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A Boy Told His Father He Wanted to Put a Bullet in His Head

This is what his father did next.

Key points

  • When children and teens are hurting, they say hurtful things.
  • The best ways to diffuse anger in children and teens is to lead with understanding.
  • Seeing oneself as the child's or teen's emotion coach helps to bypass the emotional reactivity that comes with being an offended parent.

During one of my recent counseling sessions, 9-​year-​old Simon told his father, Nick, that he wanted to put a bullet in Nick’s head. Nick was understandably shaken to hear his son’s fiercely hurtful words.

In his book, The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz writes, “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you.” This is valuable wisdom to keep in mind. If you stop and think about it, most of the time when you yell at a defiant child, it’s because you are taking their behaviors too personally.

Realize that even if they are trying to provoke you, your defiant child is behaving in this manner because of their own struggles, not yours. Remembering this will help you not to get so frustrated, as a parent, and the risk of your yelling will be much lower.

The Challenge of Being Understanding

Your understanding of your child or teen is just as important as your love for them, if not more so, to help them break out of the cycle of defiance. Over the course of 30 years of counseling families, countless parents have told me, “But we love him so much—why does he behave this way?” or “I would do anything for her, but I can’t break through her anger,” or “I love him to death and I do all these things to help him but he just does not seem to want to help himself. I don’t understand him one bit.”

When Your Child Is Most Challenging, You Need to Understand Them the Most

As a parent coach, I have found that most parents are well-meaning, sincere, and full of love for their children. And yet, I have seen the look of shock, sometimes horror, on these same parents’ faces when their children reveal the extent of their hurt, sadness, anger, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, or other emotionally painful issues. As I explain in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, the more you lead with understanding, the less your child will follow with defiance.

What Simon's Dad Did

During the time that Simon made his ominous threat to Nick, he happened to be working with me on becoming a better listener. Rather than let himself be insulted as Simon’s dad, Nick switched into the mode of being Simon’s emotion coach, to help himself be less reactive as a parent.

So, instead of telling himself that his child was impossible, or a lost cause, Nick began to ask Simon questions about why he felt that way. Simon reminded Nick of his past overly aggressive behaviors, as a father, and Nick just listened—unselfishly.

While this father and son still had a long way to go, they made a huge, powerful improvement in their relationship that day.

Summing It Up

You are giving your defiant child a tremendously valuable gift when you seek to understand them. All the love in the world won’t help you lessen your child’s defiance unless you understand the nature of their struggles. Keep the following in mind as you move forward:

  • Defiant children tend to be emotionally immature and consequently they lack the tools to manage strong feelings and solve problems effectively.
  • Defiant children feel desperately misunderstood.
  • Your child cannot verbalize it, but they greatly value the fact that you understand them.
  • The more you show your child that you understand them, the less defiant they will be.

Note: Names were changed in the examples of this post. The teaser image is a stock photo that is not in any way associated with the individuals discussed in this post.


Bernstein, J. (2015) 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, second edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior Paperback, Da Capo Lifelong Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI, Eu Claire, WI.

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