BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS IN CHILDREN
In my practice as an outpatient child psychologist, I see
lots of kids. Moms drag them into my office with a variety of
complaints. I actually compiled ninety percent of them into
an ebook. I thought it might be fun to list the more common
ones in this article. Here are the ones I hear about most
often that comprise "behavioral problems in children:"
"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."
Sound familiar? Actually, I see most of these behaviors
in adults, too, but in children, they are more innocent.
They can more easily be corrected in children, than in adults,
in my opinion (that's just an opinion). I deal with these
behaviors in very specific ways, but first I look at the
opposite of each crummy behavior. For example, take Yelling.
When I ask parents what is the opposite of yelling, almost all
of them say, "Not yelling." Wrong. Sleeping is not yelling.
So is taking a bath. Neither is the opposite. The opposite
of yelling is talking quietly, whispering, etc.
When parents say "Not Yelling," they are really talking
about the absence of something negative. Not yelling is the
absence of yelling, even though parents do not specify exactly
what that is. By focusing on talking quietly, we change this
to focusing on the presence of something positive. The latter
is a specific positive behavior that is the opposite of the
Why do this? Well, it turns out children do not understand
the concept of the absence of something negative. It is too
abstract, and the ability to think abstractly does not develop
until later, long after these problem behaviors pop up. However,
at a very young age, and I mean about age one year, kids understand
a specific, concrete, positive behavior. Just gesture to a one
year old by holding an extended pointer finger to one's lips and
saying, "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh..." and you can see right away the child
"gets it." He or she will be quieter (not always ... but at least
the kid understands the concept). Tell that same child to
"not yell" and he or she will look at you with a puzzled look on
his or her face, then maybe talk quietly, be quiet or do something
else? I'm not saying a child will not quiet down if we parents ask
him or her to not yell, I'm just saying it is much easier to
understand if we just say, "Talk quietly."
The reason we parents approach children this way is because
what we really want to do is teach our children positive behaviors.
In my office, I do that by flipping each of the above negative
behaviors into their positive opposite. Yelling becomes
"talking quietly." Doesn't clean room becomes "Cleans room."
Doesn't obey becomes "Obeys" or "Listens and does...," etc.
I do this with the whole list, just to give us (parents and me) the
big picture of how we want a child to behave.
And, now for the most important part. Next, I tell the parent
what the critical ratio is when it comes to rewarding the good
behaviors vs. punishing the bad ones. The ratio is Four-To-One.
That means I positively reinforce the good behaviors four times as
often as I punish the lousy behaviors. There is a trick to this,
and lots of techniques that accompany this approach, but this is
where I start. It works, especially when combined with lots of
other techniques, which I provide in written or oral form.