Misbehaviour and acting out
Raising kids means dealing with behaviour problems. If a certain amount of misbehaviour is normal, how much should you react to and how much should you let go? Learn to rely on your intuition. Although books and experts can provide guidelines, you know your child and the situation best.
Consider your child's personality. Some children are naturally more compliant and cooperative; others are more determined to test every rule.
Consider the circumstances. Like adults, kids aren't at their best when they're sick, stressed out, or tired. A move to a new house, a new baby brother or sister, or problems at school could each trigger undesirable behaviour.
If the misbehaviour is minor -- your eight-year-old leaves his school bag in the hall again or your ten-year-old bothers her older sister -- just ignoring it might be the best policy. But when the behaviour is harmful to the child, to the family, or to others, don't overlook it. Parenting experts often suggest two different approaches to dealing with misbehaviour -- behaviour modification and variations on Parent Effectiveness Training.
Behaviour modification, as it is now practised, uses discipline and rewards to discourage some behaviours and encourage more desirable ones. Discipline should take the form of withholding a privilege or deducting money from the child's allowance. It should be fair and appropriate for the circumstances. Children have a keen sense of fairness and react very strongly to what they see as an injustice. You can also let your child experience the logical consequences of his behaviour, which shouldn't be thought of as a punishment but as another way to modify behaviour.
Although previous generations of parents may have used spanking as a form of discipline, most experts now agree that physical punishment is not effective because it makes a child fearful and more likely to use physical force himself to get his own way with other children.
Rewards for good behaviour are considered more effective than punishments for misbehaving. These rewards can take many forms. Some parents like to record their children's good behaviour on a chart, perhaps with a point system or gold stars. The accumulation of a certain number of stars or points brings the child a special reward. The system also allows parents to "catch" their children behaving well. When you see your daughter sharing with her little brother or helping him with his homework, encourage her by acknowledging what you've seen: "Joey sure enjoyed it when you spent that time with him." But you don't need to do it every time.
Parent Effectiveness Training
Parent Effectiveness Training, a system developed by American psychologist Thomas Gordon, is widely taught in Canada as well as in the United States. Gordon points out the weaknesses of reward and discipline, saving that both lose their impact over time and, if not accompanied by discussions, don't help the child understand why certain behaviours are undesirable.
Gordon recommends that parents use "I messages" to tell their children how they and those around them feel about the children's behaviour, rather than criticizing the children for their behaviour. For example, if your son sneaks off to the corner store without telling you, you might say, "When you went to the store on your own, I got very worried because I didn't know where you were, and you could have been hurt." Such statements avoid making the child defensive, but let him know exactly why his behaviour was not acceptable. Keep it simple and to the point. Explaining feelings can sometimes help your child get out of his own head and into the experience of others. Behaviour modification and Parent Effectiveness Training have their strengths and limitations. Most parenting experts agree that it's best to use a combination of the two.
Part of handling misbehaviour is making sure your children know what you expect. Don't just tell your kids to stop teasing each other. Tell them you expect them to treat each other kindly. Tell your six-year-old that you expect her to wash her hands before she comes to dinner. Tell your ten-year-old that you expect him to say thank you to the store clerk. Be sure your expectations of your child are reasonable for his age. Here are strategies for dealing with the behaviour problems that try the patience of most parents.
It may not be dangerous or especially destructive, but teasing probably drives more parents crazy than any other behaviour. Siblings tease one another because they feel their brother or sister is getting more parental attention. They may tease children outside the family because they have fears and doubts about themselves, and they try to make themselves feel bolder. They're trying to make themselves feel taller by putting someone else down.
If siblings do tease one another, give them a chance to work it out, but they may need your guidance to do so. Intervene if one of them is being hurt by vicious name calling or physical fighting. Separate the children, and give your attention to the victim first. Talk to the teaser later to hear his side of the story. Don't always favour the younger child. Yes, your twelve-year-old should he more mature than your six-year-old, but if you regularly let the younger one tease the older one, you will create resentment that may lead to even more friction between them. Try to deal with the situation in an even handed manner.
If your child teases a non-family member, get him to think about how the teasing makes the victim feel. Tell him that it's acceptable not to like someone else, but it's never acceptable to he mean. If the teasing persists or is especially hurtful, find out what the problem is. You might say, "Either you and Bobby play without teasing today or maybe Bobby shouldn't come over at all." If it turns out that your child and Bobby don't really like one another, the problem is solved.
Most children outgrow temper tantrums by kindergarten or grade one, but for a few children, tantrums persist well into middle childhood. Some children have shorter fuses than others and take longer to learn to manage their anger. Others are slower to learn to express themselves in words, Which means their anger can explode as a tantrum. If your child is acting out in several ways -- fighting, bullying, or hitting -- you need to consider a different course of action. But if you're just dealing with the occasional temper tantrum, here are some suggestions:
• If you want your child to do something and he resists to the point that a tantrum is obviously building, state your request firmly once more, then leave the room. This way you avoid a confrontation, and your child may calm down and comply with your request after waiting a few minutes.
• If your child does launch into a tantrum, don't respond with anger. Stay calm and ignore his behaviour. You may want to go to another part of the house, giving yourself a time-out. Or you can remove him from the situation by sending him for a time-out. Make it no more than five minutes. Or you may sit quietly with a child who is very young to calm his frustration. Later, when he's calm, urge him to talk about his feelings of anger and help him to think of ways he could have resolved the situation using words instead of howls of rage.
By the age of six, most children have learned enough self-control to express their anger in words and to negotiate with other kids for what they want, at least most of the time. But some children occasionally resort to kicking, hitting, yelling, or destroying other children's property.
When children behave aggressively toward others, they need to experience clear consequences for their actions. If your seven-year-old daughter hits a friend during a visit, you should first attend to the injured party, then end the visit. Tell both children they can play together again, but not today because hitting hurts people, and the rule in your family is "no hurting."
Talk to your child about what happened and help her to put into words what made her lash out. Help her with suggestions: "It really makes you angry when people don't follow the rules of the game, doesn't it?" Then ask her to think of how she might have handled the situation without hitting. Behave calmly yourself. You cant reach a child self-control by losing control yourself.
For some kids, aggressive behaviour has serious underlying causes. Kids may be aggressive because they've seen adults, especially their parents, behave that way. In some cases, the child hasn't learned self-control because his parents haven't set clear limits for him. In other cases, if he has been spanked for misbehaving, he may think that it's OK to hit others. The child may be under stress or lack attention, feeling that he's alone because his parents have little time for him. If the child's aggression is a serious, frequent, or long-term problem, discuss your concerns with your family doctor and consider requesting professional help.
A six-year-old who says he can run faster than anyone else in his class isn't necessarily lying; he's enjoying a fantasy. However, a six-year-old who says he didn't take the money from the loose-change jar is probably lying.
Children usually lie because they fear their parents' anger if they tell the truth. Sometimes they feel overwhelmed by problems and lie to cover them up. When you catch your child in a lie, immediately point it out to him. Tell him that knowing the truth is very important to you and that the consequences of his actions will always be less severe when he tells the truth than when he tries to cover up with a lie. Tell him how glad you are when he tells you the truth. All kids are going to misbehave at times, but they need to know that when they tell the truth about their behaviour, you will treat them fairly when you let them deal with the consequence of their behaviour. For the six-year-old who helped himself to the loose-change jar, for example, you might require him to pay back what he took, plus a loonie more for lying about it.
When a young child steals, it may be a way of showing off, of trying to increase popularity, or it may simply mean she acted on an impulse. Avoid your own impulse to shame and embarrass her. It's much more effective to tell her that taking what belongs to someone else is stealing, and stealing is wrong. It's also important that she make restitution, but in a way that's not humiliating. Have your child return the stolen object or use her own money to pay for it if it can't be returned. Give her support by going with her. Don't make a big scene. Return the object or pay for it, tell her the issue is settled, and don't bring it up again. In most cases, that will be enough of a lesson. But if your child steals repeatedly, ask for professional help.