Are You Afraid of Your Acting Out Child?
Part II: 7 Ways to Get Back Parental Authority
by James Lehman, MSW
In part two of this series, James gives you 7 ways to get back parental control and stop living in fear of your child’s acting-out behavior.
Most people aren’t afraid of their children; rather, they’re afraid of their child’s behavior. It’s important to understand that this fear undermines your authority as a parent because it’s hard to set limits successfully when you’re afraid. You lose more of your authority each time you give in after your child has acted out. And as soon as he realizes that, you’ll only have the authority he gives you. You may get him to bed on time, he may eat his dinner and get ready for school, but those will be the things he’s allowed you to have authority over.
These kids tend to gravitate toward a “no accountability” way of life, where “no accountability” equals “no authority.” And in order for your child’s system to work for him, he has to keep all the authorities around him in check. Soon this becomes one of his primary goals in life.
You may get him to bed on time, he may eat his dinner and get ready for school, but those will be the things he’s allowed you to have authority over.
In my opinion, even though you might have fears about your child’s acting-out behavior, you need to learn how to deal with those thoughts and feelings so they don't have power over you—that they don't dictate your behavior. So while you may be afraid your child is going to throw a tantrum, don't let that fear derail your decision to be firm. Remember, it's not what you're afraid of, it's how much power you give that fear. I don’t know if people truly ever “master their fears,” but I think that over time, the fear of your child acting out will have less power over you if you stick to a game plan of setting limits and holding your child accountable.
By the way, when you decide that you're going to start dealing with your child’s pattern of acting out behavior differently, first of all, get ready for a struggle. Your child is not going to believe it; in fact, he's going to think that if he just tantrums a little harder or a little more, you'll give in. That’s because you've given in for so long; you've trained him how to treat you. Some of us train our kids to treat us respectfully. Others of us, through no fault of our own, train our kids to act out more in order to get their way.
Here are some of the important rules I taught parents who were afraid of setting off their child:
- Come up with a Game Plan
The first thing I recommend is to come up with a game plan of what you're going to do when your child starts to escalate. This will give you something concrete to guide you. Decide how you're going to handle tantrums and acting out in the future. Ask yourself, “What am I going to do about this now? What's going to be different in my behavior, my response?” Write an "Instead" list for yourself. It might include things like, “I won’t back down when my child starts screaming, instead I’ll leave the store. I will give my child consequences and set limits.”
And then get ready for some long tantrums, especially at home. Make no mistake, there will be a fierce battle for a while. Things will get better, but be prepared for your child to test you and test you and test you. Sometimes the tantrums and acting out will increase in intensity and frequency. That’s because your child is thinking, “If I just do this a little more, maybe she'll give in.” You've inadvertently trained him to do that and now you're going to have to do some work to undo it. In the end, the behavior often changes—it may re-emerge at different times, but you just need to handle it the same way.
- Explain How Things Are Going to Change
When things are going well, tell your child what you’re going to do when he acts out or throws a tantrum. Say “Hey, I just wanted to talk to you for a minute. I've been thinking that you’re really too old to throw tantrums now. So from now on, when you do that, this is what I'm going to do.” And you tell them what consequences they will get. You can also say, “When you're in a tantrum or acting out, I'm not going to give in, I'm going to let you go through your tantrum. When you're done, then we can resume what we were doing. That means you're not going to get that toy or that candy bar just because you yell and scream and kick your feet.” Or for older kids, “I’m not going to give in to you just because you punch a hole in the wall or scream at me.” And I think that parents should articulate that information to their kids no matter how old they are. If your child is very young, he might not understand at first, but it will help you as a parent to focus. If your child does understand it, then he knows what to expect. When parents consistently tell their young kids what will happen, the tantrums often diminish in frequency and intensity as the child grows older. With older kids, talking to them in this way lets them know that you’re the boss now—and that you’re not going to give in to their acting out anymore.
- Let Them Know the Process
Let your child know the process ahead of time. You can say, “Hey, when you tantrum in the store, I'm just going to move about five feet away and I'm just going to watch you tantrum until you're done. I’m going to bring a book with me and if you throw a tantrum I'm going to read it. I'm not going to talk to you or argue with you.” And by the way, bringing a book is really a good thing to do because it shows your child that you won’t be moved by their behavior. It’s like you’re saying, “Hey, have a ball, pal. Dance around on the floor all you want, I'm just going to read my magazine.” It takes the power away from your child’s inappropriate behavior, and that’s exactly what you want to do.
- After Your Child Has Acted Out
After your child has had a tantrum or behavioral episode, it’s a good time to have a little talk with him about what he's going to do differently next time. If your child is old enough, ask him what he was trying to accomplish, and how he will handle it differently next time. These are the most important questions you can ask because they lead to your child learning how to develop other options. Remember, problem solving is based on coming up with other options to deal with the issue at hand. So don't ask “How did you feel?” or even “Why did you do that?” The only real thing you want to get out of it is for your child to come up with some other ways of handling his anger or frustration. In this way, your child also has his own little game plan to fall back on. When you help your child develop another response to that situation, he will learn problem-solving skills he can use for the rest of his life.
- Don’t Let Fear of Assumed Judgment Control You
Dont' be a mind reader. Most parents have fears that other people are judging them when their child acts out, so they do things to appease their kids so they’ll behave. I think that’s a mistake. Realize this: people are going to judge you; people judge each other about all kinds of things all day long. But here’s the deal: you're trying to raise your child so he can learn the life skills he needs to be successful. If you let your fear of criticism and judgment control you, you're not going to be able to accomplish your task of raising your child effectively.
- Don’t Give in When Your Child Says, “I Hate You!”
Fear that your child won’t love you if you set limits on him is something many parents have a hard time with, especially when their child is old enough to say, “I don't love you—I hate you!” But, again, if you give that behavior power, it's not going to change. If you don't give it power and instead understand that it's just a stage kids go through, you won’t be influenced to back down. Kids love their parents; it’s instinctual. (Unfortunately, even kids even love parents who hurt or abuse them.) So if your child says they don’t love you, instead of getting upset, try saying, “Maybe you don’t love me right now. But you still have to do your homework.”
- Get Outside Help
I recommend that you get some outside help when dealing with this issue. The simple truth is that you can't trust your willpower alone to get you through. Willpower is fine when it works—but as we all know, it doesn't always work. Try to get a support system in place, whether that's training, effective parenting classes, books you read, programs in your home, counseling, or a support group. You should have some outside support. It’s good to make the commitment to change, but in my opinion it's much more important to get the tools from outside and then try to use them one day at a time. And give yourself a break: realize that some days are going to be easier than others.
- Appeal to the Authorities
If your child is behaving criminally, the sooner you can get him into the juvenile justice system, the better. Although the wheels of justice turn slowly, your child will eventually get a probation officer who will then have the power to hold him more accountable than you can. So when your child doesn't go to school, he will have to answer to his probation officer as well as you. If he misses school enough times, hopefully the probation officer will take some action. I worked with some parents who had a probation officer behind them who supported them. The probation officer would lock their child up in the youth center for a weekend if he or she violated the rules. I saw changes take place in those families. The kids started going to school; they stopped hurting others and damaging property. Their behavior changed because there was an accountability system in place that didn't let them slide.
I always tell parents to understand that there is no quick solution to this problem, especially as the child grows older. Rather, you have to learn how to manage your child’s behavior in a way that diminishes the power of their acting out. The end goal is that your child will learn other ways to solve problems besides using power or intimidation. Just remember, kids don't surrender power easily; neither do adults. Nobody likes to give up power, so it’s not going to happen over night.
In the thirty years I worked with kids, I saw families make progress all the time. They stopped letting their children box them in with their acting-out behavior; these parents instead worked toward the goal of helping their kids learn new skills. Remember that no family is perfect. People make progress, fall back, make more progress, and even fall back again. But in the long run, families changed and these kids learned other coping skills.
Some people say that the parents are the problem, but I don’t think that’s right. I think parents are the solution, and they need training and support.
Are You Afraid of Your Acting Out Child?
Part II: 7 Ways to Get Back Parental Authority 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.