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.
"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.
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
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
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
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.