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Posted May 14, 2003 

Three Main Reasons Why Good Kids Go Bad
And How to Stop it!

By Scott P. Sells, Ph.D.

Scott P. Sells[Scott 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, as well as in my book, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love.

Possible Solutions
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 attack
       (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:
     · Disrespect
     · 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 some examples:

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 other things.”

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 control!”

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.

Possible Solutions
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 exhausting yourself.

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.

Possible Solutions
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.”

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