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How To Parent: Parental Reactions To Children Acting Out

The Ripple Effect of Defiant Behavior: When Parents Pay the Price

The Ripple Effect of Defiant Behavior: When Parents Pay the PriceJames Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation Program, examines the effects of acting out behavior on parents and the family, and reveals how to calm the storm in the home.

Q: A child’s behavior problems can cause disturbances in a family beyond the relationship between the parent and the child, can’t they? I’ve had friends whose marriage suffered when their child started acting out. Is that common?

One of the unseen costs of an acting out kid is all the different ways that the child’s behavior affects the family. Unfortunately, the effects on the family aren’t viewed by society, the courts or the school system as really relevant.

So there’s not a lot of support built in for the family. They’ll determine that the family is “sick,” and then the family has to go to therapy. But I’ve met many families who were feeling the effects of behavior problems, and the family wasn’t sick. The problem was all the repercussions from the kid’s behavior.

Picture what happens when you drop a stone into a pond and you see the ripples. Now picture that stone being dropped in again and again so that the ripples keep expanding and expanding.

A child with behavior problems is like the stone in the pond. Every time he acts out, it’s like another stone being dropped into that pond. The ripples get bigger and more frequent in the family.

He can’t solve problems any other way than acting them out. His main skills are defiance, manipulation and dishonesty, because he doesn’t know any other way to solve his problems or to deal with the realities in his life, which are, admittedly, often very painful. But no matter how painful his problems are, a child still has to take responsibility and learn to solve them.

Marital conflicts emanate from child behavior problems almost always. One parent blames the other. What happens is that parents tend to look at each other through the “window” of the child.

Instead of looking directly at each other, they look at each other through the kid’s behavior. When you’re in pain and uncomfortable and you look at somebody else through that kind of pain and discomfort, it distorts how they look to you.

And it distorts how you feel about them. So you often find one parent blaming another or thinking the other parent isn’t doing it the right way or not doing enough.

When this acting out occurs, it can start to push parents toward the edge of their relationship, testing how strong it is and how solid they are. Ideally you would like to think that it bonds parents together, but it doesn’t happen that way. The behavior tends to split the parents.

Q: And the more split the parents become, the more problems develop in the family around that division. When this is going on, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the chaos in the family. How do you get through that chaos and get to the root of the problem?

What parents need is a process by which they can be unified. I recommend that parents agree on certain principles and look at the actions that come from those principles.

If our principle is, Johnny has to take responsibility for his behavior, then let’s all act that way and not worry about all the other issues that ripple out from that. Johnny has to take responsibility for his behavior, so let’s focus on that one thing.

Let’s teach him problem solving skills. If there is a crisis, let’s handle it responsibly and productively. Responsibly means nobody gets hurt. And productively means that everybody can learn a lesson from it.

Once the family starts to deal with the child’s problem, the problems secondary to his behavior start to settle down. Whether the secondary problems are the parent’s communication, the other children’s safety and behavior or the financial strain that occurs when you have a kid who’s acting out, those things tend to subside, once you focus on the behavior problem.

So parents need to be able to communicate and not look at their relationship through the child. Rather, begin to look at your child through your relationship. See yourselves as a team. Parents find that the behavior calms down when they start working more like a team.

First, because they find the common solution. They find something that works and that’s helping their child.

Second, the family stressors go down. They’re able to deal with the normal stress of taking kids to soccer, taking kids to guitar practice or whatever they normally do. And they’re not dealing with the stressors of crisis, calls from the school, going down to the police station, or trips to the hospital or the emergency room.

When I work with parents and talk to them about being a team, I find they get really in touch with that. They’re eager to find a way to enjoy each other’s company again. Because they realize their kid is like a loaded gun in their midst, firing whenever he wants. And they know that nobody can live peacefully with that.

No marriage can work really strongly when that’s going on, because people are fatigued, angry, frustrated and afraid. The outcome of changing the child’s behavior is that parents communicate better.

They feel better about their marriage and they feel better about themselves. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times, and it can happen for you.

The Ripple Effect of Defiant Behavior: When Parents Pay the Price reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

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: Parents Presenting A United Front

Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting

Good Cop/Bad Cop ParentingIf you and your spouse take opposing roles in dealing with your kids, you’re not alone. Many parents take on the roles of “good cop” and “bad cop” in the family. For instance, Dad is the kid’s best buddy, and mom is the nag. Or dad is strict and mom is a sympathizer.

Which “cop” is right? And should you be a cop at all?

I see two problems with the notion of good cop/bad cop parenting. First, is the very idea that somebody has to be a “cop” all the time. Parents don’t need to be cops. They simply need to be coaches and teachers for their children.

Second, what’s really happening when parents become good cops and bad cops is that the kids have learned to split their parents. The area of the split is where kids go to get out of meeting their responsibilities.

For example, Tommy goes to mom and says, “Dad’s making me clean my room before we go to the mall.” Or he says to mom, “Why do I have to clean my room? Dad doesn’t make me do it.” When your child makes complaints like this, both parents have to be supportive of each other. You have to be able to say, “These are the rules Dad and I both have, and you have to do it or you’re going to be held responsible for the consequences.” Then turn around and walk away. That’s it. Give simple statements of support. The more unified you are as parents, the more likely your child is to complete his responsibilities, because he doesn’t have another way out. The only way out is to act responsibly and do what’s asked of him.

But what if you don’t really agree with what Dad is asking Tommy to do? If you have a problem with a rule or limit your spouse sets or a request that’s being made of your kid, don’t make a face. Don’t sigh. And, by all means, don’t argue with your spouse about the issue in front of the child…or even indicate that you are going to argue. Just tell your child he has to do what’s been asked of him. Then talk with your spouse later, after the kids have gone to bed and out of earshot. This is important, because kids pick up on non-verbal cues from their parents a lot more than you think. If your child sees that you disagree with what’s being asked of him, he’ll bring up the issue again and again, to split you and your spouse and to avoid meeting the responsibility.

Simple statements of support work when you use them consistently. When Tommy complains that Dad won’t let him play Runescape before he does his homework, and you say, “Your father said you can’t play Runescape until you do your homework. That’s the rule,” you can bet Tommy will stop trying to split you and your spouse.

Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

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: Ideas For Divorced Mothers

The Disneyland Daddy

The Disneyland DaddyVicki is the single mother of Alex (12), Ryan (8) and Jessica (6). To make ends meet, she works two jobs—as a receptionist during the week and part-time catering on weekends. She has been divorced from Mike, a supervisor for a building contractor, for two years. Her relationship with Mike is strained at best, hostile at worst.

Mike gets the kids every other weekend and every Wednesday. The kids love going to Dad’s because there are “no rules.” They get to do pretty much whatever they want. Weekends are filled with video games, trips to the mall, pizza and movie outings. And candy. Lots and lots of candy. Wednesday nights are TV nights. The kids never do their homework on Wednesday nights because, after a long day, Mike wants to kick back; he doesn’t want to have to deal with questions about homework. Vicki resents Mike’s free-for-all parenting and calls him “The Disneyland Daddy.”

When Mike drops off the kids at Vicki’s apartment on Sunday night, they are wound up, bubbling about all the things they did with Dad over the weekend and not wanting the fun to end. Within minutes, excitement turns to disrespect, when Vicki asks them to help with chores and get to their homework. They talk back, act out and tune their mother out. Sunday nights with mom turn into screaming matches and tears. The anxiety always spills over into Monday morning, when she has to get the kids out of bed and get to work on time.

In her own words, Vicki’s life is “a wreck.” Her priority is to get the bills paid and provide for her kids. In doing so, she feels she is losing control of them at light speed. How can Vicki get back in control, when her parenting efforts are undone weekly by Mike?

Mike doesn’t have effective parenting skills and tries to make up for it with deep pockets. He’s also perfectly happy that the kids go back to their mother’s and act out because it’s gratifying for him; it’s a way to act out his bad feelings toward his ex-wife. Vicki feels cheated, betrayed and resentful about her income disparity with Mike and for having to carry the whole workload of raising the children.

What they both need to understand is that in divorce situations, kids develop a sort of “extra sensory perception” about statements that reflect resentment, anxiety or jealousy. They already feel caught in the middle between their parents, and this heightened sensitivity to their parents’ words makes it even more so.

Can Vicki stop the disrespect and chaos in her home and can Mike learn to be a responsible, effective parent? Yes. But here’s what has to happen:

  • 1.) Manage your feelings. The hard pill for parents, especially mothers, to swallow, is that they have to manage their feelings of resentment and anxiety. Kids do sense when daddy returns them that mom is resentful. This raises their anxiety and contributes to the acting out. I recommend that mom sit down and talk with the kids when things are going well. Make a plan that when they return home, there should be a half hour transition time, where they just go to their rooms and unwind and unpack and have a snack. They don’t talk about the visit with daddy. They don’t talk about the chores. They don’t do anything. They just unwind. After that half hour of transition time, that’s when she meets with the kids and sets up the structure for the night (homework, chores and TV time before bed) and the week (getting up, getting to school on time).

  • 2.) This mom needs to have a structure in the home with rules and very clear expectations. She needs to establish a culture in the home that says, “You’re accountable to me.” What happens at Dad’s house is irrelevant. Mom needs to say this: “You’re not at your father’s anymore. The rules here are these.” Then turn around and walk away. Mom can establish a structure by saying, “It’s eight o’clock. You need to start getting ready for bed. The clearer that structure is and the more it’s backed up by expectations, responsibilities and accountability, the better the chances the kids will respond to it. The simple fact is this: When the kids come back from Dad’s, they need a structure to come home to.

    3.) Use a reward system. At the same time, mom can set up a reward system. The kids who do their homework on Wednesday nights when they’re at Dad’s get something extra. It doesn’t have to be something that costs a lot of money. It can be extra computer time, extra phone time or staying up half an hour later the night they get back. There’s also a much easier way to get the kids to do their chores. Give them a certain amount of time to complete a task. If they get it done, they get a reward. For example, if Ryan does the dishes within 15 minutes after supper, he gets an extra half hour on the computer that evening. Vicki should set the limits and make it the kids’ responsibility to meet them. Why? Because they can do it. Kids show us this every day. Why do you think they go home and act out, then go to school the next day and behave themselves? It’s because they can manage different environments effectively.

  • 4.) Try to work out a fair arrangement with the other parent. I think the “Disneyland Daddy” in this case needs to be challenged to become a more responsible parent. If these parents are involved in family therapy or counseling, accelerating Mike’s responsibility needs to be part of the structure. I’ve known families who have worked out an arrangement in therapy that if the child is acting out after being at Dad’s house, the father has to come over and help calm him. It puts some responsibility back on the father and discourages him from creating the problem. This can only happen if parents are empowered through the divorce decree and custody arrangement or through regular or court-ordered family therapy. But it’s important for parents in these situations to have that empowerment, so that the family has a structure for the co-parenting task.

The Disneyland Daddy reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

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: Parents Making Excuses For Bad Behaviors

Inappropriate Behavior – Why Parents Dismiss it as a Phase

Inappropriate Behavior - Why Parents Dismiss it as a PhaseQ: Why do parents tend to dismiss inappropriate behavior as “a phase?”

James: When a child is between 18 months and two years old, they’ll start to walk away and say “no” to their parent. The child is practicing a new skill. Parents call it a phase because eventually, the “no” goes away and the child starts to operate within the guidelines of the family. When parents see things they can’t explain, they call it a phase. Parents are very prepared to tolerate phases. But they’re not prepared to tolerate inappropriate behavior. So they label it a “phase” because that makes it easier for them to accept it.

Parents tolerate phases in adolescents in order to accommodate their kids. The sort of phase we’re talking about starts at around age twelve. There’s more testing of authority and testing of limits. You hear, “I just wanna talk to my friends.” “I just wanna stay in my room.” Kids spend more time instant messaging and wanting a cell phone. Parents see this correctly as a phase. And at first, they accommodate this. Most parents who are secure about their parenting will understand this and accept it. We see enough of this in our culture—on TV and in magazines—for parents to understand that this is something adolescents and pre-adolescents go through.

What tends to happen, though, is that some kids start to violate family norms, and parents tend to deny that this is separate from the phase. Saying “This isn’t fair,” and stomping off to your room a couple of times is a phase. Calling your mother filthy names is not. Saying “I only wanna talk to my friends about this. They’re they only ones who understand,” is a phase. Getting high on drugs or alcohol is not.

Q: If the behavior is inappropriate, does it matter whether or not it’s a phase?

James: No, it doesn’t. I think the most important thing parents need to know about phases is it’s important to the child as well as the parent to maintain appropriate standards and boundaries through the phase. So, we set up situations where the child can act out the need for independence or act out the challenge of authority without being destructive, abusive to others or self-abusive. So parents can say, “If you don’t like what’s going on, feel free to go to your room. Feel free to say what you don’t like.” Parents should even accommodate this by giving kids time to say it. I think one of the most effective techniques is to tell your kids that at 7 pm, we’ll sit down and talk about the things you think aren’t fair. And then we’ll go from there. Because then when the kid starts to escalate, you can say, “Save it for seven o’clock.” That way, you have a problem-solving time set aside.

But if the kid starts to call his mother and father all these disrespectful names or call his sister or brother foul, sexual names, I think that’s not a phase. That’s abusive behavior. And it needs to be stopped.

The task of adolescence is individuation. And sometimes adolescents are so uncomfortable with this task that they’ll use hostility and abuse to accomplish that. Parents have to maintain the standards during those times. There’s no excuse for abuse. That’s not a phase. Deal with it as a violation of family rules. Not as a moral issue, not as something to panic about. It’s a violation of family rules, and this is how we have to deal with it. Parents should have clear sets of consequences for this so they can manage it.

Q: How do you know when to address a certain behavior, instead of hoping the child grows out of it?

James: If it’s hurting the person who’s doing it or hurting other family members, people in society, teachers and other students in school, it needs to be addressed. Adolescence is a phase where you start out as a dependent child. It’s called the “latency age, “and you end up as an adult, usually in college. Adolescence doesn’t end with adolescence. That phase of development lasts into the early twenties, and there are different earmarks for the different parts of that phase. For instance: “I can only talk about this with my friends.” “I wanna look hot.” “I’ve gotta look cool.” And then you’ll see a slow shift to the next phase where they want to date and be popular. Then you’ll see a slow shift to the next phase where they individuate themselves from other teenagers. So, at age twelve, it’s me and all teens. At age seventeen, it’s me and my group.

During this period, it’s important for parents to understand that if kids gravitate toward a negative subculture, there’s a problem there. In other words, if kids start hanging out with kids who get high all the time, they’re getting high, and they’ll lie to you about it. But worse than that, they’re seeking a subculture that doesn’t expect anything else out of them, except that they get high. If you hang out with people who play soccer, they expect you to practice. They expect you to stay healthy. They expect you to show up for games. They expect you to be a team player. There’s a cluster of expectations that kids in other groups have. If you’re part of the chess team, there’s an expectation cluster. If you’re part of the honor society, there’s an expectation cluster. If you’re part of a church group, there’s an expectation cluster. When kids gravitate toward groups that don’t have any other expectations for them, except that they’re juvenile delinquents or they shoplift or they get high, parents should take alarm at that.

Q: So, if you’ve got a situation that is violating family norms, what’s the best way to address it with your child?

James: If you want to talk to kids about these things, I think first you want to choose a time when things are going well. Not when they’re going badly. And you want to choose a neutral setting. It shouldn’t be at the dinner table. It shouldn’t be in the kid’s room. It shouldn’t be in your bedroom. Pick some place quiet in the living room, where there aren’t other kids around. Begin by telling your kids what you see. Not what you think or what you feel. What you see. “I see your grades going down. I found cigarette rolling papers in your room. I see that you’re not hanging out with the kids who play soccer anymore, and you used to love soccer. And I’m wondering what’s going on. What do you see?” And ask the kid what they see. That should start a discussion, and it should be an interview format, in which the parent is conducting an interview, not a sharing conversation like they would with one of their friends. This isn’t, “I feel, you feel.” This should be an interview: “This is what I see going on. What’s up?”

The kid may turn away. The kid may say, “None of your business.” The kid may run a lot of excuses. But the parent has to calmly keep the focus on what they’re seeing and what they want to change. And how they can be helpful. Again, the kid may not change, but the parent has planted the seed and met their obligation. And they can have those conversations once or twice a week.

Your kids are going to accept a much wider range of differences than you will as a parent. For a lot of those, you just have to have it established with your kids that these are the rules, and whoever your friends are, this is how you have to behave, and this is what’s appropriate in our home. “You can have friends with nose rings and eye rings, but you’re not going to have any of those. And as long as we don’t have to fight about that, there’s no problem.”

Inappropriate Behavior – Why Parents Dismiss it as a Phase reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

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.”