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11/13/11blog post

when good kids do bad things

While I enjoy responding to questions from readers, there is one type of problem that leaves me perplexed—advising parents how to manage situations when good kids do bad things. A mom recently asked my advice about her 10-year-old daughter who was a gifted student, had many friends, and was very close to her siblings and parents. However, mom recently found out that her child had been visiting sexually explicit web sites, including ones with lesbian and violent themes. Is this normal sexual curiosity or symptomatic of something else?

I’ve had many similar inquires over the years. In all of the situations, the parents described what appear to be normal, high-achieving, and extremely well-adjusted kids who do stupid things. This has included a 16-year-old who was arrested for drunken driving, a 9-year-old who was caught on the school’s video camera maliciously bullying a younger child, and many inquiries from confused parents concerned about the web sites visited by their kids.

Perhaps these behaviors are just lapses in judgments that are a normal part of growing up. All of us have done stupid and even bad things when we were younger, and those behaviors were not due to any mental disorders. They are more often the result of immaturity, confusion, or a lack of appreciation of the consequences of our behaviors.

However, sometimes these events are reflective of more serious problems. Did the teen arrested for drunken driving have a substance abuse problem? Is the 10-year-old who is visiting sexually-explicit web sites with violent themes being sexually abused? What would cause a nine-year-old honor student to sadistically bully a younger boy?

What is mystifying to parents, and to me, is that these are great kids with no history of any types of problems. This has caused parents to wonder how well they really know their children. Are their kids leading a secret life, beset by anguish but maintaining a socially acceptable facade?

It’s neither necessary nor feasible to evaluate every such child for a mental health evaluation. Here’s what I usually advise the parents.

1. Implement clear consequences for the unacceptable behavior. Any teen caught drinking when driving should have his license taken away by his parents for at least one year. The child caught bullying was required to write a letter of apology to the student, read it in class, and volunteer at a special-needs day care center.

2. Get to know your child. Stay connected with your child’s teachers, friends, and coaches. Ask specific questions about their behaviors. Notice any significant changes in their behavior. Talk with your child in an open and non-accusatory way, communicating a loving presence that you are there to help them.

3. Seek professional help. Trust your instincts on this one. If you feel something just isn’t right with your child, reach out to a professional who has experience in working with kids.

Next week: Questions from readers