Sudden Behavior Changes in Kids,
Part I: What Do They Mean?
by James Lehman, MSW
In part one of this two-part series, James Lehman explains why kids change so much during adolescence, and he warns us about the sudden changes of which every parent needs to be aware.
Whether we like it or not, kids change. Their behavior, their attitudes, their likes and dislikes: these shifts can be seen throughout childhood. But the biggest changes—and the hardest for most families to deal with—are the ones that occur when kids enter pre-adolescence and adolescence. As the old saying goes, “the only thing that is constant in life is change,” and children are no exception from the rule. Sometimes the change from childhood to the pre-teen and teen years can appear to be quite drastic. Kids can quite suddenly lose interest in the things they used to play with, and it can take parents by surprise. It may seem like one day your child is playing with dolls or trucks, and the next, they want to wear nail polish and make-up and to have a cell phone. And we’ve all known kids who aren’t really interested in clothes, but then all of a sudden, they start caring about how they look. Sometimes these shifts in style or attitude happen for social reasons—children reach a certain age where they want to be accepted by the other kids and they don't want to be left out or teased. Or maybe they’ve hit puberty and have started caring about the opposite sex.
“Understand that it's the rapidity of the change that should get our attention and make us curious.”
You'll also see a lot of changes during adolescence because it’s the time when kids begin to strike out on their own. In fact, this developmental stage actually requires that they begin to “individuate” from their parents—your child is forming a separate personality from you, with his or her own thoughts and opinions. This is not an easy task for them and it’s often accompanied by a certain amount of distress for both the adolescent and the rest of the family. Let’s face it, teens are at a stage in their lives where they’re preparing to become functioning adults who make their own decisions. So finding a separate identity from their parents, however painful it can be at times, is very necessary. Some of the more commonplace results of these shifts in your child’s behavior include an increase in backtalk and complaining, increased moodiness, a poor attitude, and varying levels of rebellion. In fact, in some cases, the rebelliousness can be quite severe.
I think it’s important for parents to realize that there are other changes which can occur seemingly overnight. In part two of this series, I’ll discuss effective ways to deal with the common shifts in attitude you might see in your child, such as rebelliousness and backtalk.
Before I do that, I want to take a moment to talk about changes that are not part of normal childhood development. These are the sudden changes that stem from trauma and substance abuse, and I believe every parent needs to know about them.
Bullying: When Your Child is Targeted as a Victim
Ridicule and rejection, especially in adolescence, can be very, very traumatic for kids. If you live in an urban, suburban or even rural area, often there are groups and bullies in school who hold a lot of sway over the other students. I’m not talking about dangerous gangs with guns like you see on TV—I mean groups of kids who hang out together and target other students as their victims, usually via public ridicule or physical intimidation. And once they target your child as a victim, they are probably putting them down every day. That kind of ridicule becomes extremely powerful for many kids, and you may see their personality change because of it.
If you suspect your child is being bullied, you may see a difference in their grades and their attitude, and you also might see them become much more irritable and easily frustrated. Too many kids don't talk with anyone about the fact that they’re being picked on. Instead, they withdraw from the world. Their daily life is very painful for them, and so their coping skills become withdrawal and avoidance. Pre-teens who are bullied often won’t want to get dressed in the morning, and you’ll start hearing them say, “I don’t want to go to school.”
If your child is being bullied, you have to put pressure on his or her school administration and the school board. Go to a school board meeting. It’s very important to advocate for your child. Since children have to get an education, keeping them safe should be the school’s first priority. If they're not doing that job, you need to make a lot of noise. Talk with other parents and get them to put pressure on the school as well. Personally, I think all schools should have a zero tolerance for bullying. From an early age, kids need to be taught what bullying is and how they can deal with it. (For more on bullying, read My Child is Being Bullied—What Should I Do? and The Truth about Bullies)
Substance Abuse: “My Child Just Changed Overnight.”
One of the things parents often described to me in my office was how their child “just changed.” Their kid’s grades went downhill, they became more secretive, they withdrew from family life. Understand that it's the rapidity of that change that should get our attention and make us curious. In other words, your child will undoubtedly undergo some pretty major changes between the ages of 10 to 18, and adolescents might even change fairly dramatically over any given six-month period. But if substance abuse is involved, behavioral changes can occur very quickly—it might even happen within a week or two. If this is the case, you will see your child stop or resist doing homework, for example. A drop in school grades often shows up first because it’s clear and fairly immediate—your child gets graded on his or her performance in school on a daily basis so the change in their performance is measurable. If one month your child gets an A, and the next month he gets a D, that’s a pretty clear sign that something is going on, especially if you notice his grades going down in all subjects. If he loses interest in things like sports or his old friends, it’s another indication that substance use may be involved.
Usually when kids get involved with substances they start by using them intermittently, on the weekends or at a certain friend’s house. Some kids who use substances stop there and walk away, and get on with their lives. But others experience a sense of relief from the pressures of adolescence when using substances, and those kids are at risk for deeper involvement. Drugs and alcohol become an increasingly primary part of their lives. For example, they’ll stop caring about things they used to care about—it may not matter to them if they’re neatly dressed and groomed anymore. They will go from being concerned about school and willing to work to achieve good grades to saying, “Ah, who cares if it's an ‘A’ or a ‘B’? The teacher's an idiot, anyway.” In other words, they start making excuses and justifications for the fact that their grades are falling.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes kids do have a bad experience with a teacher or a hard time with a certain subject. But if that’s the case, you'll see their grades fall in that specific course—it won’t result in a global, or overall, effect.
Realize that if your child is undergoing a personality change due to substance use, it usually happens globally. You’ll see it with their attitude toward their siblings and toward you. Often you'll see changes in their honesty. You might have a child who was generally pretty truthful, but then you start noticing that he’s lying more and keeping secrets. Sometimes things begin to go missing around the house. You'll see your child start to gravitate toward a different type of friend. These kids won’t be achievers. They aren’t the kids who care about their grades or are involved in sports. They aren’t the kids who want to be involved in any sort of family activities. Their primary interest is to party on the weekends and after school.
Sadly, you will see all these changes when substance abuse starts to take over more and more of your child’s life. Eventually, the day comes when if they can’t get high or drink, they don’t feel they have anything worthwhile to do.
If you suspect that your child has a substance abuse problem, I think you need to be very clear in your language to them; let them know that they have to take responsibility for it. If that means going with you to see a professional who can assess them, you have to make your expectation clear. (I recommend that kids in this situation see a qualified substance abuse counselor, preferably one who deals with adolescents.) If your child refuses to go, you can say, “Okay, then kiss your cell phone goodbye. And kiss the computer goodbye too, we're taking it out of your room. Kiss the car goodbye.” I think you need to be very black and white about your expectation that they take responsibility for this problem. Be strong. I don't mean that you should be nasty or hostile, and don’t attend all the fights they’ll try to invite you to during this tense time—and believe me, there will probably be many such fights. Just take a stand, state your expectation and stick with it, no matter how much complaining or blaming or arguing they throw at you. This is a fight worth fighting, after all, so you have to try to stay strong.
You will also see a child’s behavior change when they have been sexually abused by a stranger or someone they know. This personality change is often drastic. A child who has been molested often becomes more isolated and withdrawn. Their grades go down and they become more fearful of people and places.
If you ever suspect that your child has been sexually abused, immediately report whatever you know to the police, and have your child seen by medical and mental health professionals right away.
In fact, any time your child’s behavior or personality changes drastically overnight, it’s important to have them evaluated immediately by a professional to rule out any physical reasons for the change, whether it’s from substance abuse, trauma, or the onset of depression or anxiety.
Whether changes in kids are slow or sudden, parents have a hard time with the fact that they can't protect their children once they leave home in the morning. Once your kids walk out the door, you simply can't insulate them from the kind of culture that is out there: the violence, the sexualization, and the glamorization of criminal behavior that we see all around us in movies, music and video games.
The rub is that if you fight your child’s need to individuate, you're fighting their every instinct—and it's a losing battle. So it’s not whether or not they individuate that you can influence, it’s how they individuate and what the rules of their rebellion are going to be that can make your family life easier. Next week, I’ll tell you about some ways you can use structure, rewards and consequences to ensure that your child stays accountable to the rules in your household. There are no guarantees in life, but as parents, we have to try our best to keep our children on the right path to adulthood.
Next week, James will explain how to work through the changes that you’ll see in your child during the tough teen and pre-teen years.
Sudden Behavior Changes in Kids,
Part I: What Do They Mean? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled teens and children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University. For more information, visit www.thetotaltransformation.com.