Here's What A Psychologist thinks About Bad Kid's Behavior
As an outpatient child psychologist, I often am asked what are the most displeasing problems with kids. Here's my list: "Yelling, Doesn't clean room, Doesn't obey (defiance), Ignores me or Talks back, Disrespectful, Runs around too much (hyper), Lies, Verbally or otherwise manipulates, Whines, Critical of others, Plays too many electronic games, Poor grades, Destroys things, Physical fighting or is aggressive in general, Impulsivity, Noisy, Distractible, Curses, Lazy, Temper tantrums, Selfish, Dawdling, Isn't trustworthy."
Does that seem like too many things? These are general categories and there are a million "particulars" or variations on each theme. These represent about ninety percent of the complaints parents expound upon when they visit a professional in this area. So, what do we do with such a variety of concerns?
The first thing is to recognize that these behaviors actually have a purpose (other than to destroy peace and quiet). Superficially, they may simply ground out tension, which feels good afterwards but not necessarily during the "episode." Getting even is another "popular" reason to act out. It feels good to have others suffer, too. These behaviors may be designed to communicate something. Usually this is a "change it" message, not obviously understood. Kids do not usually have very good ways of communicating their feelings, wishes, etc., but they sure can act out with immediacy and intensity.
Paradoxically, many children act out just to get parents to set some limits. Yes, that's correct. Kids in point of fact need limits and will test caregivers to see where the parents set those limits. It is not particularly rational, but children need to know what territory is dangerous and what is not. Setting a limit establishes this and doing so makes actually makes the child's anxiety go down, even though the parent probably said, "No" to something (hence, the paradoxical part...). Young people will in reality act out to get the parent to set a limit.
In general, these seemingly crummy behaviors may be the only way kids can tell parents that something needs adjusting. Our task as parents is to figure out what is the message. How do we do that? A very vital aspect of children's behavior is the feeling it expresses. One of the first things I teach children is a vocabulary of their feelings. I teach them what words go with what feelings. If they are very young, I use a chart that has sixteen feeling words. Above each feeling word is a face illustrating that specific feeling. Kids usually cannot come up with a word to describe their feelings, but they right away can distinguish the right face. They point to it and I read the word. Bingo! They have an instant vocabulary (of one word) for that feeling.
As I said, kids do not do this effortlessly, unless they have an exceptional parent that regularly verbalizes feelings. I rarely (almost never) see parents do this. Then I make it very gratifying for children to start using those words, out loud, in a sentence rather than cut up. For young kids, a Star Chart suffices. Its entertaining fun and can be very creative, not to mention rewarding for the child. Kids get a star when they say the right word. Later, stars can be exchanged for prizes. Parents like it because it bonds the family and creates a sense of working together. Now there is a sense of family cooperation that is rewarded with each good behavior.
Older children (about eleven or older) are not as interested . They like video games or "screen time" (any electronic activity). Parents cannot treat them in the same regressive manner, but older kids still can be "shaped." Older kids want gear. They want the latest designer clothes. They want to be taken to the mall. They want their own cell phones. They want later bedtimes and curfews. These are their versions of stars and parents can negotiate with older kids about how many of these things they get in proportion to how much effective communication (vs. acting out) the parent gets.
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