Agressive and Defiant Teens: When Parents Reach their Wit's End

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As a special guest post from Janet Lehman addressing aggressive behavior among children and teens, it is a constant issue I hear among parents I speak with.

Janet Lehman has some excellent and educational information I would like to share with my readers about this type of negative behavior:

Aggressive Teens

Excerpt by Janet Lehman

There is no excuse for abuse, physical or otherwise. That rule should be written on an index card with a black magic marker and posted on your refrigerator. The message to your child is, “If you’re abusive, there’s no excuse. I don’t want to hear what the reason was. There’s no justification for it. There’s nobody you can blame. You are responsible and accountable for your abusive behavior. And by ‘responsible,’ I mean it’s nobody else’s fault, and by ‘accountable’ I mean there will be consequences.”

When your child is aggresssive or abuses anyone in your family, remind him of the rule. Say,You’re not allowed to abuse people. Go to your room.” Be prepared for him to blame the victim, because that’s what abusive people do; it’s an easy way out. Abusive people say, “I wouldn’t have abused you but you…” and fill in the blank. So your child might say, “I’m sorry I hit you, but you yelled at me.” What they’re really saying is, “I’m sorry I hit you, but it was your fault.” And if you listen to the apologies of many of these abusive kids, that’s what you get. “I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t give me a cookie.” “I’m sorry I called her a name but she wouldn’t let me play the video game.” What they’re constantly saying is, “I’m sorry, but it’s your fault,” and it absolutely does not mean they’re sorry. It means, “I’m sorry, but it’s not my responsibility.” And when a child doesn’t take responsibility for a certain behavior, they see no reason to change it. They’ve just learned to mimic the words. It becomes another false social construct that comes out of their mouths without any meaning or understanding behind it whatsoever—and if you buy into it, you’re allowing that child to continue his abusive behavior and power thrusting.

When children use aggressive or abusive behavior to solve their problems, it’s important that they learn a way to replace that behavior with healthier problem-solving skills. It’s just not enough to point out—and give consequences for—that  behavior. It’s also important to help your child replace their inappropriate behavior with something that will help him solve the problem at hand without getting into trouble or hurting others. Here’s the bottom line: if we don’t help kids replace their inappropriate behavior with something healthier, they’re going to fall back on the inappropriate behavior every time. That’s their default program.

Develop ways to have problem-solving conversations with your teen so the next time they’re faced with a similar situation, they'll be able to ask themselves what they can do to solve the problem differently, besides being aggressive or threatening. For instance, the next time your son calls his little sister names and threatens her physically in order to get her off the computer, you should not only correct him, but later, have a conversation with him when things calm down. That conversation should be, “The next time you’re frustrated when you want to get on the computer, what can you do differently so you don’t get into trouble and get more consequences. What can you do to get more rewards?”

I think the focus should be on how the aggressive child should avoid getting into trouble and being given consequences, rather than on how they should not hurt their brother. Abusive people don’t care about their victims. I don’t think we should be appealing to their sense of empathy and humanity. I think we should be appealing to their self-interest, because self-interest is a very powerful motivator. Look at it this way: if they had empathy or sympathy, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
I want to note that if there’s physical aggression to the point where you or other family members aren’t safe, you really need to consider calling the police for help. This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed as a parent. Rather, you’re recognizing that you need some support. I know that calling the police is not an easy decision, but it’s not the end of the world either—it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s sometimes a way to regain control.

If you have a teen who’s been acting out aggressively his whole life, I want to stress again that even if these behaviors are ingrained, they can change—and they can change at any time.  When you start changing your response to your child and become more empowered, your child will probably act out more initially. You need to stick with it. It’s scary for kids when their parents begin to take charge. Your child has been used to a certain response from you over the years. In some ways there’s a sense of loss of control on their part. So as a result, you have to be a little bit stronger.

I also think it's vital to start structuring things differently in your home so that your child knows that change is happening. It may not be anything big at first, just something that says you’re back in the driver’s seat. You might say to your child, “We need to get you to be a more responsible part of our family. So when you get home from school, I want you to do the dishes. You also need to do your homework before you can have the car. If you don’t do those two things, you can’t have the car.” So you begin to set some limits. This is also when you need to start looking for things to change. Does the dishwasher actually get emptied? Is the homework getting done? It doesn’t mean that his aggressive behavior goes away totally; we’re not looking at a complete turnaround in 24 hours. Instead, we’re looking at those small steps that indicate that you’re in charge in the home and your child is not. Kids want their parents to have a sense of control; it gives them a sense of security and safety.

Changing and becoming a more effective parent can be a very long process. You need to keep sticking with it and understand that you can gain in your ability to be effective. The key is to be open to different ideas and different ways of doing things. Above all, I want to say this: don’t get discouraged. Things can change at any moment and at any time. In my practice with children and families, it was amazing to watch parents become more empowered. They developed a clear sense of who they were and how they could be more effective. And while your children are not going to thank you for becoming a more effective parent, down the road you will see them exhibiting the positive behaviors you helped them develop, which is the best reward of all.

*This article touches on some of the concerns parents have when they have a defiant, aggressive child. For a comprehensive approach to dealing with aggressive kids, my husband James Lehman and I created the Total Transformation Program for parents. It’s a step-by-step guide that helps you change your child’s behavior. Please click here for more information.

Thanks for sharing!

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