Three Main Reasons Why
Good Kids Go Bad
And How to Stop it!
By Scott P. Sells,
P. Sells, Ph.D., author of, Treating the Tough Adolescent:
A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (New York: Guilford Press,
1998) and Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps
to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2001), has given seminars to thousands of professional
counselors and parents. Author of 12 major publications, Professor
at Savannah State University, Executive Director of Savannah
Family Institute, Savannah, Georgia and consultant for the Department
of Juvenile Justice, he has treated hundreds of difficult children
over the past fourteen years and is available with his associate, Greg
Lindsey, to conduct workshops for professionals and parents.]
Before you can figure out how to stop your teen’s behavior problems,
you must first understand, “Why is my teen misbehaving? How did my
teen go from having only a few problems to becoming completely out-of-control?”
I have thoroughly researched this problem over the past six years,
identifying three major reasons why teens “go bad”. More importantly,
I have found ways it can be stopped. As you read the top three reasons,
ask yourself, “do these reasons make sense and speak to my heart?”
Trust your instincts as a parent. They are usually right. Hopefully
these reasons will serve as eye-openers to let you see your teen in
a completely different light:
Reason #1: Button Pushing
Many teens have learned how get their way through “button pushing.”
For example, whenever you try to set down a rule or enforce a consequence,
your teen will push your buttons, saying, “I hate you”, “You never
let me do anything”, or, “You’re such a disappointment”. Or they might
intentionally or unintentionally anger, frustrate, or belittle you
during an argument, using a whiny voice or a disgusted look. You in
turn might use the buttons of lecturing or criticizing, while your
teen may use the buttons of swearing or rolling his or her eyes.
Many teens learn that arguments with parents are like a big game, with
the object of being the first person to control the mood or direction
of any confrontation by pushing the other person’s buttons. Whoever
can do this first has the most power to control the other player, regardless
of their size or age. For example, the kids in toy stores who whine
loudly, making a scene, until their parents buy the toy, have learned
the rules of this game early in life; physical size or strength matters
little. Whoever controls the mood of the other person through button
pushing is the winner. We seem to have forgotten these rules and how
the game is played when we become adults. The top 10 buttons teens
love to push, along with the top 8 buttons parents push on them can
be found at www.difficult.net,
as well as in my book, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7
Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love.
If your teen has become a master button pusher, here are five button
busters to stop it cold:
(1) Exit and Wait
(2) Recognize buttons as a game, not a personal
(3) Stay Short and to the Point
(4) Use Secret Signs.
(5) Use Reflectors.
Here is one of my favorites: Using Secret Signs. When your buttons
are pushed, you do not have to face these challenges alone. If a spouse
or significant other is living with you, the two of you can develop
a set of secret signs to signal when your buttons are being pushed.
For example, one parent held up the word "Stop" on a sign,
while another used a cutting motion across the throat as a sign to
exit and wait.
Your signals should be custom designed by you and kept secret from
your teen. You want to keep your teen off balance and guessing sometimes.
If discovered, that’s OK, but don’t volunteer the information. For
example, every time a mother was losing control, the father would walk
over without saying a word and kiss her on the cheek to remind her
in a playful and fun way to calm down. You can develop any sign you
want, but make sure they’re lighthearted and playful. They should never
signal criticism or a lack of support for the other parent; it is important
that each parent feel the support and encouragement needed to help
change their parenting style. Single parents or those with an unsupportive
spouse can create secret signs with the oldest child who is not having
the behavior problem, to signal each time the parent is observed to
be taking the bait and having buttons pushed. Other button busters
and how to use them are on my website.
Reason #2: Your Teen Is Drunk With Power
Many good kids take a turn for the worse because they become “drunk
with power;” by using one or more of the following 7 big guns or “aces”
to commit acts of Parent Abuse or Teen Terrorism:
· Truancy or Poor School Performance
· Running Away
· Threats or Acts of Violence
· Sexual Promiscuity and Teen Pregnancy
· Alcohol or Drug Abuse
· Threats of Suicide
Parent abuse or teen terrorism is defined as a teen’s skillful ability
to use any of these aces to scare, intimidate, frustrate, or anger
the parent into backing down and handing over all parental authority
and power to the teenager. I chose the term “aces” after watching a
movie where an actor used an ace hidden up his sleeve to defeat his
opponents at the precise moment they appeared to be winning. In the
same way, out of control teens will use these 7 aces to defeat the
parent whenever he or she tries to regain lost authority. Here are
Level One: Disrespect
“I want to go to this party. If they tell me something I don’t want
to hear, I am going to start cussing or rolling my eyes. This will
push their hot buttons and get them frustrated enough so they will
get off the subject of the party. Then if I stop the disrespect they
might back down, let me go to the party, and I will win.”
Level Two: Truancy or Failing School
“Cussing does not seem to be working like it used to. It doesn’t faze
mom anymore, and she won’t back down. If I want to get my way I think
I need to up the ante a bit. She values my education a lot. It will
drive her crazy if I start to ditch school or come home with straight
F’s. Then if I start going back to school and bring my grades up a
little, she might be willing to back off and let me have my way on
Level Three: Running Away
“At first, the ditching school and failing grades stuff worked great.
But then my mom started talking to the teachers regularly and decided
to go to school with me in curlers and a ratty bathrobe if I ditched.
That was way too embarrassing. So now, I have to up the ante again
to get her to back off. It would freak her out if I start running away
when we argue.”
Level Four: Teen Pregnancy
“My mom is worried that I am not using protection and will get pregnant.
When I run away and am out all night, she worries even more. She is
so scared that she is afraid to stand up to me for fear that I might
have unprotected sex or get pregnant. Her fears make her back down
and give me what I want.”
Level Five: Alcohol or Drug Abuse
“While I am running away and having unprotected sex, I am also smoking
pot on a regular basis. Now my mom does not know what to do or where
to turn. Over time, she handled the disrespect and ditching school
just fine but now she seems overwhelmed. It is just too much for her
to handle, so she gives in and lets me have free reign. She has lost
Level Six: Threats or Acts of Violence
“Something happened. Mom must have gotten a second wind or something.
She videotaped me smoking pot and turned it over to the police. She
is also requiring that I get a birth control shot once every three
months. I must act fast. I threatened her with a knife the other day
and it seemed to do the trick. She is scared again and has backed down.”
Level Seven: Threats of Suicide
“The threat of violence thing was working great until mom started to
exit and wait, call the police, and press charges against me. Now I
have decided to throw down the gauntlet. A friend of mine went into
a psych hospital for depression. She told me that if I threaten to
kill myself, every adult would get scared and get off my case. I think
I will try this ace tomorrow.”
These examples describe a teen who had what I lightheartedly refer
to as “Multiple Ace Disorder.” Though not a real diagnosis, it should
be. Most teens will not go to such great lengths, however, many will
quickly jump from one level to the next if their current ace is not
working. These are not bad kids. They are merely creative and skillful
in knowing how to get you to back down. Remember, to them it is a game
of strategy. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that ultimately they
are the losers.
If the “7 Aces” are successful in getting you to back down your teen
then quickly becomes drunk with power, which initially feels great
to your teen. However, as you can see, to maintain the power position
your teen has to use more and more extreme aces. At ages 12 through
18, your teen’s time and energy should go toward being a kid, going
to school, playing sports, dating, getting a job, and preparing to
leave home. Instead, your out-of-control teen uses that same energy
to figure out how to stay in control of your household. This is a real
tragedy that makes good kids turn bad, forcing parents to become prisoners
in their homes.
To stop these “7 Aces” you need a consequence that tastes so bitter
your teenager would rather give up the payoff of the ace: total freedom,
special attention and controlling your household; rather than continue
suffering the punishment. This is no easy task; the older teenagers
become, the fewer consequences they care about. Yet, I have created
a menu of “off the wall “ consequences that will matter to your teenager.
Though perhaps they sound strange, remember, desperate times often
call for desperate measures. Many parents have discovered that these
recipes work extremely well, but they are not for the faint of heart.
The details for these recipes that can effectively help you stop each
ace appear in my book, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager.
The Stealth Bomber
Turn your teen’s Achilles Heel of materialism into your advantage.
Your teenager might stop ditching school, running away, or committing
threats or acts of violence if his or her material possessions are
“pawned.” Give the teen a “pawn ticket” explaining why the item was
taken, and what needs to take place to have the item returned.
The Prime Suspect
Stop alcohol and drug abuse by carefully monitoring your teen using
low cost drug screens and home camcorders to document the activity.
The 24-Hour Watch
There are ways to stop threats of suicide by safely watching your
teen 24 hours a day until the danger has passed, without completely
Reason #3: Love Between You and Your Teenager is Lost
If you find you “still love your teen, but no longer like him or her”,
your sentiments are shared by thousands of parents. Actually, your
teen’s misbehavior is as much connected to a lack of structure as it
is to a lack of nurturance and tenderness between you and your teen.
When parents want to be their teen’s best friend, but provide no structure,
the teen gets out-of-control quickly. Other families, who run their
home as a military boot camp are shocked when their teen gets angrier
and more violent outside the home, a result of plenty of structure
but little or no nurturance. These teens become bitter and angry, taking
their feelings out on the rest of the world.
“Tough love” is frequently in the media, with politicians calling for
tougher laws, more prisons, and stricter punishments to stop our out-of-control
teenagers. I have just one question: if tough love is the miracle cure
for the 21st century, why do the same teens keep having the same problems
over and over again? Without a balance between love and limits, teens
may have just as many emotional or behavioral problems.
Teens say they need mainly two things:
· to be hugged at least two or more times a day
away from their
friends, no matter how good or bad they
were that week, and
· special outings with their parents.
They state, “I act tough, like I could care less about hugs, going
stiff as a board when my parents try; sometimes I push them away. That
is just an act. My hug muscles are just sore and out of practice. I
need my parents to keep trying, no matter what I did that week. Their
love for me should not be given only if I was good.”
Teens also explain, “I always act like I don’t want to spend time with
my parents but I really do deep inside. The problem has been that since
I was eight years old my dad told me I had to be good to go out on
special outings. I always seem to fall short and get into trouble.
Eventually we stopped all going out together, which made me really
resentful. Now the only time I see my dad is when he yells, lectures,
or puts me down. I just shut down. My friends are my family now.”
My book describes additional strategies that have brought some of the
toughest kids back from the abyss. Please try these strategies yourself.
You will not be sorry. Although there may be other reasons in addition
to raging hormones and moodiness that cause teens to quickly move into
out-of-control status seemingly overnight, research shows the reasons
I have identified here to be the core factors. I hope this discussion
has hit home with you, helping you see the bigger picture. Remember,
“Rules without Relationship lead to Rebellion.”