Suppose your child is 16 and has not learned to cooperate and get along. He does what he
wants, when he wants, where he wants, how he wants, with whom he wants to do it. Use the
following illustration as a case in point as you think about how likely Randy's parents would be
today to get him to cooperate and behave more appropriately.
No one can tell how Randy is going to be from one minute to the next. Sometimes
he is almost nice; but usually he is in a bad mood and hard to get along with. Anything can set
This morning before school is a perfect example. Sue and Bret are coming in from
the bus talking and minding their own business. For no reason, Randy yells, 'Hey stupid!' to Bret
and then says something to Sue only she and Randy hear. Whatever it is, it embarrasses Sue and
Bret says something back to Randy. That is all Randy needs.
It looks like Bret would know to just keep his mouth shut. Everyone knows how
Randy is. We don't want to repeat what Randy says; but he can be heard screaming all over the
When Mr. Richards arrives, Sue is crying. Bret is on the floor holding his head;
and Randy is standing around acting like the whole thing is Bret's fault.
Now imagine that Randy is your child. You need to try to get him to cooperate whether
you think you will succeed or not. What approach will you use?
Some parents take the tough guy approach. They are going to knock some sense into that
boy. Here is how one father fared with the tough guy approach.
Butch shoves clean clothes into his duffel bag and tries to sneak out the hall door
where he can leave by the out side cellar stairs without going through the kitchen. His father is
fed up with him and has grounded him. This time, the crisis has been precipitated by an incident
between Butch and his mother; and Leroy (Butch's father) has, at his wife's urging, stepped in to
handle Butch. There is no way Butch is going to put up with that from either of them. He'll get
out of there however he has to do it.
He almost makes it; but just as he starts to open the hall door to go down to the
cellar, Leroy yells, 'Get your hand off that door. You're not going out of this house. Put down
that bag and get your ass back into your room.'
Butch drops the bag, opens the cellar door, and starts down. Before he is on the
first step, Leroy jerks him back and is between him and his escape. 'Who do you think you are?
If you think you can just waltz out of here, you've got another thing coming to you; and I'm just
the man who can give it to you.'
Butch has grown past six feet tall and is looking down at his father now. Leroy
stretches up to scream louder in Butch's face. Butch reaches for Leroy, for his throat. There is a
hint of panic as Leroy says, 'You keep your hands off me. You just try it and I'll kick your ass all
the way up between your ears. Any day you think you can handle the old man, you just try it.'
Butch's rage is blind. The violence that has been building within him for years is
no longer to be suppressed. He forces his hands under Leroy's arms, lifts him off the floor, and
slams him against the door jam. As Leroy falls, he swings at Butch who catches the blow with his
arm. With blind fury, Butch's fist crashes into Leroy's face once, twice, three times; and Leroy
slumps and staggers back. Butch sees what is happening but does not reach to help as Leroy
tumbles down the cellar stairs.
Can we agree that Leroy's approach did not work out at all well for either him or Butch?
Here is what many parents often miss. The problem is not the outcome. It would not have been
any better if Leroy had knocked Butch down the cellar stairs. The problem was Leroy's tough guy
When Butch was younger and would get into it with his mother, Leroy simply pulled him
up by the scruff of the neck and threw him into his room. When Butch was a little boy, his
mother was strong enough and big enough to get the job done by herself. Back then, Leroy
usually just stood by and watched.
The tough guy approach is never appropriate. Getting children to cooperate and get along
is not a matter of who has the most power or who is bigger and stronger, although that approach
may appear to work for a while. Eventually, the children get older, stronger, smarter, and able to
take care of themselves. If not, they frequently become the victims of someone else who can
abuse and bully them. Either way, the tough guy approach leads to the kids' missing the
opportunity to learn how to successfully resolve conflict, how to behave reasonably and
Signs of serious behavior problems
As you think about these signs of serious behavior problems, do not overlook the good
news. Most kids do not have serious behavior problems. They have better days and worse days;
but on the whole, they are growing and learning fine. Importantly, they are learning to cooperate
and get along without the use of tough guy approaches.
Some children do have serious behavior problems; and for the most part, these kids also
have other serious difficulties. The most common additional difficulty is a serious learning
problem. In fact, it is unusual to see a serious behavior problem in a child who does not have
learning difficulties. If you answer Yes to any of the following questions, your child has or is
developing serious behavior problems. He likely also has other problems needing careful
professional attention. It is unlikely that you can help him with his behavior problems without
working on the other difficulties too. This work always needs to include the participation of a
Does your child;
Frequently pout and become very difficult to live with?
Become nasty and hateful?
Get extremely angry when things do not go his way?
Often scream and yell at people?
Break or damage things?
Intentionally hit or hurt people (or animals)?
Start or get into fights?
Bully and pick on others?
Treat people cruelly?
Refuse to follow parental rules or behave like his parents expect?
Refuse to accept the authority of parents, teachers, or other adults in charge?
Often behave in socially inappropriate ways?
Use or have other involvements with illegal drugs, including alcohol? (Keep in
mind that alcohol is an illegal drug where kids are concerned.)
Have friends who often get into trouble?
Have a reputation for not being someone others can depend on or trust?
Seem not to care if he upsets or hurts people?
Repeatedly get into trouble with the police or courts?
Pouts and becomes very difficult to live with
All children have some way of handling it when they don't get their way. They have their
own ways of reacting when things do not work out as they want. They have ways of dealing with
a world they think is sometimes unfair.
Two of their choices are temper tantrums and pouting. Most children use one or the other
of these once in a while; and if you watch your child, you likely will see that he uses one more
than the other.
Just to be fair, answer this question. 'When you get angry or frustrated, are you more
likely to pout or have a little temper tantrum?' If you do not know or think that you do neither,
ask someone at your home what they think. They will quickly tell you whether you are a pouter
or temper tantrum thrower.
Now, take a minute to think about a child who neither pouts nor has temper tantrums.
This can be much worse than either pouting or temper tantrums because it often means the child
is just accepting whatever happens. Even worse, he has gotten to where he no longer has any
feelings about what happens to him. He does not care or thinks what he feels does not matter.
This would be a very unhealthy place for your child to be both emotionally and interpersonally.
What is your child doing when he pouts? He is angry, frustrated, or upset about
something; but his predominate feeling is anger. He does not talk about it or try to work out his
problem. Instead, he pouts and makes it rough for you and other people who are around him.
Think about what upset him. Maybe what happened was unfair and he really was treated
badly. Either way, his pouting about it is a problem.
Based on your thinking about what might have set off your child's pouting behavior, you
can say, 'I've thought about what happened. We can talk about it if you want to. Here's my
problem right now. You have a right to feel how you feel but pouting about it isn't your best
choice. I think it'd be better if you either got up-and-over it or at least talked about it. It's your
choice. This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to do nothing unless you choose to talk with me
about it. You can pout or talk. It's your choice. If you choose to pout, please do it in your room.'
Now, leave it alone. His only choice is to behave more appropriately or be by himself.
Becomes nasty and hateful
Children get in a bad mood once in a while. Even so, it is not acceptable to take it out on
everyone around. Instead, it is a good opportunity for kids to get better at managing their
thoughts, feelings, and relationships. An approach that is usually fairly difficult but helpful is to
leave your child's bad mood alone at first. You can offer to talk with him about his bad feelings
but should not make any effort to cheer him up. He will be happier when he is happier.
Your objective should be to deal only with your child's hatefulness. It usually comes off
as cutting remarks, putting people down, and being angry. Focus your efforts and energy on
helping him better manage these strong feelings.
As you interact with your child, difficult as it will be, resist any urge to react to his
hatefulness by being hateful and angry with him. Stay calm and do not take your youngster's
hatefulness personally. It probably has little to do with you.
Talk with your child about what is really going on. You can say, 'Here's the real problem.
When you say and do things that are so hateful, it really hurts. Right now, you feel like you are
the one who has been hurt. I know that and so do you. Hurting me and other people isn't your
best choice, though. I'm going to try very hard not to hurt you even if you feel you need to hurt
me. Maybe one of these days, you will not need to take your hurt out on others. Until then, please
think about it. Here's an idea. If you can tell me about what's bothering you, maybe we can figure
out something to help.'
If your child will not talk and persists in being hateful, you might want to try isolating the
youngster. You can have him go to his room or another room of the house until he has thought
about his behavior and is able to interact less hatefully. If he returns in the same mood, send him
back to his room and then talk with him about his behavior before he is permitted to be with
others in the home. If this approach is used, the need to remain calm and non-confrontational is
still present. The temptation is to get angry and to try to force your child to behave better. This
normally will not work and only tends to make matters worse. You first need to set a good
example for him and assertively tell him that his behavior is not acceptable to you.
You are teaching your child better ways to handle his angry feelings. Once you have
control of your personal reactions and emotions, you need to make a point to begin letting him
know when you notice that he is doing better. Over time, his moods, attitudes, and behavior will
change in the direction of the behavior you are modeling for him.
Gets extremely angry when things do not go his way
This is the temper tantrum side of anger and frustration. Children get frustrated and upset
when things do not go their way; and as with most problems, it is a matter of how much. The
problem is not so much your child's reaction itself as it is how angry he gets and how he
expresses his anger.
You need to help your child feel okay about being angry or frustrated; but at the same
time, he needs to manage his anger better. You need to teach him more appropriate ways to
handle his anger and frustration without your getting angry, without your threatening him. The
key is for you to model more appropriate behavior for him.
With preschool children, it is true that ignoring temper tantrums often works. They then
come up with more appropriate ways to let you know how they feel. If tantrums still are their
usual way of managing their anger and frustration by six to seven-years-old, though, they
certainly have developed an effective way to let you know when they are mad; and they have
learned the wrong behavior. Ignoring them is no longer your best choice, were ignoring them
even possible any more.
Whenever you can, avoid dealing with the temper tantrum while it is happening. Doing
anything then only makes matters worse. Tantrums take a lot of energy and can only last about so
long; and your child cannot keep it up forever. Wait calmly until his anger lessens, and it will.
You can then say, 'You've used a tantrum to say something to me. I do (or don't) understand
what you were trying to say. Here's my point. I don't do anything about things when told about
them in such an angry way. Let's try again. If you want to say something to me and want me to do
something about it, tell me more calmly. Help me understand what has you so upset. What do
you want to tell me and what do you want me to do about it?'
It is important to emphasize that you should not try to talk or reason with your child while
he is having the tantrum. Wait until he calms. If necessary, leave the room or have him leave the
room until he settles. Only after he is calmer should you ask about what is so upsetting for him.
Screams and yells at people
Over a week or so, make a note every time anyone in your home screams or yells at
someone. It will be easier for you to help your child if you see that he is not the only one who is
behaving inappropriately. If you have a quiet family, then count the times anyone raises his voice
or talks harshly to someone. This is your family's brand of screaming and yelling.
The activity will help you see that the specific child's behavior is inappropriate only by
degrees. He yells and screams too loudly, too much, too long, and at the wrong times. He over
does it. That is what his problem actually is.
Start your helping process by being sure that no one yells and screams at your child when
he yells at someone. Each person in your family needs to take responsibility for how he handles
the specific child's behavior. At a family meeting, you can set the rules. Say, for example, 'Kevin
has a problem with screaming and yelling. We all are going to help him learn better ways to say
what he has to say. Let's agree to do this. Any time Kevin yells at one of us, he or she will wait
patiently until the yelling stops. Say this to him. 'If you've finished yelling, I'd like to hear what
you want to say to me. Will you tell me in a more appropriate way?'' Just be sure that you are
ready to be good campers when your four-year-old reminds you about the family rules by saying
to you, 'No yelling. I only listen when you talk right.'
Breaks and damages things
This sign depends on whether breaking and damaging things is accidental, unintentional,
or on purpose. These are three different problems. If your youngster often breaks things by
accident, it is probably a physical problem. It may involve coordination, vision, or another
medical problem that needs to be evaluated by a physician.
Unintentionally breaking things is a little harder to understand. It may be because of not
knowing how to use toys and equipment. Think about why it happens and see if teaching your
child how to use things correctly might work better than forbidding him to use whatever he
Unintentionally breaking or intentionally breaking things are sometimes degrees of the
same behavior. Your child feels upset, angry, or wants to get even. He is careless and too rough
with others' things and may intentionally break them. He may behave the same way with his
things, taking out his anger and frustration on objects. Whatever the focus of his aggression, the
behavior is a kind of temper tantrum.
Although it is extraordinarily difficult, if your child is exhibiting this behavior, it is better
to calmly watch while he breaks whatever it is, unless the child or someone else might be hurt.
Most of the time, you cannot stop him anyway. He can always break it when you are not there to
do anything about it.
There are several things you can do. If your child can, he should pay for what he broke. If
you use this approach, avoid taking away all his money for very long. It is better to set up
payments your child can afford.
Further, it usually helps not to replace what he broke if it belonged to him; but be careful.
You do not want him to end up with nothing but junk. He needs to see his things as valuable
before not breaking them will matter to him.
Each time he breaks something, talk with him about how he felt. Your goal is to get your
child to talk about how he felt angry, jealous, or frustrated. You can say, 'Your breaking things is
a problem. At least you reached your goal. If you broke them to cause someone a problem, you
got the job done. That lets me know you can communicate. Here's what I want to talk about.
There are better ways to let people know how you feel. For example, yelling or pounding your
pillow would be better. They aren't long-term solutions but are in the right direction. Can we talk
about some choices you have that are better than breaking things?' Having this discussion with
him as often as necessary is important. You need to have it each time the problem occurs. That
will be easier if you have this discussion when neither you nor your child is upset or angry. This
may mean that you will need to wait a while to give both you and your child a chance to settle.
Intentionally hits and hurts people (or animals)
Children who have been abused or who have experienced domestic violence learned this
behavior from adults who took it to the extreme. Parents who think that it is acceptable to spank
and slap their children are modeling the same behavior in a milder form. They teach their kids, by
example, that hitting and hurting are acceptable if one does not hit too hard or hurt too much. It is
the same unacceptable lesson for the child, though. Be sure that you are not teaching this
behavior to your child through hitting and hurting him.
If you observe the sign in your child, you need to develop a strategy to stop your child
from hitting and hurting without your becoming aggressive with him. Your intervention should
follow this progression:
First, ask him to stop.
Next, insist he stops.
If necessary, restrain him from the behavior if this can be comfortably done
without a struggle or physical confrontation.
Whenever possible, avoid trying to physically stop your child's unacceptable
behavior while it is happening.
As with other behavior problems, your setting a good example for him is essential; and
you need to insist that everyone in your family does the same. This will likely require your
teaching others to back off when he gets upset and angry. No, this does not mean he gets his way.
It only means that everyone agrees not to push when he cannot control himself. The youngster
will calm down after a while. In the interim, everyone should try to stay out of his angry space.
As a parallel process, try giving him small rewards for good days, days when he does not
hit or hurt. A treat, special privilege, or something he wants all help. The key is to use negative
reactions very sparingly. The payoff for your child needs to be for appropriate behavior, for not
hitting and hurting.
Take extra care to be sure that you do not omit this additional step. You should always
make a point to talk to your child after he has behavior difficulty. The approach is to sit quietly
with him while he calms down. You can then talk about his angry feelings and how he managed
them. He needs to learn to pick up on the clues that he is about to lose control.
Say, 'Once you get angry, stopping is very hard. You can learn to stop; but it's tough. It's
easier to stop if you catch it before you lose control. If we can figure out when you first started to
get upset, that's the place to control it, the best time to manage your anger better and come up
with another way to express it. When did it first start getting to you?'
Your goal is for your child to spot situations and people that set him off. The best time for
him to get control and to learn emotional management is while he still has control. As he learns
to anticipate situations, his control will get better.
Simply to emphasize a point previously made, if your initial efforts are not successful (or
exceed your capacity) and if your child's behavior is not improving, getting specialized help is
Starts and gets into fights
This is a two-sided problem. Children may bully and pick on other kids and start fights;
or they may come out fighting any time they get frustrated, angry, or afraid. Conversely, some
children may do things that aggravate others to the point of fighting. Either way, it is a serious
Several things need some thought if you see this sign in your child. Where did your child
learn the behavior? Whether he is the aggressor or the victim, he learned the role somewhere. It
is not true children often fight. By ten or so, most youngsters never get into physical fights. Those
who do usually have a behavior problem. They think that fighting is a good way to settle things.
They may have learned this from their families or perhaps from living in their neighborhoods or
attending their schools. Some places are very rough; and fighting is the normal way to handle
conflict. Finally, it may just be one step beyond screaming and yelling, hitting and hurting. If
these problems go unchecked, fighting and more serious violence are nearly certain, especially as
the children get physically bigger and stronger.
If you are at your wits end and your child still fights, say, 'Your fighting is a serious
problem. We've tried several things over many weeks. (You should then list the things you have
tried.) You're still fighting. Here's the problem. I want to help you but wonder if I can. However
you feel about it, I want you to know where I stand. If you and I can't work this out, it still has to
be worked out. The fighting has to stop. We'll start with counseling. If that doesn't help, we'll
take the next step. I don't know for sure right now what that is. I sincerely hope we don't have to
find out; but I want you to know that I will do whatever it takes to help you.'
What if your youngster says, 'I don't care what you do?' You can say, 'That's a shame. I
wish you cared. I care and will do what has to be done to help you over this problem. Nothing is
happening today so we'll have some chances to talk about this more.'
Bullies and picks on others
This is worse than just fighting. Usually it is caused by the child's insecurity and low
self-esteem. He needs to bully and act powerful to hide the fear and self-doubt that underlie the
behavior. Less common is a child who just likes to hurt people and control them. When this is
what is going on, the young person is extremely disturbed.
Watch your child, his behavior, and his reactions. Focus your attention on these
Does he want to be one-up and more powerful than other children?
Does he get pleasure from seeing other children suffer?
These questions are not the same and it does make a difference. If your young person's
need is to be one-up and in control, you can probably help. Your child wants other kids to respect
him and like him but has picked a way that does not work. They are afraid of him but neither
respect him nor like him much. Say, for example, 'Bullying and picking on Susie isn't a good
way to get the respect you want. It just makes her afraid of you and causes others not to like you.
It doesn't get you what you want. Even those who act like they think you are a big deal aren't
being honest with you. They're using you to feel important. Some of them are afraid and don't
want you to treat them the way you treat Susie. You'll have to decide whether you want to be a
bully or have people like you.'
Your child may say that he does not care whether anyone likes him. If so, go on to say,
'It's your choice. I'm just saying being a bully is not your best choice if you want people to be
friends with you. You have choices. If you're interested, I'll think with you about some of those
choices.' Be sure you do not miss the opportunity to teach but carefully resist the temptation to
Treats people cruelly
This is the end of the anger road. The behavior has become an end in itself. The child's
hurting someone because he was angry with them was a serious problem; but hurting them just to
see them suffer is very disturbed behavior.
Although a little teasing and tormenting usually are only good fun, too much is a serious
problem. It works like this. When children are about five or six, they begin to see things as others
see them. It is as if they momentarily become the other person and feel what they feel. This is
called empathy. By grade school, they do this fairly automatically most of the time. One value of
empathy is knowing when other people are hurting physically or emotionally. If they are, the
child feels badly and wants to help. This is how he tells when enough teasing and tormenting are
enough. When it stops being fun and starts hurting, enough is enough. Knowing just when to stop
is a problem; but most children know about where the line is and respect it.
Children who are intentionally cruel and get pleasure from the behavior are across the
line. They want to see the other person suffer. Empathy or the pain of the other person does not
stop the behavior. Usually, children showing this sign have themselves been victims of abusive
behavior and have well-learned what they were taught.
An important point to take to heart is to be sure that no one in your home torments your
child physically or emotionally. Further, keep teasing to a minimum and assure that no one tries
to retaliate against your child when he does something for which others may want retribution.
Neither you nor anyone else in your family should try to teach him a lesson by hurting him. He
needs gentleness, firm guidance, and a predictable family. Your primary approach needs to be
talking with him about his behavior, the feelings and pain of others, and about his angry
A related sign involves sexually aggressive behavior. This is usually perpetrated by boys
on girls but may involve kids of either sex with kids of either sex. Typically, the behavior
involves an older or bigger youngster forcing sexual involvement with a younger or smaller
child. The key is the element of coercion and the inability of the victim to stop or prevent the
behavior. If this type of behavior comes up with your child, it is critically important that you take
it very seriously. It is not a 'kids will be kids' kind of thing and often indicates a serious behavior
disorder requiring immediate, specialized attention. At a minimum, you need to discuss the
behavior with a specialist in the area of children's sexually disordered behavior, keeping in mind
that most 'therapists' are not experts in this area. Similarly, the victim of sexually aggressive
behavior needs specialized help too. Most therapists who work successfully with children have
expertise with victims.
Refuses to follow the rules or behave like parents or other adults expect
It is unusual to see a child who lives in a home where there are reasonable rules and who
is following those rules but having severe behavior problems at school or in the community.
Putting this another way, children who cooperate with and get along with their parents seldom
get into repeated trouble away from home. Youngsters first learn to cooperate and get along at
home; and if they do not, they likely will have serious problems away from home.
The first question to ask if your child exhibits this sign is whether you have rules and
expectations for the child. Far too many youngsters are left to fend for themselves. Basically they
are allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, with whomever they want so long as
they do not bother anyone at home. They have few rules and little supervision. That combination
is a nearly certain way to end up with a child with serious behavior problems. Children who have
not been taught to behave do not behave very well.
Next, children develop serious behavior problems in homes where the rules are on-again,
off-again. Sometimes they can do as they please and other times nothing they do is right.
Sometimes their parents ignore their behavior and sometimes the reactions the kids get are out of
proportion to anything the child did or did not do. This pattern is often seen in homes where there
is violence, alcohol and drug abuse, adults moving in and out, or illegal activity. It also is seen in
homes where the adults have serious behavior problems. There, the children learn to behave just
like one or both of their parents.
Alternatively, youngsters with this type of maladjustment sometimes grow up in homes
where the rules and expectations are simply unreasonable. They cannot follow the rules and
cannot get along. Also, the same difficulty comes up if the child has other problems that keep
him from being able to do what is expected. For example, learning or serious emotional problems
can keep a child from doing what people expect. In this case, the expectations are actually
unreasonable for the specific child.
If your child is not following your rules, then, these questions need answered.
Do you have rules and expectations that your child understands and can follow?
Do the rules stay the same, without changing unpredictably?
Does your child get positive feedback when he follows your rules?
Does not following your rules consistently lead to negative feedback your child
can understand and handle?
Discipline needs to be there; but it needs to be consistent, in proportion to what happened,
and not just another version of the tough guy approach. It is often better to ask your child what
should happen when he does not follow one of your family's rules. Youngsters often have
suggestions that are both reasonable and appropriate. Family discussions about rules also can
serve as an important part of your child's learning to cooperate and get along.
Refuses to accept the authority of parents, teachers, or others in charge
Understanding this sign when you see it in your child can be hard because there is a lot of
difference between authority and power. Children learn to respect authority, people in authority,
and learn to accept authority. This becomes a value. Power is different. It gets its importance
from who is bigger and stronger. Power is something to fear; and people with power are to be
How your child sees you, teachers, and other adults is important. Does he see you and
other adults as people in authority or as people with power? Your youngster may say, 'You can't
make me do it.' That is what he literally means. 'You can't or won't use power to make me do it.'
He likely is right.
Say, 'You're right. Even if I could make you do it, I won't. I won't treat you that way. I'll
help you learn it's better for you to do what I ask than to refuse; but you can still refuse. Please do
what I ask so we don't have to figure out what other choices we have. Just understand that there
are other choices.'
Often behaves in socially inappropriate ways
Think about whether your child really knows the socially appropriate ways to behave.
Your simply telling him is not, by itself, enough. He needs to try, behave inappropriately, try
again, and perhaps behave inappropriately again. Like other children, he also will sometimes act
badly even though he knows better. Your goal should be successive approximations. This means
that your child comes closer to what you expect as time goes on. No child always behaves well.
Your goal should only be for him to act more appropriately more of the time, as time goes on.
Additionally, be sure that you and others at home are setting good examples of
appropriate behavior. Your child likely will not behave any better than others in his family.
Uses illegal drugs
This is a very complicated problem. A useful place to start is to think about it in terms of
values: right and wrong, good and bad. If the value of following the law, avoiding dangerous
things, and doing what is right is stronger, your youngster likely says, 'No.' If not, the ubiquitous
peer pressure to use illegal drugs likely wins.
If your child is using 'drugs' resist the temptation to react to the problem by getting angry
and lecturing him. Most importantly, do not threaten him. Say instead, 'It'll be a great day when
you understand that you're important enough and valuable enough to treat yourself better. It'll be
a better day when you don't run the risk of hurting yourself with alcohol and drugs. You deserve
Further, resist doing anything to protect your child from the consequences that his drug
use causes. If he has problems with the police, they are his problems. If he gets into trouble at
school, it is his trouble. Protecting him from the natural and logical consequences of his behavior
only supports the behavior. Of course, your youngster needs specialized drug treatment services
provided by qualified child-experts. Nonetheless, his accepting responsibility for his behavior
and actions includes experiencing the full consequences of that behavior.
An additional point is important. Too often, parents find out about or strongly suspect
their child's drug or alcohol use and either say nothing to him or have 'a little talk' and do
nothing else. Drug and alcohol problems are too serious to simply be left to chance. Talk with
your child anytime you are concerned. If your suspicions persist or recur, at a minimum, discuss
your observations and concerns with a specialist who works primarily with young people who
have substance abuse problems.
Has friends who often get into trouble
This is hard for you to prevent and even harder for you to deal with. When your children
pick their friends, they choose people who they think are like them or are like they want to be.
What if your child sees himself as a loser, as not belonging in the in-group? He will then choose
his friends from the out-group, since his need to belong 'drives' him toward whomever will
accept him. These are the youngsters who are having more than their share of problems and are
more than likely getting into trouble. Your child may just hang around with anyone who will
accept him or at least not reject him. The out-group is not choosy. They will let anyone hang
around who goes along and does not act like he thinks he is better than they are. They are an easy
home-base for children with low self-esteem and behavior problems.
Your telling him that he cannot hang around with those kids does little good. You likely
cannot stop him; and if you do, he may then have no friends. The children you like and approve
of will not let him into their group. This is a fact of life in the real world of children. He is only
accepted by other youngsters with serious problems just when his need to belong is strongest.
Your child is in a nearly impossible bind. He wants friends, has to have friends; but his
friends have more problems than he does. What can you or your child do? Along with getting
professional help, you and he can talk honestly about the bind.
Try this approach. 'Here is the problem. You're having some serious behavior problems. I
know that and so do you. Now, your friends also have serious problems. You and I know that's
true whether they know it or not. For you, the problem is getting into trouble when you're around
them. That's when you have most of your problems. Can we agree that you get into trouble
mostly when you are with your friends? If so, we have a place to start. I don't have any answers
but think this is where to start looking for some. What ideas do you have?'
Understand that there are no magic solutions or quick fixes. You and your child need to
keep talking about it. Arguing about any of it is not going to help. If it could, the problem would
be gone for it is nearly certain that your child and you have done enough arguing to fix a
thousand problems if arguing were the answer.
A related circumstance is a child's being suspected of or becoming involved with a gang.
This is a growing problem in all communities. It will enhance your ability to talk knowledgeably
with your child if you take a pro-active approach to learning as much as you can about gangs and
gang-related behavior in your area. The police are usually your best resource. They can tell you
about the extent of local gang activity, signs parents should watch for that indicate that their child
may be associated with a particular gang, and specialized resources for children who exhibit
signs of possible gang involvement. Be sure that you do not consult with anyone who is not a
locally recognized expert in gang-related behavior. It is a specialized area of practice in which
most therapists are not experts. It also is useful to know that most children who are involved with
a gang will not deny their involvement, if asked. They may but normally do not. You should ask,
if you suspect involvement; but you also need to pursue your concerns, if your suspicions persist.
Has a reputation for not being someone others can depend on or trust
This sign gets to the nub of a child's value problems. When he does not have solid values,
it is much harder for his parents and others who interact with him to know how he is going to act
and what he is going to do. This makes it very tough for his parents to have a good relationship
with him and tougher to live with him.
It is a vicious circle. The child's potentials and life-experiences led to insufficient
development within his moral dimension. This may be because no one adequately taught him or
because his learning problems or other life-experiences made it unusually difficult for him to
learn value-related principles and concepts. Learning problems are not limited to books and
school. They can negatively affect learning within each dimension of the child's development and
can cause problems in most any situation or circumstance.
The youngster's developmental problems led to his being undependable and not
trustworthy. Most everyone sees him this way and wants nothing to do with him. There is no
payoff for him to work to keep relationships he does not have with people who do not like him
The child will not work to get better relationships since he does not have any experience
telling him that he can form satisfying relationships or that having them is worth the effort.
Consequently, he does not change; and people continue rejecting him. It gets worse as time goes
on and as he gets older. Around and around the vicious circle goes for him.
If your child is experiencing these kinds of difficulties, you will be well-advised to rely
on logical and natural consequences. For example, instead of directly trying to correct his
unacceptable behavior at school or in the community, let 'the system' respond to his behavior.
Your task is to be sure that you are not minimizing the seriousness of the problem or interfering
with others who are doing what is called for within the context of their responsibilities. Your
child needs to experience the full consequences of his unacceptable behavior.
This approach will work with a couple of exceptions. First, he will usually think that the
consequences occurred because of bad luck and not because of his behavior. Taking
responsibility is not his thing, so to speak. Second, you cannot let everyone reject your child. If
you do, he may be permanently lost into the empty world of the socially and emotionally outcast.
You need to hang in there with him, even though you neither like nor approve of his behavior.
As you find within yourself all the patience, faith, and hope you can, it will help to know
this. Just maybe, he may come to value your relationship more than his unacceptable behavior. It
is worth a try. Hanging in there may not be quite the logical thing; but if you were all that logical,
you likely would not have been a parent in the first place. For you, loving and caring for your
child are at least as important as logic.
When you take your child to a specialist, and you will, two points need attention. First,
serious behavior problems are usually best treated through a combination of evaluating the
learning difficulties that are typically present and group counseling. Children with serious
behavior problems normally do better in group treatment than in individual therapy. Second,
family therapy or at least your serious involvement is necessary. Your youngster's treatment will
not be more than minimally successful without your participation.
Does not care if he upsets or hurts people
What would your child be like without values? He would not care about anyone or
anything but himself and might not even care much about himself and about what he becomes.
The extreme version of this is not caring if he hurts people.
You may have already gotten this ill-considered advice: 'Don't let him know he hurt you. Don't
let him get under your skin. If he does, act like he didn't.' The normally well-meaning advice is
not to let him know he won.
Here is the point you should make with your child. He hurt you and upset you a lot. You
do not honestly let him know this truth by getting angry with him, hurting him, or by
withdrawing from him. He needs you to frankly let him know how it feels to you in adult terms.
Say, 'What you said (or did) upset me. It hurts way down inside. It's an awful feeling. It
feels like I was just pushed off a cliff and am falling. I'm afraid. It may be the worst feeling I've
ever had. I'm really suffering.'
He likely will say that he does not care. If so, say, 'That makes me feel even worse. Your
not caring is worse for me than what happened. You don't need to say or do anything about it. I
just want you to know how much I am hurting.'
Will you ever get through to him? It is certain that by not trying, you will never get
through to him. He needs your caring and honesty, straight-up and to the point.
Gets into trouble with the police or courts
Any child might get into trouble once with the police or have to go to court. It might not
be a sign of serious trouble. The youngster learns and does not find himself back in the same fix.
This sign only applies to children who get into trouble over and over again.
If your child is exhibiting this type of repetitively delinquent behavior, you can hope that
the court will do what it needs to do. He will get some of those logical and natural consequences.
At least, this is what typically will happen unless you try to talk the court out of taking
appropriate action. Avoid trying to intercede or lessen the judgement of the court. It is time for
your young person to 'face the music.'
At home, you need to focus your care and attention on helping improve his self-esteem.
You do this by working with him on his social skills and on the serious learning problems he
Your child, you, and the specialists you have identified, should work on the causes of his
behavior and adjustment problems. The courts and community will help him understand the
logical and natural consequences of his unacceptable behavior.