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"Machiavellian" Behavior in Out-of-Control Teens

My 14 year-old son has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADD, sensory integration dysfunction, other processing disorders and is a genius. Things have been manageable until recently when I began to date an old college boyfriend. I am a 47 year old single parent twice divorced with 1 son from each marriage. My 14 year old lives with me 365 days of the year and his 10 year old half-brother lives with us about 40% of the time. I am a full time trial lawyer for a local government agency and help with my aging parents.

Recently my 14 year old has ramped up the rude and disrespectful behavior, like calling me a bitch and being rude to his brother. My boyfriend will not come to my home- which pleases my son greatly. Implementing consequences for the name-calling has been met with intense response--like stating he will turn his brother against me and convince him to never come to our home. Mean, horrible things like that. He rages and his incredibly intense, always has been. His psychiatrist thinks he may need residential treatment--I hate to think it has come to that. Any suggestions to eliminate the threats and Machiavellian behavior? Thank you for any input, M.H.


Hi M.,

A couple points:

1. Clearly he doesn’t want to share you with a boyfriend. But (a) you should be able to have a social life and (b) your son needs to learn the lesson that you are not his slave (i.e., not someone who pours all her time and energy into one person). Don’t let him manipulate you out of a relationship with a boyfriend.

2. A kid’s emotional and behavioral problems happen for a variety of reasons. There’s never just one simple cause. The current problems could be due to something at home or school, something that happened in the past, bio-chemical changes that occur as the child develops, etc. (you did mention that he is 14-years-old now …kids usually fire their caretakers as managers around this age and say, ”I take it from here”). In any event, it wouldn’t be a good use of time and energy to speculate about the cause. All we can do is address issues today.

You mentioned “things have been manageable until recently.” I find that when parents were experiencing an improvement in their child’s behavior, and then things got worse again, it is nearly always the case that the parent has neglected some of her strategies. The method discussed in my ebook consists of a ‘set of strategies’ that must be used ‘in combination’ with one another. If any part of the method is overlooked, the entire system fails.

Consider all the individual components in the transmission of your car. If just one tiny part (e.g., a check ball or a little spring) is lose or broken, the entire transmission stops working. The same is true with these parenting strategies.

Let me provide you with a check-list. If you answer “no” to any of these statements, you may have discovered a potential problem in your parenting transmission:

1. After issuing a consequence, I never retract it.

2. I allow my out-of-control kid to make wrong choices, which gives him wisdom; experience is a great teacher.

3. I am able to differentiate between my kid’s wants and her/his needs.

4. I don’t nag – I simply follow through with the consequence.

5. I don’t try to save my kid from negative consequences and painful emotions associated with poor choices.

6. I expect my out-of-control kid to resist my new parenting strategies.

7. I give equal love to all my kids, but parent them differently.

8. I give only one warning -- then I follow through with the consequence.

9. I give my kid at least five chores to do each week.

10. When I slip into a rage against my kid, I apologize, but I don’t try to compensate by over-indulging him/her.

11. I keep an eye out for my kid’s guilt-trips.

12. I know that a weaker parenting-strategy supported by both parents is better than a stronger strategy supported by only one, and I adjust accordingly.

13. I have learned to say “no”-- and to stick with “no” when it is my answer.

14. I only give my kid gifts on birthdays, Christmas and graduation.

15. I understand that over-indulged kids are too comfortable and that they need some discomfort before they will change.

16. I understand that parenting is not a popularity contest – I am not a "buddy"!

17. I respond to my kid’s anger with a poker face.

18. When taking away privileges, I take away the privilege for a short period (3 days works best; if it lasts too long, resentment builds, my kid forgets the infraction, and the lesson is lost).

19. When I catch myself feeling sorry for my kid, I know it is a sign that I am – once again – taking on too much responsibility.

20. When my kid needs to be cheered-up, I do so with active listening, empathy, paraphrasing, validation, and hugs rather than giving her/him stuff or freedom (e.g., unearned privileges, food, gifts, fun activities, etc.).

21. I do not dabble with these non-traditional parenting strategies – I am consistent!

22. I regularly use “The Art Of Saying Yes” when my answer is yes (covered in the ebook).

23. I regularly use “The Art Of Saying No” when my answer is no (covered in the ebook).

24. I regularly use the strategy “When You Want Something From Your Kid” whenever I want my kid to do as requested (covered in the ebook).

25. I avoid power struggles at all cost.

26. I have the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and I have the wisdom to know the difference.

Do a quick tune-up on your parenting transmission, and things should become manageable again. And of course, let your son know that you have plenty of love to go around; you won’t love him any less or spend any less time with him just because you have a boyfriend.

Mark Hutten, M.A.


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