Shaping Your Teen’s Character Part 5: Out of Control Teens

As adapted from materials from James Lehman

Even with the best attempts and efforts, parents can find themselves caught in a battle with their teen. The book of Proverbs identifies the characteristics and outcomes of a wayward heart and mind. What looks like “out of control” behavior usually has a purpose, meaning and goal. A child’s inappropriate behavior is their way of dealing with everyday problems that other kids deal with through compliance. The teen has learned to use defiance instead of compliance to deal with relationships and responsibilities. To move towards change, it becomes more important to focus on what the child needs to do to improve than to focus on why he is misbehaving. Helping the child develop necessary problem-solving skills is the parent’s opportunity and responsibility.

Are children really the victims of unmanageable emotions, or does their behavior point to a purpose?  James Lehman states, “Inappropriate behavior can be understood as actions triggered by the need to compensate for an endless variety of perceptions, thoughts and feelings that the child finds disturbing but is unable to resolve.”1 A teen’s disrespectful, obnoxious and abusive behavior compensates for their faulty reasoning, poor problem-solving skills, perception of powerlessness, need for control, low tolerance for frustration, intellectual and functional laziness, fears and insecurities. In other words, a set of actions can upset a teen who then reacts to stop the feeling of being upset or distressed.

Parents often struggle with accurately recognizing their child’s behavior as obnoxious or abusive. Instead, some choose to label the behavior as a phase, or to identify (even blame) some outside source that is causing their child to act poorly. Unfortunately, this leads to parents giving in to the blackmail behavior instead of demanding change. The teen will then feel empowered by the passive response and proceed to become even more demanding. Teens don’t react passively to passivity; they react aggressively to passivity, sensing it as a sign of weakness.

This negative downward spiral does not produce change, just hurt and frustration. It more often produces ineffective parenting and teens who try to take the role of authority. This spiraled parenting role seems to come from a “script” that the kid has written to fight what is right and get their own way at all costs. At this point, parents have two choices when confronted with difficult children: to continue to parent as if their child is the child they dreamed of parenting, or to develop the skills necessary to parent the child they actually have. Parents have the opportunity to become the type of parent their child needs them to be. Feeling shame for the situation or blame for why their kid is bad will only keep the downward spiral going. God’s promises of His strength, mercy and faithfulness are also included to parents of tough teens! God’s first two children (Adam and Eve) had struggles as well, so He knows that parenting pain. He also provided a way and the strength to get through.

What can feel like an overwhelming and impossible task needs to be taken one small step at a time. Beaten down parents are good at identifying what’s broken, but let’s look at strengthening parenting roles that lead to accountability. Parents can play specific roles which affect the level of social skill building, problem solving and responsibility taking that occurs in families. These roles are defined by parental leadership, clarity, willingness and respect for a child’s potential. As we develop our teens, there’s a difference between knowing what’s wrong, knowing something’s wrong, and knowing right from wrong. Knowing what’s wrong precedes training and coaching; knowing something’s wrong precedes problem solving; knowing right from wrong precedes accountability or setting appropriate limits. It is important to know where we fall on the left side of the chart below so we can proceed with the corresponding action on the right side. These actions are further described in the following chart on this page.

Knowledge needed before we act (precedes) Action to take once we know
Knowing WHAT is wrong. Parent can use Training and Coaching.
Now I know SOMETHING’S wrong. Parent can use Problem Solving.
Knowing RIGHT from wrong. Parent can instill Accountability (Limit Setting).

When parents work to learn these roles and implement them with their teens, they are moving towards a culture (a way of life or mindset) of accountability (being responsible for one’s actions) in their home. It is the goal of parents to create a culture in their home that promotes responsibility for functions and accountability for actions.

Three parenting roles that are fundamental for creating this culture include the Training and Coaching Role, the Problem Solving Role, and the Limit Setting Role. A brief outline of the characteristics being taught in each parenting role are as follows.2

Training and Coaching Problem Solving Limit Setting
Focuses on skill building, rehearsal and repetition. Understands importance of problem solving as a process. Establishes and maintains parental authority.
Keeps the child’s eyes on the prize. Helps child to identify goals and obstacles. Understands the importance of standards and task completion.
Teaches by example and utilizes social skills in everyday life. Encourages exploration and experimentation. Identifies the parent as the person you answer to.
Understands the importance of skill rehearsal and repetition. Recognizes setbacks and failure as opportunities for life’s learning experiences. Expects compliance with rules.
Displays responsible love and concern. Participates in mutual decision-making Expects progress with problems.
Provides strategic help and solutions. Accepts independence as a legitimate interest of adolescents. Perceives compliance as a legitimate interest of parents.
Provides ideas for replacement and reciprocity. Sets firm outer boundaries with fluid, flexible center. Communicates belief in the child through expectations.



  1. James Lehman, The Total Transformation Program (Westbrook, ME: Legacy Publishing Company, 2010).
  2. Ibid.

To view the entire resource, Shaping Your Teen’s Character, please click here.