Managing behaviour problems in children.
Why do children act as they do? In order to understand a child’s behaviour we must first consider three factors: genetic makeup, their family environment and the community they live in. It is these factors that shape and influence whether a child develops behaviour problems.
A child’s temperament fundamentally influences their behaviour. Some children demand a lot of attention, for instance, while some are always active and busy. There may also be congenital medical problems such as ADHD or other physical conditions.
Family environment is a powerful factor that affects how a child behaves. Typically, children may misbehave because of family difficulties such as bereavement, illness, divorce, remarriage, or conflicts with siblings.
Community is the third factor that determines behaviour. Whenever children mix with other children at school or at play, they are influenced by their relationships with peers and by what other children do. School problems, bullying, lack of confidence, problems with friends – all of these things can influence how a child acts in other parts of their life.
It is helpful for parents to think of “bad behaviour” as a signal that something is wrong. Whatever the reasons for the behaviour, try to talk to your child about their emotional distress and feelings. Quite often children who act aggressively or defiantly feel out of control, frightened, helpless or lonely. This can be difficult for a parent to recognise when they are dealing with a defiant child.
If you are tired of yelling and arguing with your child, there are better ways to manage behaviour.
Teach calm conflict resolution. Children learn from watching their parents. If your child sees you resolving conflict without getting angry and yelling, they are likely to copy this behaviour.
Use assertive discipline. Remember to reward positive behaviour and use negative consequences for negative behaviour, while being consistent, alert, and firm but fair. The age of your child and the behaviour will determine the appropriate discipline strategy to use. Sometimes you might use “time away”, directing the child to sit in another room (less potential for fun than their bedroom!) for 5, 10 or 15 minutes, depending on the seriousness of the behaviour. For young kids you can use an egg timer that they can hold so they know how long their “time away” will be for, or you can set a timer.
Depending on the child’s age and misbehaviour, discipline can also include removal of activities such as computer use or television time.
Provide consistency and structure. Kids need to know what is expected of them. Don’t over-explain or try to use logic or reasoning to explain why your child needs to clean up his room before he can go out. It doesn’t work. Discussing it and trying to reason with your child just makes things worse.
Use behaviour charts. Sometimes kids need a little extra motivation to change their behaviour. Reward charts are a great way to track good actions, and the incentive can be anything from stickers to getting to choose a special weekend activity.
Establish clear expectations and rules. Ensure you have clear standards about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and apply these standards consistently. When you are raising children, you can’t say “no” one day and “yes” or “maybe” the next. Inconsistent parenting behaviour only teaches kids to persist with nagging or whining until you give up or give in!
Encourage relaxation practice. Regular relaxation allows for greater control over thought processes and is an effective way to help children calm their mind and body. Help your child develop positive coping strategies by teaching them how to use calm breathing, listen to relaxation music, or read a meditation book.
Give your child time and attention. Spend time with them every day so they feel appreciated, important and loved. Build some one-on-one time into your routine to give your child time with you or their other parent.
Small successes build confidence. The key is to set mini goals to begin with, as stepping stones to bigger achievements. So if the goal is to learn how to manage their emotions, then work out some steps from easiest to hardest to encourage them to try. For example, step 1: practice calm breathing for 5 minutes every day, step 2: count to 10 when you start to feel annoyed.
Know what is reasonable. It is important to know your child’s abilities and limitations. Expecting too much or too little can lead to frustration for you and your child. Try to keep your expectations realistic! Seek out some good parenting resources and be familiar with your child’s particular stage of development. Talk to other parents or participate in a parenting program or individual parent coaching.
Catch your child being good. Giving specific, positive attention to your child for the behaviour that you want to see is the best way to teach your child what to do! Convey a message of confidence in your child that you believe they are capable and can achieve success if they persist and practice. Kids tend to live up to the expectations we set for them.
If you find that you still struggle with your child’s behaviour even after implementing all these strategies, it may be useful to involve an experienced, professional psychologist. Behaviour problems can take their toll on the whole family, and sometimes an objective perspective can bring some balance when tempers are frayed on both sides.