appropriately now, it will be almost impossible for them later, when they’ve reached adulthood.

I know it’s a very hard thing to do, but kids—even those with learning or behavioral problems—need to follow certain standards of behavior. As a parent, you have to learn how to hold your child accountable, even when he’s having a hard time. If you can do this, later on when he’s an adult, he’ll be able to take responsibility for himself instead of blaming everyone else for his problems and looking for an easy way out.

4. “Severe adolescent phases are a part of life. They’ll pass.”
Adolescents sometimes experiment with dangerous things. And for some teens, this phase does pass. In my experience, for many, many other adolescents, it does not. Go to any college and look at the amount of substance abuse going on and you’ll see what I mean.

One mistake parents make is to rationalize this behavior. So they say, both to themselves and to their child, “Oh, it’s not a big deal—every teenager drinks or experiments with pot at some point.” Realize that if you tell your child, “Every kid does it, and so did I,” you’ve just given him permission to do it, too.

The bottom line is that these aren’t just adolescent phases for many kids. These are things they try—but then they get stuck there. Sometimes it’s aggressive behavior—some teens and pre-teens get into feeling powerful and throwing their weight around. But make no bones about it: violent, verbally abusive, destructive adolescents become violent, verbally abusive, destructive adults unless some strong intervention takes place. Violence is not a phase.

I believe this behavior is often a response to the tremendous amount of stress or frustration that adolescents experience. You have to understand that these kinds of feelings will just intensify as your teen transitions into adulthood. If your 13-year-old son can’t get along with his kid sister without pushing or hitting her now, or if he can’t get along with you without screaming and yelling and breaking things, what do you think is going to happen under the intense pressures of a marriage or a job?

Substance abuse is another example of adolescent behavior that doesn’t go away on its own. People often say that kids “experiment” with drugs. I love the word experiment: I picture a kid with a white coat and a rat in the basement smoking pot. Unless he’s a doctor or a lab tech, he’s not experimenting—he’s using drugs. Alcohol consumption is also very risky for kids. Adults may think of alcohol as a social lubricant, but for kids who are under a tremendous amount of stress or anxiety, drinking or getting high gives them relief—and that’s a very dangerous thing. It becomes seductive, and it’s extremely hard for these kids not to go back for more.

Parents need to be clear that smoking pot, drinking and doing drugs are high-risk activities. Not only are they dangerous because they affect your child’s judgment, they also affect his ability to solve problems.

It’s very important to ask yourself, “What do I want my child to learn?” If you want him to learn that everybody smokes pot and drinks, then tell him that it’s normal. But I think parents should be saying to their kids, “Drug and alcohol use is out. It’s bad for you.” Make it clear from the beginning. In adolescence, there are certain developmental tasks that kids have to learn, like how to deal with anxiety and frustration. If they use drugs and alcohol to avoid learning these tasks, they will pay a price in adulthood. And that price will be that they will not be equipped to deal with these difficult emotions as adults.

5. “To make a punishment work, you have to make it really ‘hurt.’”
I think parents can get stuck in a cycle of trying to “up the ante” when it comes to punishing their kids—in other words, each time their child misbehaves, they feel they need to find a bigger and bigger hammer to deal with it. These parents invariably end up getting frustrated because ultimately, this doesn’t work. Soon they start to feel like there’s nothing they can do to get through to their child.

My experience is that nobody ever changed from being punished. In our society, we punish all the time, but we have a very high re-offense rate, whether it’s speeding on the highway, drug use, or shoplifting. And we have a very high recidivism rate in our prisons. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be punished for these crimes—my point is simply that punishment without learning does not result in better behavior.

Let me put it another way: punishment that does not include learning how to solve the problem appropriately next time—and then being held accountable for your behavior—is not effective. Let’s say your child was nasty with his sister. You tell him he’s grounded for a month—but now he’s just going to do time; he’ll do his month and then go free. What does he learn when this happens? You hope he’ll learn, “If I do that again, I’m going to be grounded for a month.” But the truth is that when he’s upset, he won’t remember that punishment at all. In fact, most kids (and many adults) cannot recall past punishments with enough power to affect current behavior.

Personally, I think consequences should be task-oriented. When your child is given consequences, it should be a learning experience, not a punitive one. I also believe there should be something unpleasant attached to it. For instance, you might decide that your child cannot use the computer until he treats his sister with respect. You can say, “You cannot use your phone until you don’t curse at your sister for 24 hours.” And so the consequences should be task-oriented, not time-oriented—and the time should be connected to the task. You can also build up to longer periods of time. So the first time, he should not curse for 24 hours, then the next time, you can extend it to 48 hours. In other words, you’re getting your child’s self-control to do pushups and get stronger. Although you might even start with one hour, the goal is for him to make it all day without swearing.

Remember, teach your child what his responsibilities are, teach him how to meet them and then hold him accountable if he doesn’t. In the end, whether or not your child has behavioral issues or performance problems, your goal is to teach him how to function successfully in life.


5 Parenting Rules That Don’t Work: How to Separate Fact from Fiction reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”