Jekyll & Hyde Children: Targeted Behavior Problems

For many children, behavior problems are not universal; they’re targeted at certain people: dad, mom, the stepmother, the fiancé, a sibling. The following two case studies reveal how normally obedient and compliant children can become defiant or even abusive with one family member. James Lehman examines why this behavior happens and what parents can do about it.

Case study #1: When Lisa remarried, she was confident that her three kids would grow to love David as much as she did. Her oldest daughter, Danielle (16), had never really warmed up to David, but she thought she’d come around. Danielle had always been a sweet and pretty resilient kid. Lisa was wrong. Several weeks after the wedding, Danielle’s behavior toward David became extremely hostile. If he so much as tried to assert himself in a parenting role, Danielle would blow up. After one epic argument involving curfew, she stopped speaking to David altogether-and hasn’t uttered a word to him in the last two years. Danielle will speak to everyone in the family, except David, who remains the object of her unending wrath.

Case study #2: People who know Brian, Susan and their four children always tell them they look like “the perfect family” and compliment them on how polite their children are. But inside their home, they are far from perfect. Their 15-year-old son Jacob is a tyrant, particularly toward his mother and his youngest brother. He uses intimidating language with Susan and is physically abusive with six-year-old Tyler. “Jacob is all smiles when we’re in public,” says Susan. “But when we come home, he turns into this whole different kid.”

Kids recognize and deal with people in different ways almost from birth. As infants, they respond differently to their mother, a caregiver or a family friend. This continues into childhood and adolescence. They recognize the differences in adults, and those differences often fall into two categories. Which adults have power and which adults don’t have power? Which adults can you manipulate with bad behavior and which adults can you not manipulate? As kids grow up, they recognize which adults cannot follow through on consequences, which ones accept their excuses for inappropriate behavior and which ones buy them things to win their allegiance. They learn which adult is always making excuses for them and which one sets limits.

When a child targets one person when he acts out, it’s an indication that he has learned he can feel powerful at the expense of that person, whether it’s a parent, a step parent or a sibling. On the surface, you won’t see the kid getting anything out of this targeted behavior. It’s not like he gets out of a consequence by calling his mother abusive names. He does it because he feels like a zero, and when he can bully his mother, he feels powerful. He feels weak and shaky about himself and lacks self-confidence. When he puts her down, his self-confidence increases. It’s a simple, basic behavioral dynamic.

To understand what kids get out of this, imagine you have a boss that you don’t like. Let’s say that boss is constantly harassing you. How often do you dream about telling him off? You imagine what it would be like to tell him off and think about how great you’ll feel. It probably will feel great for fifteen seconds, until you figure out how you’re going to find another job. It’s the same thing for these kids. They are telling off their boss, and they get the same sense of gratification out of it. To make it even better, they get to tell their boss off every day. In Danielle’s case, she has been telling off the boss for two years.

When children target a parent with their inappropriate behavior, they have most likely seen that there is a division in how the parents deal with the child-that the parents are not in alliance. They get two different messages from the parents, and they get power by picking on the weaker of the two parents, confronting the parent who challenges their power base or lashing out at the parent they deem is “unfair.” Children who target parents or siblings for acting out often don’t have high self-esteem. They are afraid to feel certain things or be confronted with certain situations. So they try to control people by making one of the parents or a sibling a victim.

It’s a natural reaction for parents to become divided when this targeted behavior is going on in the family. Parents become angry at the child and at each other. It’s much easier for parents to argue with each other about the child’s behavior than it is to demand changes from the child. But this is exactly what parents need to avoid. Parents have to join together and decide what they’re going to do-together-when the child is abusive. Whether both parents witness it or not, both parents have to say, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Say this directly, clearly and firmly to the child who is acting out. Don’t look to blame the other kids in the family. Don’t blame each other. Put the responsibility for the behavior back on the child who is acting out.

Whether you are parenting the child as parents, step parents or foster parents, the most important word to remember is “We.” In Danielle’s case, when she rejects her stepfather, she is rejecting is the authority figure that he represents. Lisa shouldn’t try to shoulder the burden of this conflict alone, and David should neither withdraw from the parenting role to avoid conflict nor incite it by getting into shouting matches with Danielle. Lisa and David need to stand together and be very clear with Danielle, saying, “We are both your parents. And if you act in a disrespectful way with either one of us, you will be held equally accountable.”

The case of Jacob reminds me of my days working in youth detention centers. One day I remember asking a kid, “Do you curse at the staff in here?” And he said no. I asked him, “Why not? You curse at your mother.” Kids know who has the authority and who doesn’t. The kid in the detention center knew the staff members had authority and wouldn’t put up with being cursed at. His mom didn’t have authority over him, so he cursed her. What Brian and Susan need to realize is that Jacob understands if he disrespects people outside the home, the consequences will be clear, swift and uncomfortable. So when he disrespects his mother or his little brother, the consequences should also be clear, swift and uncomfortable. They need to observe what is different and what works about his behavioral responses outside the home and apply those things to their home.

The child who bullies specific people in the home has to learn the skills it takes to feel powerful and competent in more age appropriate ways. Parents should address two things:

They need to help the child develop specific social skills in the areas of conflict resolution, negotiation and compromise. Parents have to work together to set clear and powerful limits to manage the behavior, always remembering to be united and use the word “we.” The end result is that the child learns more skills to manage his feelings and not to abuse one person or take things out on them. He learns to manage those feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness, confusion and helplessness himself. When parents teach these skills and kids learn them, both sides end up happier. Even though the child doesn’t get his way as often and even though the parent has to work at it a bit, they both feel happier because they know things are working in the family.

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