Badly behaved kids
Badly behaved kids can be no joke.
One of the most common problems that parents bring to me is frustration trying to stop their children’s negative behaviour. So often, parents say this results in raised voices, hurt feelings and a sense of failure. What many people don’t realise is that with a shift in how we think about and manage difficult behaviour, change is possible.
It’s helpful to understand here that children, like most of us, are creatures of habit. They are most comfortable doing what they know, and tend to only explore new things (even things that are helpful for them) from a place of security. If we think about our own lives, this can ring true from our own experience as well. Who has tried to make a positive change in their lives, only to find themselves falling back on old habits when things get tough?
Some people find this disheartening, as it suggests that making and maintaining change is hard. Will badly behaved kids be a permanent fixture? Whilst change can take some effort, this cloud has a silver lining. It also suggests a couple of strategies for supporting children to change their behaviour. These strategies are communicating positive expectations, doing so consistently, and rewarding meeting those expectations.
Communicating positive expectations:
Tell kids what to do, not just what not to do
One of the traps for shifting behaviour is that we tend to pay too much attention to what we don’t like about what our child is doing. This is understandable; when you’ve asked a child for the umpteenth time to clean their room, patience can be in short supply. We tend to express our frustration directly by commenting on what we don’t like. Unfortunately, this can result in an increase in stress. That in turn can lead them to fall back on exactly the behaviours you are trying to change.
We can help children to make change by telling them explicitly what to do instead. By telling them what we want them to do we help mitigate the tendency to fall back on known behaviours. We can help children actually make the choice by using the next strategy on the list.
Re-enforce behaviour with warm, emotionally rich attention
Children, particularly young children, are dependent on their parents for their basic survival needs. This means that children are highly aware of and motivated by their parents feelings towards them. Warm and emotionally rich attention for children is enormously rewarding for children as it helps them to feels safe (thereby encouraging the practice of new skills as mentioned above). Because children need their parents, they are even motivated to seek emotionally rich negative attention.
Badly behaved kids are often seeking this attention. This can cause real barriers to changing behaviour if they know how to push our buttons. With this in mind, it is worth aspiring to be warm when children do the right thing. And relaxed but firm when they do the wrong thing. This is of course easier said than done, but understanding the effect of emotionally rich attention on children’s behaviour can make this easier.
As I mentioned earlier, children are creatures of habit. We can take advantage of this when changing behaviour by being habitual in our communications about expectations and our emotional responses to their behaviour.
Where there is an established pattern of difficult behaviour, it can be helpful to start by having an emotionally warm conversation about positively expressed expectations. Include the reasons for those expectations and the consequences for meeting (or not meeting) them. It is important to then follow through on this consistently.
And look after your own sanity by reminding yourself that we are changing habits; this takes time and effort. But by keeping your eye on the long term, and gently and consistently applying these principles, you
can help your Badly behaved kids to make changes to their behaviour. With a little time and effort, badly behaved kids will be a thing of the past.