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Sudden Behavior Changes in Kids
Part II: 7 Things You Can Do Today

By James Lehman, MSW

In Part I, I explained why kids change so much during adolescence. This week, I shall help you to handle some specific undesirable changes you might suddenly see in your child during adolescence, from backtalk to attitude to slipping grades.

I believe parents go through something similar to the stages of grief when their kids go through adolescence. The family that once had a loving and eager son or daughter, someone who would spend as much time with you as you let them, is gone now; it's as if it has died. In its place is a different family system, and it's one in which your child may talk back to you and complain about you frequently. Maybe your once-cheerful middle school son stomps off to his room when he comes home. Or the daughter who used to want to spend time with you acts like she doesn't even like you--let alone want to be in the same room with you. Rebelliousness becomes part of the routine.

Parents often react to these kinds of changes in their children by going through some of the stages of grief. One of the stages is bargaining--and in fact, parents will try to bargain and negotiate with their child in an attempt to pull them back in. Another one of the stages is anger: parents get very angry about what has happened to the relationship they used to have. Often that anger takes the form of fighting and arguing and blaming between the parents and the adolescent. Fortunately, the last stage of grief is acceptance: eventually, we come to accept that our child is going to become his or her own person, with his or her own personal tastes, likes and dislikes. The parent-child relationship becomes much more complex than it was when they were younger. Unfortunately for many families, acceptance of the process usually happens late and last.

When your family is going through this grieving process, it's really tough to deal with, and I understand that--I'm a parent myself. I've seen many, many parents mourning these kinds of changes in their kids. It's important to realize that when people are grieving, they don't always make the best decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of parents mistakenly fight against the changes they see happening. But make no mistake: the more you fight it, the stronger it gets.

Personally, I believe we need to accept the normal developmental changes we see while holding our kids accountable to the rules.

  1. Realize that Your Child is Individuating from You
    Realize that your child is individuating from you and try not to take their behavior as a personal attack. Think of the films you see on the Discovery Channel, where the butterfly has to break out of its cocoon, or a bird or reptile hatching from an egg. If you notice, they have to tear and claw their way out of the shell. They don't get to the next stage of their lives passively. And unfortunately, neither do adolescents. You are the authority in their lives with control over them, so rebellion is often part of the way they separate from you. That's how they break free of the cocoon. I don't mean this to say that you have to accept it if they are verbally nasty or start to resist curfew or chores--you need to hold them accountable for that behavior. Just realize that this is not a personal attack upon you. It's just your child fighting his or her way out of the cocoon.

    Adolescents will also start to say things like, "I have a life outside of this family. I have my own friends. They're the ones who really understand me--not you!" They want their own money and might get a part-time job so they can buy clothes and have some autonomy. I personally believe one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids is that of independence. In fact, being independent is one of the greatest factors for determining success later in life. So as much as is possible and safe, I think you should allow your teen some control over his or her own life if they've proven themselves to be responsible. This autonomy may come in the form of a part-time job, or the sports or activities your child chooses to do at school. Whenever possible, allow them to make those kinds of choices themselves. And remember, giving kids choices so they don't feel trapped will usually decrease the chances that they'll enter into a power struggle with you.

  2. Don't Give the Behavior Power
    If your child has developed a bad attitude and is rude and disrespectful around the house, one of the best things you can do is not give it power. Keep the expectations in your house clear: "In this family, we treat each other with respect." Don't stay there with your child and argue the point--remember, you don't need to attend every fight you're invited to. After you've both calmed down, you can give them consequences for their behavior. But don't give their bad attitude or backtalk power in the moment, because that only teaches them that they can push your buttons.

  3. When You Don't Like Your Child's Friends
    Here's the thing. Even though you might think your kid has the wrong friends, you need to understand that they're the people he's seeking out. To somebody else's parents, your child is the wrong friend. I used to laugh when parents would say, "Well, it's his friends that have made him change; it's the people he's hanging out with." Understand that there's a reason why he's hanging out with them; he's choosing them because he's like them. He's attracted to their behavior, he's one of them. So while one parent might be saying, "Sam's a mess because he hangs out with those bad kids." Another parent down the block is telling her child, "Don't hang out with kids like Sam." It's all about your perspective.

    If your child is always at a friend's house, and you don't like that friend, I have one thing to say: your child has too much free time. Again, I encourage parents to have structure. This includes a flexible but clear time frame. When you have a set schedule in your house, your child then knows that there's a time when he has to be home from school. He knows he shouldn't go and hang out at his friend's house for an hour and then come home. In fact, it's been proven that kids who get good grades tend to come home after school and start their homework. And these days, kids have a lot of studying to do at night. Believe me, in high school when the demands for homework become greater, kids shouldn't be spending less time on their studies. Don't get me wrong, I think there's a time when kids can go to a friend's house, like on weekends, for example. But I think on school nights, they should be home.

    By the way, I know there are many families where both parents work. My wife and I both worked, and I understand the difficulties parents face in this situation. Many parents have no control over their kids until they get home at 5:30, or even later. But I believe you can still structure your child's schedule after school by giving them choices. You can say, "What you do until 5:30 is up to you. If you're home by 3:30 and start your homework, you'll have more free time later to watch TV or play video games. But if you play around, you'll have to do your homework after dinner and miss that free time later on in the evening." (link to "When You Dread coming home to your child" here.)

  4. Control What Comes Into Your Home
    I think it's so important that parents control what comes into their homes. What I mean by that is, control the media that your children are exposed to. After all, your house is the only place where you have any control at all. It's the place where you can say, "No sexually explicit stuff here. No x-rated movies, no violent music or video games." Your home is the only area where you can really try to uphold those standards. Think of it as the place where there's some sanity, expectations and rules. Those expectations might be, "We expect you to get good grades, we expect you to do your homework. If you don't do your homework, forget about having your phone or being on the computer." Realize that you can't control what your child does outside of the house. You can give consequences when you catch them breaking rules, but ultimately, the control you have extends to the walls of your home.

  5. Reward Positive Behavior, Give Consequences for Breaking Rules
    If your child is involved with sports outside the house and does well and still maintains good grades, I think you can reward him or her for that. You can buy them a pair of cleats, for example, or take them to a football game or dance performance. On the flip side, if kids get in trouble outside the house, including trouble with the law or getting caught drinking or getting high, then you need to give them consequences at home as well. An effective one is to not allow them to go out until they've made amends and can demonstrate they're more trustworthy; they can do this by behaving more responsibly through a Learning Experience that you develop with them.

    Consequences are really how we get people to meet their responsibilities. It's very simple: when you're driving, getting a speeding ticket is the consequence for not meeting your responsibilities to drive within the limits of the law. It's all connected, and it's an effective part of the way we teach our children better behavior.

  6. Getting Your Child Back on Track after Grades Have Slipped
    I think it's okay to say to your child, "Your grades have really fallen. I'm taking your cell phone until you show me that you're getting them back up again." And until the teacher sends home a notice saying that your child's performance is improving, hang onto their phone or their Nintendo DS--or whatever it takes to motivate them. And then you can say, "If that notice doesn't say you're doing good work, I'm keeping this until the report card comes." I think you should be very, very firm about that. You don't owe your child a phone, a DS or a car, in the case of teens. Those are the things you give them to use. And so don't hesitate to use them as consequences or rewards, and don't play around. After all, your child's job is to learn, to go to school and get good grades. If you want them to go to a good school or get scholarships from college, they've got to have the grades to back it up. So if they're not trying, or if doing sports or a part-time job is interfering with schoolwork, in my mind, you need to be clear with them: school comes first. They might have to give up activities or their job until they can get their grades back up, but that's okay.

  7. Setting Limits on Adolescents
    Parents of teens need to understand that adolescents are in a different stage of their lives now--and there are ways to support it and there are ways to set limits on it. You can say, "In this house, I want you here for dinner time so we can all eat together. If you don't like it, just sit there and eat quietly. But we all eat dinner together." Parents also have to accept that their kids might want to spend more time in their rooms. They're going to think their friends understand them a lot more than their parents do. They're going to push parents away. While it can be very painful, it's important to realize that this change is not personal or unique to your child--this is really the way your adolescent is learning how to be an adult.

Sudden Behavior Changes in Kids is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. This program offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James has used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes.


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