Arguing with kids often seems like a losing battle—and it is. No matter what you say, your child has a smart comeback that pushes your buttons or leaves you speechless. And worst of all, when your child is angry, nothing is fair, and it’s never his fault. James Lehman explains how, in any argument, your child might set different “traps” for you to fall into. Once you know what these traps are, you’ll be able to avoid them—and hold your child accountable. Here, James translates what your child is really saying during an argument.
You’ll often see kids blame others and point the finger at someone else when you hold them accountable for their behavior. Very often they see themselves as the victim, no matter how aggressive or abusive their behavior is. Thinking of themselves this way gives them the ability, in their mind, not to take any responsibility—and if you don’t take responsibility, then you won’t have to change.
If your child blames others or comes back with excuse after excuse whenever you call him on his behavior, I believe you need to start challenging his thinking. And if he acts out or is destructive in order to get away with inappropriate behavior, know that this is a warning sign: you need to find ways to stop that pattern immediately.
Here’s an example of how a conversation with your child can quickly be derailed by accusations, blame and anger. Let’s say the teen below hasn’t done his homework and now he’s behind at school. He was in a bad mood when he came home, so he takes it out on his little sister by picking on her and calling her foul names. His mother is concerned and upset, and she attempts to talk to him about what’s going on. Soon, their conversation deteriorates into an ugly argument:
Parent: “Why are you falling behind in school and picking on your sister so much lately?”
Child: “It’s her fault that I call her names—she’s always bugging me and taking my stuff. I’m sick of her crap.”
When you try to hold kids accountable, they will often use excuses to deflect your attempts to make them take responsibility for their actions. And in fact, if the mother in this example asked her child to apologize to his sister, he would say, “I’m sorry, but.” And it would be, “I’m sorry, but you looked at me funny.” Or “I’m sorry, but you laughed.” So whatever he says, he means “I’m sorry, but it was your fault.” And again, what he’s really stating here is, “I’m not responsible for what I say. I’m sorry, but I’m actually the victim here.”
One of the big signs of whether or not your child is ready to change is whether or not he is ready to stop being the victim. If he can stop that victim thinking and start to take some responsibility for himself, I don’t care if he’s 8 or 18, he has a better chance of changing than a child who continues to blame the world—and everybody in it.
Parent: “Well, why aren’t you keeping up with your work?”
Child: “The teacher didn’t explain the assignment to me. How should I know what she wants me to do? She’s an idiot.”
Again, what we see here is victim thinking. In this kid’s mind, it’s not his responsibility to get clarification from the teacher. One of the problems with this kind of thinking is that kids believe what they think—in fact, we all do. So if your child thinks it’s somebody else’s fault or that something isn’t fair, he’ll be able to justify a lot of inappropriate behavior and shirk a lot of responsibility. These are what we call “thinking errors”—and they cause a lot of problems for kids and adults alike.
Understand that in their minds, they believe they’re right. Kids think, “My friends are allowed to stay out until 10 o’clock. Why can’t I?” Or “Why can’t I watch another hour of TV?” That’s victim thinking: they believe they’re a victim of your stupidity or failure to understand their world. And then the next jump in their thinking process is, “It’s not fair.” When somebody thinks something isn’t fair, they are then able to reason, “This isn’t fair, so the rules don’t apply to me.” Next, they’re able to justify not following that rule.
Adults do the same thing. Very often, people know something is wrong, but they don’t see it as harmful. So they rationalize that the rules around that issue are unfair and they choose not to follow those rules. How many adults know that it’s wrong to speed, but speed anyway? When you ask them about it, they have a lot of reasons, excuses and justifications why the rule isn’t fair and why it shouldn’t apply to them. We see this in children all the time. When kids start complaining or blaming teachers, they’re basically saying “It’s not fair.” And once they believe that, then they don’t have to do the homework assignment, clean their room or mow the lawn. And many kids are adept at making something unfair right away—they’re professional victims.
As soon as your child excuses his irresponsibility by saying his teacher is an idiot, you can bet he’s found a way to rationalize not doing the work.
Parent: “Well, why didn’t you just talk to her after school if you didn’t understand?”
Child: “Why don’t you believe me? You’re always taking the teacher’s side. It’s not fair. Why are you always picking on me? God, you’re such a b—-.”
Once again, we see the victim mentality kick in. Kids with behavior problems and a lack of problem-solving skills see any questioning of their actions, no matter how benign, as an attack. They start by saying, “I already explained that it’s the teacher’s fault, why are you bothering me?” And then they add some power and sting to their words by getting verbally abusive. This is their strategy of “Agree with me, or face my acting out, face my aggression, face my verbal garbage.” So there’s the warning—”Agree with me or face my B.S.”—he’s starting to escalate so his parent will back down and leave him alone. The worst part about this strategy is that it often works for kids—and by the time they’re young adults, they’re left with no problem-solving skills in their arsenal except intimidation and aggression.
By the way, I think that you want to avoid letting your child gain control of the conversation by using curse words. If your child does this, make a mental note to deal with it later. That’s better than letting him push your buttons. Stay focused on the issue at hand. In fact, I often tell parents to write down the issue on an index card so they can keep referring to it when they’re tempted to get sidetracked.
If I was talking to this mother in my office, I would coach her not to accept any excuse for abuse. When her son verbally abuses his sister, there should be clear, firm immediate consequences for that. You don’t have to lose your focus to assign those consequences. Wait until the end of the conversation but make sure you address that. Secondly, I’d recommend that she give her child a consequence such as doing homework downstairs instead of in his room. She should tell him that she wants to see his homework every night until his grades go up, according to his midterm report. In other words, she should be setting appropriate limits on him until his grades go up.
If your child starts to escalate in this way and becomes verbally abusive, it’s also easy to become upset and angry and lose your temper. And that’s often just what he wants you to do, because then you’re stuck in a power struggle with him—and when that happens, you’re yelling and threatening, he’s yelling and threatening, and no one is talking about his responsibilities any more.
Parent: “What did you call me? How dare you talk to me that way—I’m your mother! ”
Child: “Why do you hate me so much? No one understands me but my friends. I hate you!”
When the parent in our example finally loses it and responds to her son’s aggression, he makes another personal attack upon her and tries to manipulate her emotionally. In the moment, he may believe what he says, and this is yet another thinking error. His mother doesn’t realize that for him, his solution is to attack—he wants to render her speechless. And if you’ll notice, he’s still not talking about taking any responsibility or solving the problem. They’re just going around and around because he continues to play the victim. And since his mother isn’t challenging him on that posture accurately, he’s just stepping up his verbal abuse and manipulation.
Parent: “I don’t hate you. Why would you say that?”
Child: “F— you, I’m out of here.” (Kicks the wall and leaves.)
Escaping a situation is the most primitive thing that humans do when they’re threatened: it’s the so-called “fight or flight” response. When your child reaches a point where he’s out of coping or problem-solving skills, his fight response is to yell at you, break things, or hurt people. If he chooses “flight,” he runs. This response is not good for communication or negotiation skill development, which are two fundamentals of problem solving. His behavior doesn’t resolve the conflict—in fact, both choices just tend to make things worse in the long run.
The antidote to “fight or flight” is developing the communication and negotiation skills that are the basics of problem solving. A child, who doesn’t want to communicate, has distorted thinking, constantly makes justifications, and continually takes a victim stance, has run out of coping skills. And when they run out of excuses, they start becoming verbally abusive and threatening. If that doesn’t stop, then they run. So for most of this argument, this child has been fighting—and when that doesn’t work, he decides to run.
The bottom line is that now this child’s escalation is getting physical. He went from verbal abuse to physical abuse when he kicked the wall. This is just another sign of his inability to communicate, his inability to solve problems and his world view that he’s a victim and “It’s not fair.” Again, if things aren’t fair, then the rules about cursing at people or breaking things don’t apply to him, because it’s not his fault. And that lets him off the hook. These kids have a way of thinking that justifies inappropriate behavior, that justifies violating other people’s boundaries and that sees them as a victim of everything. When you try to interfere with or challenge that kind of thinking, these kids will get more upset , threatening or destructive.
But as a parent, you have to challenge your child’s thinking errors and hold him accountable. Even though your child may try to shut down questions about his behavior, remember that you are the parent and you have control. My advice is to avoid getting sucked into a power struggle with your child, even when he leaves in the middle of an argument. Just say, “When you get back, we’re still going to have to deal with this.”
Realize that the thinking errors kids use interfere with their ability to take genuine responsibility for their actions or inactions. They also inhibit a parent’s ability to teach their child how to communicate, negotiate or solve problems responsibly. In fact, thinking errors make communication impossible: they distort reality and allow the person using them to avoid taking responsibility.
As a parent, it’s important to understand the thinking errors kids use so you won’t fall into the traps they set for you during an argument. If you know what your child is doing—and how to challenge him effectively—you can stop the blaming, excuse-making and victim thinking. In an upcoming article in Empowering Parents, I’ll be talking more about the thinking errors kids make—and how to deal with them as a parent.
Child Outbursts: Why Kids Blame, Make Excuses and Fight When You Challenge Their Behavior is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents.
Empowering Parents is a weekly newsletter, online magazine and parenting blog published by Legacy Publishing Company. Our goal is to empower people who parent by providing useful problem-solving techniques to parents and children. The views expressed in the articles on Empowering Parents represent the opinions of the authors and the experts quoted therein. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to respond to every question posted after an article on our website. Empowering Parents encourages its readers to participate by weighing in with suggestions and advice.
James Lehman was a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He worked with difficult children and teens for three decades. James held a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.