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Child Behavior Problems

If only kids came with an owner’s manual! Most parents fly by the seat of their pants in raising and disciplining their children. It’s kind of ironic, since raising a child is the most important job you could ever do.

The key to success with children (and their own success in life) is understanding that the parent's job revolves around teaching – teaching the child to value himself, to value others, and to be able to live/work/play successfully in society.

Children thrive on love, attention, and clear, consistent limits. Don’t be fooled when they try to get away with things. Ironically, if you let the child get away with too much, or try too hard to make his life easy or happy, you may end up with a difficult, unhappy, insecure child.

In the sections below, we talk about some general issues and two of the more common behavior problems that we see, as well as the ways a psychologist can help.


Some Important Notes

One very important thing to keep in mind is this: When a child shows behavior problems, it usually does not mean he is a bad kid or intentionally trying to make your life difficult.

Quite often, behavior problems are a sign of other problems that the child cannot put into words, like depression, anxiety, anguish over abuse, or distress over situational problems like divorce. Please read our pages on Depression, Anxiety, and Adjustment Disorders for more information on these problem areas.

Also, a child who has problems with attention or learning disorders often will have behavior problems. Be sure to read our Attention/Learning page for more information.

A psychologist who specializes in children can identify and treat these other problems. Or, when the problem is strictly a matter of behavior and poor self-regulation, the psychologist can help the child's parents learn how to manage the behavior more effectively.

When behavior problems do exist, it is important to get treatment as early as possible. Children do not necessarily "outgrow" behavior problems. Indeed, research shows that, by age 8, the child has already established patterns that may be seen in adulthood. For example, an 8 year old who fights a lot is more likely to be aggressive as an adult. The longer you wait to address behavior problems, the harder they are to change.

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Parenting Styles

Your parenting style is nothing more than a set of skills that, for the most part, you learned from your own parents or chose out of trial and error. If your style is not having the desired effect, you can learn new skills.

Ideally, parenting becomes easier over time as the child learns to self-regulate his behavior. When the child learns what is expected and incorporates those lessons into his expectations of himself, the parent no longer has to watch every move and constantly cajole/correct/punish the child.

There are three main styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Psychological research has shown time and again that authoritative parenting works best, and the other two styles tend to see more problems.

We also know that you do not have to be a perfect parent to be a great parent. But the more your child is sure of your love, gets attention for positive behaviors, knows what the limits are, and feels safe and secure, the better off he will be (and the more satisfying it will be to be a parent).

Authoritative Parenting:

Authoritative parenting means setting limits in a clear, consistent way. Ideally, this starts early, say at roughly 9 months. The child knows what to expect (because you tell him) and what happens if he does not do what is expected. At the same time, the child has to feel loved and appreciated, and he has to know that his feelings and wants will be listened to (if not always accommodated). Finally, the child should see his parents act in a way that is basically fair over the long haul, although it is a mistake to try and maintain absolute fairness in every situation.

Authoritative parents tend to use more praise and attention for desirable behaviors, along with logical consequences and techniques like time out rather than physical punishment in response to problem behaviors.

A logical consequence is one that follows, well, logically, from the problem behavior. For example, if a child refuses to eat, his parents do not try to cajole him. They simply let the meal end and allow him to be hungry until the next meal (no snacks or treats in between). It does not hurt the child and gives him the chance to learn about his mealtime choices.

A child is more likely to learn to self-regulate with authoritative parenting, and generally will be happier and more secure, have fewer behavior problems, feel better about himself, and have better peer relationships.

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Authoritarian Parenting:

Authoritarian parenting means setting strict standards for behavior without balancing them with the child's need for attention, exploration, trying out their developing capabilities, etc. There may be a tendency toward harsh rules, and less of a sense of fairness or concern about the child’s feelings and desires.

Physical punishment is much more likely with this parenting style. Also, there is a tendency to use consequences that are not logically related to the behavior and are, therefore, less effective in teaching the child to act differently.

For example, if the child refuses to eat, his parents fuss at him and threaten him with a spanking. If the child complies, it is in response to the threat, not to any lesson he has learned about his own mealtime choices.

Children raised by authoritarian parents are at risk of learning to behave when someone is watching, but not when oversight is absent. True self-regulation is less likely to develop.

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Permissive Parenting:

Permissive parenting means giving in to the child’s wants and whims too often, and not having clear and consistent expectations and consequences for behavior. It is based on the faulty notion that you can teach a young child by reasoning with him. Often, the parents try too hard to make sure they are fair in every single situation They want to ensure that the child is happy, avoids disappointment, does not get too frustrated, and does not get his feelings hurt.

Permissive parents often try to reason with the child, explaining in some detail why the child should comply with their requests. When they do apply consequences to a problem behavior, they often undermine the lesson by giving in a while later, or they try to "make it up" to the child by giving him something to make him feel better.

For example, if the child refuses to eat, his parents cajole him, encourage him, and offer to make him something he likes better. If he still does not eat, they worry about him suffering with hunger and give him treats later on. He learns so much from this: (1) he does not have to do what his parents want, (2) he can get attention for being difficult and obstinate, and (3) he can get yummy rewards if he is whiny and fussy.

The risk with permissive parenting is that the child may not develop the skills needed to live in the real world, where frustration, disappointment, and unfairness are all too common. Often, these children end up with poor frustration tolerance, difficulties with peers (who do not share the parents' belief that the child must be accommodated in all things), aggressive behavior, and a tendency to be a whiny, unhappy kid.

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Conduct Disorder

Conduct Disorder is a repetitive pattern of behavior that is inappropriate, aggressive, violates accepted social rules, or is harmful to others. Most often problems are seen in one or more of the following areas:

  • Aggression toward people or animals (bullying, threatening, fighting, coercing sexual activity, cruelty to animals)
  • Lying (beyond the occasional "little white lie")
  • Stealing
  • Vandalism (damaging property, setting fires)
  • Serious rule violations (consistently exceeding curfew, running away overnight, or skipping school)

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Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is marked by significant defiance and hostility toward authority figures, and refusal to follow rules.

The child often appears angry, rude, temperamental, and spiteful. He may be resentful and easily annoyed. Frequently, he will blame others for mistakes. If he does comply with adult requests/rules, he may first argue and fuss, and may seem to enjoy frustrating those in authority.

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The Role of the Psychologist

Diagnosis:

Psychologists diagnose child behavior problems by gathering information from the parents and teachers, and by observation of the child. Part of this process involves an assessment of what factors contribute to and sustain the behaviors. Sometimes, psychological testing is used to determine if there are underlying problems that could be contributing to the behavior.

Note, however, that child behavior and parenting are areas where you do not have to have severe, diagnosable problems to seek professional help. Psychologists often help people who just want to learn how to handle everyday parenting and discipline in ways that are more effective and less stressful.

Treatment:

The psychologist works with both the child and the parents to address behavior problems, and sometimes with the school, as well.

The psychologist works with the child to adapt to new limits and rules, and to learn new skills for handling problems that he previously expressed through poor behavior.

When other problems are present, such as depression, the psychologist works with the child to overcome those problems. The psychologist also works with the parents to help them understand the underlying problems and know how to help their troubled child.

When the problem is mostly a matter of poor self-regulation, the psychologist works with the parents to manage the behavior. Often, the parents have tried a number of strategies without success and are frustrated and discouraged. The psychologist can offer guidance about ways to manage the behaviors more effectively. These methods, if applied consistently, can result in better adjustment for the child, and less stress and strain on the parents.

Realistically, however, there is a price to pay for any progress. The parents have to be willing to try new strategies, and do so consistently, to see much benefit from the psychologist's guidance. The psychologist, therefore, also works with the parents to deal with their ambivalence about making changes.

In addition, the child is likely to resist change. This can mean a temporary increase in problem behaviors, while the child sees if his parents will stick to their guns. The psychologist can help the parents deal with this resistance and limit-testing.

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Disclaimer:  You know, we see a disclaimer like this in every ad that lawyers put out, and it probably is a good idea for us to use one, too:  "No representation is made that the quality of the psychological services to be performed is greater than the quality of psychological services performed by other psychologists.  The outcome of assessments or psychotherapy, or individual client satisfaction, cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on many factors.  Material on this site regarding symptoms, disorders, and treatment is informational only.  Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires the expertise of a trained professional."

The information on this site regarding psychological disorders and treatment comes from many sources that cannot be credited, simply because they have been integrated over the years into our general knowledge base. However, one important source is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (1994) published by the American Psychiatric Association.