Difficult kids

You can listen to a radio interview in which I discuss this topic with Aimee Cobo.

Good parenting is well-understood, accepted rules firmly enforced in a way the child finds to be fair, with unconditional love, and without abuse.


   Not all children are made equal. They are not a blank slate parents can write on, but have personalities that can sometimes be dismayingly difficult.

   If your child is violent, or destructive, or disobedient, or a habitual thief and liar, the fault is not necessarily yours, though your past attempts at discipline will no doubt have added to the problem. This is because automatic reactions to other people, including little ones, often worsen the situation. One of the truisms of psychology is Steve de Shazer's observation that usually it is the solution that maintains the problem.

   Naturally, the older the child, the more established the bad habits are, but it's never too late. My novel, Hit and Run shows that even hardened teenage criminals can change their ways. Sure, that's fiction, but based on research evidence on what works.

   OK what is that?

They do as I do, not as I say

   Modelling on other people is THE major way a child learns. They even copy people they defy and resent, such as a hated stepfather. This tends to be automatic rather than deliberate. When they admire a person, the copying is both a matter of deciding to do so, and of falling into the pattern without realising it.

   Older children are particularly powerful role models, so one way of steering a kid in the right direction is to reduce time spent with unsatisfactory role models. Don't be afraid to say no, and you can explain why, using age-appropriate words. If the other child is unhappy, or gets into situations yours would rather avoid, then this is easy. News items, and stories in books can be ammunition showing why the other child's behaviour is best avoided.

   Even more effective is to use your child as your teacher. Act in the way you would like the child to do when grown.

   "Darling, I know I sometimes blow my top when I'm frustrated. I want to change this. Can you please be my helper?"

   "How, Dad?"

   "You know the kinds of situations when I lose it. If I manage to keep calm in one of them, point this out to me, and praise me. And if I slip back and throw a tantrum, can you please say, 'Hey Dad, remember, you're not doing this anymore'!"

   Giving the kid such power will improve both of you.

   The effectiveness of this approach can be increased if the two of you, possibly with other people, pick target behaviours you as a family would like to change.

Spare the rod and steer the child

   Punishment has negative effects. Sure, it works in reducing unwanted behaviours, but at a great cost.

   When you hit a child, or shout abusive words, or do acts that can only be interpreted as revenge, you are providing a role model. Remember, they do as we do, not as we say.

   The first message is: "I am more powerful than you, so I have the right to hurt you." If that happens in the schoolyard, or at a place of employment, it's called bullying. So, your act of discipline is teaching your child to be a bully.

   The second message is: "When I am powerless, I need to fit in and do as I am told." So, when that muscular fellow starts groping your daughter, she won't have the inner resources to fight back. When the popular guy offers your son some drug, he'll know it's wrong, but won't have the strength to say no. When everyone among a group of girls ridicules and ostracises the girl who looks slightly different, your child will join in. When the whole little gang vandalises some object, or steals something, or harms the homeless old man, your son won't know how to stay out of it.

   The third message is: "You've hurt me. I'll hurt you back, one way or another." This results in lying; sneaky acts of hurting the perceived aggressor such as petty theft, damaging his possessions, and spreading false rumours; passive aggression in its many ugly forms.

   So, what's a better way?

   Sometimes, physical force is necessary. Child steps out on the roadway, you need to grab and snatch back. Two siblings are punching each other, so mother needs to immediately separate them, by any means. But once the emergency is over, you need to offer guidance, not anger.

   "Johnny, darling, look at those cars whizzing by. You nearly stepped in front of one! Please promise me never to do that again. I love you too much to see you hurt."

   "All right, you two. Each of you, go into your bedroom for five minutes to cool down. Then the three of us will work out a better way of settling whatever you were fighting over." And after the time out, you can start with, "When someone hurts one of my sons, they hurt me. Tim, remember when the car ran over your dog? That's how I feel when either of you suffers. And you were making each other suffer. Surely, there is a better way? Now, let's discuss what you were fighting over. Tim, here is a notepad and pen. George, explain what it was about as far as you're concerned. Tim, take notes. When George is done, you can respond, and we'll discuss that. Then you can switch roles: Tim, you explain, George takes notes."

Positives, yes; negatives, no

   Withdrawal of privileges is a great teaching tool, as long as it is not perceived as punishment.

   Giving the naughty child status through responsibilities, which are rewarded if well done, can do wonders.

   Fun, special 1:1 time on activities the child enjoys, and creative activities will be valued for their own sake, and can be used as reward.

   There is nothing wrong with bribery. Another name for it is fair wages for work performed.

   There should be a clear and understood connection between a misdeed and its consequences. It's best if this is a previously stated rule.

   Within the limitations of age, a child should be encouraged to negotiate family rules. This develops intelligence, and makes compliance more likely: the child owns the rule.

Love is not a tool of control

   Conditional love is the worst way to damage a child, often for life.

   The proper attitude is: "Whatever you have done, whatever you do in the future, I love you, and will be there for you. At the same time, I won't stand for this behaviour. It's not on."

   "Oh I hate that child!" is immensely destructive. Depending on the individual, it can lead to one or more of: defiance, violence, lying, acts of revenge, depression that can become suicidal, substance abuse, and, worst of all, guilt, shame and self-hate.

You don't need to be perfect

   Do your best to keep to these suggestions. When you fail, when you make a mistake, apologise from the heart to the child (or anyone else affected), and ask for that person's help in doing better next time.


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