10 Things Parents Say About Their Troubled Child (And What they Really Mean)


Kids are far from perfect. Though in the eyes of their parents they are the most perfect creatures on earth; and that’s probably exactly why so many parents are in denial about their troubled kids. Trouble is a broad term used to describe someone who is not exactly on the right path. It might mean that a child has behavioral issues, emotional issues or personal issues. It could mean any number of things that range from minor concerns – a bad grade on one test or a week where a teen was a complete jerk – to major concerns such as drug use, alcohol abuse or even depression. The problem with parents, however, is that many of them are blinded to the fact that their once perfect little angel might have some real issues. I get it; I’m a parent. With four kids, I often wonder if we can make sure they all behave, make good grades and become awesome adults. I worry that one or more of them might end up troubled or in trouble. I wonder, often, whether or not my 4-year-old is so independent already that we’ve lost her. I wonder all the time if my kids will be all right, and sometimes I find myself making excuses for their behavior, “They’re tired. It was a late night.” “She’s having a rough day,” “She’s not feeling well, and that’s why she’s being such a monster today.”

It’s normal for parents to make excuses for their kids’ behavior. After all, we certainly are not going to sit back and say, “We screwed that one up, huh? Where did we go wrong with her? We should have spanked that one as a child.” All right, we’re going to make those jokes time and time again as our kids are being hellions, but we’re not going to mean them. In our minds, our kids are great and there is an excuse, a reason, for every poor behavior. But sometimes kids are just troubled, and the excuses their parents make for their behavior are reaching at best. Parents are no more perfect than their kids, but when a child is really troubled, these are some of the most common statements parents might make, and what they really mean.

She’s going through a lot right now.

Divorce, relocation, a change of schools, puberty, a new grade, new friends, a new step-parent; life is filled with situations and moments in which you could say that your child is ‘going through a lot.” Two years ago, my husband and I made the decision to have a third baby. Five months into our pregnancy we found out that we were having twins. The next year and a half of our two older daughter’s lives included a mommy on bed rest for 3 months, parents who lived in the hospital for a week while they were shuffled between grandparents and school, two new babies at home and a big move. It’s been an adjustment for them, and we often worried that they were going through a lot. But then we remembered that all kids go through a lot all the time. See, life is a lot. And kids need to learn how to appropriately handle change, life, differences, hurt and all other ‘going throughs’ with the appropriate behavior – and not parents who allow for poor behavior attributed to this excuse.

What this phrase means: My kid is going through something right now at home that I feel is my fault, and I don’t  know how to handle it or fix it.

It’s not his fault.

In all honesty, sometimes it’s not his fault. I’ll tell you now that the one time my daughter got into trouble at school (she’s 4) was when another kid bit her right on the face because she wouldn’t give him her cup. So she kicked him in the stomach. Okay, she was wrong and I’m happy to admit that. But…I like to think that it wasn’t her fault in theory; as in, I’m not particularly worried that she has a violent streak or behavioral issues because she was defending herself against something I know hurt her. If she just kicked a kid because she wanted something he or she wouldn’t give up, or for fun, or for any reason other than defending herself against an attack, then I’d worry. Believe me, she was still talked to. My point here is that when the matter was discussed with the parent of the other child, her response was, “Well, it’s not his fault. He’s going through a lot right now and he just doesn’t know how to handle his emotions,” and my thought was, “Yeah right, lady.” He made the decision to bite my kid because she wouldn’t do what he said, but that’s not his fault? My kid kicked him back, and that’s still her fault, even though I’m going to let it slide a bit since it was in self-defense.

What this phrase means: I want to believe that outside factors make my child behave like this and that it’s not really my child behaving like this.

It’s just a phase.

Testing limits and boundaries is a phase that most kids go through. They want to see what they can get away with and what they can learn from this, but saying that poor, troubled behavior is just a phase is often a cop-out. My kid went through a phase when she would wear nothing but pants and the same tee shirt every single day (to the point I bought four of the same shirt just to forgo laundry for a second). She also went through a phase when all she wanted to eat for breakfast for months was green bell peppers, cucumbers and yogurt. She got over both – now she likes strawberries with her weird breakfast and she has two other shirts she likes to add to the mix (why do we continue to buy her clothes?). But troubled behavior is typically not a phase.

What this phrase means: I’m hoping if I ignore it and not make a big deal of it, she will stop and she’s not broken.

She’s just got a big personality.

Oh yes, guilty. Our 4-year-old has a huge personality. She’s bossy and kind of mean and she’s not interested in doing things in any way but her own way. We say she has a big personality, because she does. But we also recognize that we have to keep an eye on her and look for signs that her ‘big personality’ is not a sign of trouble. And yes, we worry. When she’s mean to other kids, bossy and demanding and rude, we worry.

What this phrase means: I know my kid is mean and she doesn’t listen to us and we don’t know what to do, so we like to say it’s her personality in hopes she’ll grow out of it.

We will never have to worry about her being a follower; she’s always the leader.

Yes, this is what we say about our 4-year-old. And we half mean it. She is a leader. She will never be a follower. But we also worry that her extreme leadership skills will get her in trouble when she’s older. We are happy that she’s not going to try drugs if she’s not interested, or that other kids will be able to talk her into drinking and driving; she doesn’t care what they think and kids really want to impress her. We’re grateful for that. But we also worry that she’ll be the one getting other kids in trouble one day if she chooses to be ‘that’ kind of leader. We keep our eye on her.

What his phrase means: We’re worried and we don’t know what to do because she’s always stubborn and she doesn’t care about authority.

She’s in the process of figuring out who she is.

When I was in the process of figuring out who I was, I changed my hair and my clothes and my makeup routine. I didn’t start smoking or hanging out with the wrong crowd or getting bad grades. When I was figuring out who I was, I did a lot of things, but none of them were dangerous or addictive or troubled. They were typical teenage things that most kids do, but none were troubled. I didn’t withdraw from my parents (I whined to them more than usual to the point that they probably wished I would have shut up and locked myself in my room). I didn’t take up lying or sneaking out or cheating or engaging in inappropriate behavior.

What this phrase means: We don’t know what to do, so we are hoping this is just a phase that will end soon.

It’s a rite of passage for all kids to experiment.

Um, no, it’s not. You might not believe it, and that’s all right. Our best friends, my husband and I recently had this conversation over dinner. Our best friends and I grew up together our entire lives. They’ve been dating since they were 13, and I met my husband when I was a high school senior and he a college freshmen. None of us ever smoked or did drugs – and we still haven’t, even though we left our 20s behind a few years ago. Not all kids experiment. Not all kids try things out, because most of us know what we want and don’t want.

What this phrase means: I’m making an excuse for my kid saying all kids do this because it makes me feel better and it makes me feel as if I can stop worrying.

He’s bored.

When you are bored, do you get into trouble? I didn’t think so.

What this phrase means: I’m worried, scared and upset and I don’t want to admit that my child might be troubled.

He’s not feeling well.

We all use this one, but usually on small kids. My 15-month-old twins, for instance, are the happiest babies you’ll ever meet, and as social as we are, there are people in our lives that have never heard them cry. And our usual response when one cries is, “He/she must not be feeling well,” since that’s usually what it is with these particular babies. But a year or so from now, we might have to find a new excuse when they misbehave. Perhaps we might say something like, “She’s just a brat today,” or “That kind of behavior is not acceptable,” and then discipline our kids.

What this phrase means: I’m hoping my child is young enough that this is really what is and she’s not actually a troubled child.

Kids will be kids.

Yes, they will. But this phrase does not include behavior such as violence, anger, hatred, and dangerous activities.

What this phrase means: All kids do this? Right? I’m telling myself this because I’m not willing to admit that my child might have some troubles.

Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images


Leave a Reply