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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

When we say that a child is misbehaving, what we mean is that somehow we have become involved in a negative cycle of interaction with that child that we don’t know how to stop. Both child and adult are caught up in it. Rudolf Dreikurs often said that as long as we think we know what to do to correct a child, we don’t call that child a “problem child.” It is when we don’t know what to do that we define the child as a problem. It could just as easily be said that the adults have run out of skills they need to redirect the child to a positive path.

In Part II, we took a look at the negative cycles of interaction between adults and children that can take on a life of their own and make family life miserable. This article will talk about basic skills adults can learn and can teach their children that stop negative cycles and put positive interactions in motion. Let’s take a look at some admittedly simple examples as illustrations of how to turn negative cycles around. In these cases, I’m assuming that the adults are average, essentially healthy grownups who are doing a reasonable job being parents.

The Case of Carla

Carla is only three but she does know how to fasten her Velcro sneakers. This morning she’s walking around with the fasteners flapping and her heels not quite in the shoes. Mom tells her, again, to just please get her shoes all the way on and press down the Velcro. She is getting annoyed. It’s always something. Either Carla puts her shirt on inside out or sports mismatched socks or puts on shorts when mom has already told her it’s a cold day and she’ll need her jeans. Each night, mom helps Carla lay out her clothes so she can dress herself for preschool while mom gets the baby ready for the day. But somehow when morning comes Carla can’t seem to get it all the way right.

This is an example of a negative attention cycle. Maybe Carla is privately worried that mom will forget about her because the new baby is getting so much attention. If you ask her, she’ll say she likes her new sister. She doesn’t know why she always needs her mom to help her finish getting dressed. These things aren’t calculated or conscious. But needing mom to correct her every morning does “work” for her. It gets her personally addressed by mom, even in the hectic hurry of getting everyone up and out on time. This is why just asking her to take care of it herself isn’t helpful. Mom, by being annoyed and having to stop whatever she is doing to make an adjustment or comment about Carla’s clothes, is letting her know that she is noticed and hasn’t been forgotten. Unless mom understands this, the cycle could go on and on.

How much better things would go if mom would spend a few minutes with Carla when she woke up to say good morning and to praise her for the good job she did choosing her clothes the night before. She could also tell her how grown up she is becoming by taking care of getting dressed all by herself. She could tell Carla how important it is for the baby to have a big sister to look up to and to copy some day. Then Carla’s needs for reassurance would be met. She wouldn’t have to resort to indirect means for getting noticed. Eventually she would be able to relax and understand that she doesn’t need to annoy her mother by acting less competent than she is in order to have a place.

The Case of Eddy

Eddy doesn’t like doing his evening chores. All the other kids in his big family of six kids manage to do their share. Eddy is the one who complains, “Why should I have to put the dishes away?” When his Dad tells him to do his share, Eddy glares at his father and answers back. Dad is angry. He asks him why he can’t just be like the other kids and do as he is told. An angry shouting match ensues. Both storm off, upset. Dad feels defeated by his 11-year- old son. Eddy has once again gotten out of doing his chore.

This is what a power struggle often looks like. For reasons we don’t yet understand, Eddy feels lost in the shuffle. One way to make sure that he is noticed is to get into a shouting match with his dad. The adrenaline rush of a good fight makes him feel powerful. In that moment, he knows for sure that his dad is paying attention. So what if it’s a fight? He knows he is being seen.

There is a kind of craziness in a power struggle. Both the boy and his dad know that, if pushed, dad ultimately has the final say. As the adult, dad really does have all the power. He can withhold privileges. He can punish. He can impose consequences far worse than having to empty the dishwasher. Yet both father and son stay in the fight. Both get so wrapped up in it that neither can withdraw with dignity.

Dad is the adult. He can learn to use his authority in a way that gains respect instead of defiance. He can show Eddy how an adult turns a fight into an everyday problem that needs to be solved. It would be far more effective if dad said something like, “Hey, fighting only makes both of us feel bad. Let’s cool off and figure out together how to keep things fair. In a big family like this one, we really do need everyone to help. What do you think we should do when someone doesn’t like their chore?” Such a conversation lets Eddy know that dad sees him and values his opinion. It shows the boy how to stop a fight and be in respectful negotiation instead of a tantrum. Once mutual respect is the norm, there is room for the occasional time when dad really does have to give orders.

The Case of Mary

Mary, the daughter of a single mom, is tearing her room apart. She’s been in a fight with her mother on and off all day. Sent to her room, she is now upping the ante. She just threw a chair at the full length mirror her Mom gave her as a special present last week for her twelfth birthday. Mom is hurt. How could she do that? What happened to her once delightful child? “No wonder no one likes you,” Mom yells at the closed door. “You’re an ungrateful, horrible girl!”

This is an example of a revenge cycle. Mom and daughter are hurting each other and putting more and more distance between them. There is probably no way to know what it is that is hurting Mary so much she is willing to hurt her mom and sacrifice something she values to do so. Difficult as it is to recognize in the instant that she is being outrageous, this is a hurting girl. She doesn’t believe that her mom really wants her around. And, truth be told, her mother sometimes gets so frustrated and hurt that she starts thinking about whether it’s time for her daughter to go live with her dad.

In dealing with revenge, it’s important to not take misbehavior personally. When you are so hurt by a child that you want to get even, it is a signal that the child is hurting even more than you are. Especially as children get older, the behavior may or may not have anything to do with you to begin with. Peer relationships and events outside the family are also powerful. Simply stopping the cycle at home will help a lot. Mom could interrupt this cycle by saying something like “We could really get going and hurt each other so let’s take a moment to cool off. Then we can figure out what you need.” Of greatest importance is maintaining a relationship so that Mary and her mother can work on larger problems over time.

The Case of Thomas

Thomas, age 16, spends far too much time in his room with the shades drawn. He hasn’t done well in school since he hit high school and this year is the worst. He loves basketball but isn’t good enough to make the team. His parents have had numerous visits with the school to try to figure out how to give him some successes but nothing seems to work. He’s been moved to less and less challenging classes. Instead of helping him do better, he does less and less. Once friendly with the artistic crowd, he is now spending more and more time alone. His mom seems as discouraged as he is. Both parents feel sorry for him. He is missing out on so much that their friends’ kids seem to be enjoying.

One question that needs to be asked in situations like these is whether the boy has gotten caught up in drugs. A change in behavior and peer group often spells drug trouble. But even if it is drugs, did he become depressed because of drugs or is he using drugs because he is so depressed? Drugs are seductive because they do make people feel better and using them often provides an instant group. Drugs or no, this boy has lost all belief that he can belong and be successful at home or at school. This is the saddest and most difficult cycle of all. His parents are losing faith in him and he has lost faith in himself.

It takes enormous persistence on the part of parents to refuse to give up on the Thomases of the world yet this is exactly what needs to happen. It is essential that he not be left alone or he will sink further and further. Thomas’s parents would find it helpful to get involved with other parents who are going through similar struggles, both for information and for support. Outlining how to intervene when a teen is drug-involved is beyond the scope of this article. For some help, see the more detailed article, Teens and Drugs: What a Parent Can Do to Help.

If a teen is depressed but not drug-involved, the most important thing parents can do is to keep trying to find a way for the child to have some success, any success, at connecting with others. Thomas’s parents could go behind the scenes and enlist other adults who know him to help. Kids his age often value feedback from other adults more than from their parents. Maybe the basketball coach would be willing to use him as a manager or scorekeeper. They could ask the art teacher to ask him for help with some younger students or an after-school program. Is there a relative or friend who would be willing to mentor him in a job? Teachers need to be told that he has done well in the past and that they should expect the best of him.

Another resource for Thomas’s parents is counseling, both for themselves and for their son, to help everyone move out of their discouragement and develop some strategies for change.

Learning from The Cases

Each of these children, Carla, Eddy, Mary and Thomas, is feeling discouraged. Something has gotten going in their relationships with their parents that has led to mutual negativity. The kids misbehave, not because they are bad, but because they are emotionally needy. The adults mis-behave (as in, behave in ways that miss the problem) because they don’t recognize that they have a part in what is happening. A pattern of negative interaction becomes established that at least confirms for the child that he is seen and that keeps the parent involved.

The formula for making change is simple but carrying it out takes commitment and love. First, adults need to learn to see beyond the misbehavior to the child underneath who is feeling discouraged and desperate. Then they need to understand the part they play in the negative cycle and stop playing. Finally, adults need to help these children learn new skills for becoming part of the human community.

In summary, here are some basic ways that the adults can begin to turn things around:

Cycle What not To Do What To Do:
Attention Don’t keep reminding, coaxing, scolding, nagging. Give attention but not for negative behaviors. Use actions instead of words. A touch as you walk by, a pat on the hand, or a hug lets a kid know you notice. Make times when you can give the child your full attention.
Power Don’t engage in the power struggle. Drop your end of the tug of war and come back around later to deal with the issue. Cool off before you do anything. Use logical consequences rather than arbitrary punishment. Find ways to empower the child. Provide choices. Teach leadership skills.
Revenge Resist the temptation to be sarcastic or put the child down. Don’t ever resort to physical hurt or getting even in hurtful ways. See through the hate to the hurt. Deal with the child with firmness but exquisite fairness. Remind yourself of things you like about this child and call attention to them whenever you can. Catch him being right at every opportunity.
Giving Up Don’t buy into the apparent inadequacy. Don’t feel sorry for this child. Pity makes people feel pitiful. Don’t fall into doing things for the child that she or he really is capable of doing. Show confidence in the child’s abilities. Empathize with the struggle but focus on strengths. Arrange for situations where she or he can experience success. Gradually make things more difficult to help the child grow.


 

Resources

A number of parent education programs and organizations have been developed to help parents learn these skills. All are based in the theory of Alfred Adler and the practice of Rudolf Dreikurs.

STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) by Don Dinkmeyer, Gary McKay, and Don Dinkmeyer, Jr.

Positive Parenting by Jane Nelsen

Active Parenting by Michael Popkin

Alyson Scafer’s Principles, Rules and Tools for Parenting

Beverly Cathcart-Ross’s The Parenting Network

See also the Family Education Association division of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology for conferences and training in North America. For information worldwide, see the website for the International Association of Adlerian Psychology .

The classic text by Rudolf Dreikurs, with Vicki Stoltz, is Children: The Challenge. Although it was written in the fifties, the principles and skills stand the test of time.

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/changing-childrens-behavior-part-iii/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.