What We Need To Know About Kid’s Behavior Problems As a psychologist who works in an outpatient setting, I often am asked what are the most often-reported problems with kids. 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.”
That covers a lot. These are common categories and there are a million “particulars” or variations on each theme. These represent about ninety percent of the complaints parents offer when they visit the likes of me. So, what do we do with such a list of bad behaviors? The first thing is to recognize that these behaviors actually have a purpose (other than to make parents miserable). Ostensibly, they may simply decrease anxiety, 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 well articulated. Kids do not usually have very good ways of articulating their feelings, wishes, etc., but they sure can act
out with immediacy and intensity.
Strangely enough, many children act out just to get parents to set some boundaries. I know that’s hard to believe. Kids in point of fact need limits and will test parents to see where the parents set those limits. It is not particularly rational, but children need to know what territory is safe and sound 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…). Kids will in fact act out to get the parent to set a limit. In general, these off-putting behaviors may be the only way kids can tell parents that something needs tweaking. Our task as parents is to figure out what is the message.
How do we do that? A very significant 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 showing that specific feeling.
Kids usually cannot manifest a word to describe their feelings, but they instantly can categorize the right face. They point to it and I read the word. Presto! They have an instant vocabulary (of one word) for that feeling. As I said, kids do not do this unaffectedly, unless they have an exceptional parent who regularly verbalizes feelings. I rarely (almost never) see parents do this.
Then I make it very rewarding for children to start using those words, out loud, in a sentence rather than cut up (act out). For young kids, a Star Chart suffices. Its loads of fun and can be very creative, not to mention gratifying for the child. Kids get a star when they say the right word. Later, stars can be cashed in 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 kids (about eleven or older) are not as in Star Charts. 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 clothes or something else. 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.