Child’s Targeted Behavior Problems

by James Lehman, MSW

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

“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.

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. Within a few weeks after the wedding, Danielle’s behavior toward David became openly 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 stepparent 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, he gets self-confidence. 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 a constant pain in the neck for 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 or stepparent 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 by 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.

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.

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 somehow easier for parents to argue with each other over the child’s behavior than it is to demand that the child change. 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, stepparents 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:

1. They need to help the child develop specific social skills in the areas of conflict resolution, negotiation and compromise.
2. 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. In The Total Transformation Program, I provide parents with a step-by-step way to teach these life skills to your children.

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  1. Thank you, Ellen, for this article. I remarried 2 years ago and see some of these issues with my step-son.

    M.R. mom of 4 small souls

  2. Be aware that being apparently compliant in one setting and very non-compliant in another may be a sign of Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome, a pervasive developmental disorder, and not caused by adults.

  3. In a situation I had last year, my autistic grandson started to want to avoid being around a housekeeper, saying to me that he was “spitting” at him (his word for treating him with contempt, when I wasn’t looking. He didn’t want her to be in the same room with him, or have him looking at him while he was working. I didn’t believe him at first, but after she started to steal items from the house, I was forced to fire her and now believe he was telling the truth. He even tried to take a picture of her but the digital camera wasn’t fast enough to catch the raspberry she was making at him. He was also devastated because her son had been his friend.

  4. I see I have a pronoun problem…I meant “she” was spitting at him, and he didn’t want her looking at him while he was working.

  5. As a child care provider, I can tell you first hand that it is almost comical how quickly children figure out which adults can be “played” and which ones can’t, and how young it starts. Adults who thinks that young children do not know how to manipulate and are just expressing honest emotions with fits, mean words, etc, need to spend some time on the child care providers side of the door and see how quickly it dries up once the target closes the door.

  6. Denise, I agree with you completely. I see my neighbor’s children who really “play” their mom and get away with everything until their Dad gets home.

  7. Working in a Nursery School, I see the kids behave so well in the class until their parent is the helper that day. It’s like night and day. In front of the child’s parent, I will ask the child to ‘show mom how you really act when she is not here.’

  8. Wow Ellen, thank you for publishing this article. I will look into the product recommended too.

    I recognize this pattern in a ten year old boy I know. He is an intelligent, precocious, interesting kid who can be a total gentleman in certain circumstances but totally verbally abusive to his younger brother.

    Fascinating stuff. What I want to know now is what to do about the feelings behind this behavior. If it’s poor self esteem leading to the bullying, what to do about that? I’m not one who thinks that self esteem can come from external stuff, it has to come from within.

    What’s next then?

  9. Ellen C. Braun says:

    Hi Carrie, that’s a great question- how to improve self esteem. Search through this list for lots of wisdom and ideas:

    Also, I somewhat disagree with your last statement (If I understood it correctly, which I may not have), and I recently heard a terrific quote: You can’t think your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings. Real esteem comes from true accomplishments and overcoming obstacles, not from a warm and fuzzy sensation in the heart.

  10. No doubt you are right about manipulation and child care. However the housekeeper mentioned above wasn’t given sole care of the child, I was in the house. And you can’t lose a stainless steel Italian pressure cooker very easily…I overlooked the money disappearing from my purse. That I could have misplaced or lost.

    Some Asperger’s children hold themselves together as well as they can at school, and it takes everything they have, and then fall apart at home, or become abusive. I’ve seen it in ASD adults too. That’s why my grandson is homeschooled here.

  11. Kathleen,
    Just to clarify, I would have to make the obvious exception for children with certain disabilties such as Asperger’s. My comments were targeted at the article itself and not at your comment. I feel it’s very important to make that clarification.

  12. It’s SO important to differentiate between a child who is capable of improving with some simple parenting changes, and a child who has a deeper problem, such as bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, etc.

    My 10yo daughter is openly hostile toward her brother almost always, and to me sometimes; less often to her dad (he is often away at work), and almost never to anyone outside the immediate family. She is bipolar. We have consulted many professionals over the years, and all agree that we have a practically ideal family situation, including two loving parents who are consistent with discipline and expectations, strong attachments within our family, healthy diet, financial stability, etc. My daughter’s anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of powerlessness come from her chemical imbalances. We have avoided prescription med’s so far, but we have now scheduled an appointment to discuss using some, as we have tried everything we can to get her more stable, and it is glaringly apparent that without chemical help, she is unable to move forward any further.

    As a former public-school teacher (now homeschooling mom), I’ve always been stunned by parents who use various diagnoses to “excuse” the behavior of their child and their own lack of consistency in parenting. Now that I’m parenting this child, I am convinced that there are some situations that are outside the parents’ control without medical assistance.

    Having said that, however, I believe that the advice in this article is very valuable. We all have room for improvement!

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