Is Your Child Engaging in Delinquent Behavior? 4 Ways to Manage It

Is Your Child Engaging in Delinquent Behavior? 4 Ways to Manage It

It seems whenever you  turn on any news program there’s a frightening story  about today’s youth:  violence, vandalism, risky behavior and outright refusal  to follow parental or  societal rules. The fact is there have always been a  certain number of people –  youth and adults – who engage in criminal behavior,  since the beginning of  time. In our world of technology, we hear and  see it more. A teenager  committing a violent act today is likely to  end up on YouTube. But what about  the parents who hear the stories and think,  “That could be my kid” or “Will that be my kid in a few years”?

“Remember,  don’t work harder than your child. That means  that you need to let him—and not  you—pay the price for his conduct.”


Related: Oppositional, defiant child or teen? How to  parent them  effectively.

If you’re the parent of a  child or teen behaving in an illegal or delinquent  manner, chances are you live  in constant fear of what may happen next. You  wonder, “Is my son going to get  in a fight with anyone today? Will my daughter  sneak out of the house tonight  after curfew? Am I going to get a call from the  principal or the police saying  my kid spray–painted graffiti all over the  school?” Many parents lose sleep  from worrying about the trouble their child is  already in – or seems bound and  determined to get into!

How and Why Did This Happen?

Parents usually know when  serious concerns start with their child. Sometimes  it’s at the point of  adolescence, when factors like peers, hormones, mood  changes and extreme  rebellion come into play. Or perhaps a child has  experienced a severe loss or  trauma and her behavior starts to change. Other  times, issues may have existed  since birth and have continued to escalate over  the years. Medical concerns,  stress and anxiety can all contribute to  behavioral concerns. It’s human nature  to want to find out why a child  is  acting a certain way. (Why is my  daughter verbally abusing me? Why is  my son breaking things  in my home? Why did he hit that other kid?)

Related: Tired of patching the holes that your child  punched in the  wall?

The why can, in fact, help us in understanding and sometimes   redirecting behavior. For example, if the behavior starts as the result of a   loss, like a death or divorce, you can find ways to get professional help for   your child. But the fact is, no matter what the why is, we still need  to deal with the behavior—and there still needs  to be consequences. If a  33–year–old man ends up in court for stealing a car,  and says “But Your Honor,  I stole the car because I needed the money to pay for  food,” the judge isn’t  going to say, “Oh, well that explains it. I understand  and that’s a good  reason. Please go freely on your way without consequence…and  pick up some food  vouchers on the way out.” So while it can certainly be  important to address  anything that’s contributing to a child’s delinquent  behavior, we still need to  hold him accountable. That’s life – for all of us.

Early Signs

Delinquent behavior is a  term used to describe a pattern of committing  serious crimes – often violating  the rights of others. Some early warning signs  may be:

  • Physical aggression toward others
  • Destroying property or taking things that  don’t  belong to you with little regard for how this affects the other  person
  • Cruelty to others or to animals
  • Threatening or intimidating others

It’s important to  remember that most kids test limits and some  may even engage in isolated  incidents that are dealt with by giving an  effective consequence. Professionals  are more concerned when there is a  pattern that shows a lack of empathy or disregard for the rights of  others.

Note: If your child is engaging in a pattern of  dangerous, abusive or violent behavior, we suggest consulting with a  professional therapist for support and intervention immediately.

Related: Is it time to call the police on your  child?

How You Can Manage Delinquent Behavior in Kids

An important thing that  we always tell parents is, “You can’t control your  child’s behavior; you can  only control your response to it.” You are not  responsible for every choice  your child makes, and you can’t be with them 100  percent of the time to make  sure they behave appropriately. When your son or  daughter steps out of the door  each day, they are using their own judgment to  make decisions about what they  will or won’t do. Your job is to hold  them responsible when they misbehave. If your child is engaging in  delinquent behavior—or is  showing signs that she might—there are four  crucial things you can do as a  parent:

1. Hold your children accountable for their actions: We  can’t  stress enough how important it is to hold your child accountable for his  or her  actions. This can also mean letting them experience the natural  consequences of  legal or court involvement. It’s instinctual to want to protect  our kids. No  parent wants their child to be put on  probation or spend  time in a detention center. Unfortunately the desire to  protect our kids can  lead to rescuing them from consequences, which only makes  things worse and can  reinforce the negative behavior. That’s common sense,  right? But have you ever  noticed how common sense can fly right out the window  when our emotions are  involved? If you’re terrified your son may be arrested,  it’s hard to listen to  your common sense or an “internal voice” that says, “Let  him learn from this so  he doesn’t do it again.” Our heart plays tricks on us  and says, “But maybe he  didn’t mean it. Maybe it won’t happen again. A police  record will ruin his  future.” We want to give our child the benefit of the  doubt when in fact, it’s  often the worst thing we can do for him.

But remember, don’t work  harder than your child. That means that you need to  let him—and not you—pay the  price for his conduct. We understand that it’s  terrifying when your child  behaves in a way that is dangerous or abusive. As a  parent, you should absolutely  take steps to hold him accountable: allow him to  experience natural  consequences even if that means legal charges.

Related: Calling the police on your child: A fact sheet  for parents.

2. Walk the walk. Talk  about your values  as a family—and then live them. Kids remember what we do even  more than what we  say. With that in  mind, make sure you’ve communicated your own  values and model for your child  the behavior you would like to see. (If you  don’t want him stealing, don’t  steal.) While our kids won’t make all the same  choices we do, they will have a  blue print for how to behave appropriately if  you’re “walking the walk.” But  don’t forget that your child has the biggest  role in this if he’s engaging in  delinquent actions. It’s his job to   change his behavior. Your role is to uphold your values as much as possible,   give appropriate consequences and allow natural consequences to happen, hold   him accountable, and help him problem solve so he can “learn how to do things   differently next time.”

Related: Why kid behave inappropriately—and how to teach  them to behave  differently.

3. Give Fail–Proof Consequences: If your child is already  engaging  in delinquent behavior (threats, aggression, stealing, vandalism,  staying out  past curfew, running away), you may need to involve the police.  That’s a hard  pill to swallow. Hopefully things will not reach a serious level  with court  involvement, but it’s important to leave a paper trail to show you  attempted to  intervene early on with illegal behaviors. Call the police if it’s  a legal  issue. Ask yourself: “Would I call the police if a neighbor kid engaged  in the  same behavior?” If the neighbor kid yelled at you and called you a name,  you  probably wouldn’t involve the police. But you also wouldn’t do favors or  nice  things for him such as letting him borrow your car or lending him money.  The  same applies for your child.

Kids who frequently break  rules without caring about consequences can be  tough. It’s easy to get caught  up in the idea of “Nothing works – nothing  matters to my child.” In fact, your  child may act like they don’t care about  what consequences you give, but do it  anyway and do it consistently. It shows  that when your child does A, B will always  follow. Fail–proof consequences are  those that you – the parent – have complete  control over. Grounding is not a  fail–proof consequence: your kid can always  walk out the door or sneak out the  window. Not giving her money or buying her  special things like make–up,  designer clothes, or fast food are fail–proof  consequences. She can’t  force you to  spend your money.

Related: How to give your child fail–proof consequences,  step by step.

Your child may act like  she doesn’t care. She may continue to make the same  choices, without changing  her behavior. But you – the parent – have shown her  what happens in “Real Life.”  In the Real World, there are consequences; whether  or not you decide to change  your behavior is ultimately up to you. Some people  become uncomfortable with  negative consequences quickly and change their  behavior right away. For others  it may take some time.

4. Find support for you. One of the hardest things  you can do as a parent when your child is acting out or engaging in risky  or delinquent behavior is to go through this alone. It’s natural to  feel embarrassed or ashamed, but realize that many, many other parents have  faced these problems with their kids and come out on the other side. You  don’t have to go through this alone. Try to find help in the form of a  support group, a trusted friend or mate, a counselor, or the community here on  Our program, the ODD  Lifeline, was developed for parents of Oppositional Defiant kids, and  teaches you different techniques as a parent to help you handle the  behavior and not personalize it. James and Janet Lehman’s Total  Transformation is another great tool for parents of acting out kids  –  and typical kids who act out occasionally. The point is, there is help out there  for you if you need it.

Why Do People Change?

Think about any change  you’ve ever made in your life, whether you quit  smoking, ended an unhealthy  relationship, changed jobs or lost weight. You made  the decision to change your  behavior because you were uncomfortable  enough  to do so. You weren’t okay with some of the current or potential  consequences  any longer. Our kids have the ability to change their behavior,  too. It’s often  the motivation they lack. As a  parent, you can’t  control your child’s behavior, but you can help motivate her  to change by  making her uncomfortable with her behavior.

It’s hard to watch our  kids make what we consider to be poor choices. But we  can still love them. We  can continue to guide them as best we can. And most  importantly, we can  continue to hold them accountable now so they  understand that society will hold them accountable as adults. It’s the  best we  can do.


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