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Changing Challenging Behaviours in Children: How Do We Respond?

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A good friend of mine recently told me a story from his childhood of being a youngster with challenging behaviour at school. He was, and still is, one of the brightest minds I know, nevertheless teachers found him difficult to manage at times. In reflecting on his experience, he shared that being “good” consistently got him nowhere and nothing, whereas when he behaved poorly and then improved on his behaviour for a day he would be rewarded immensely. As a young boy he figured out how his environment would respond to different patterns of behaviour and his behaviour became influenced by that.

As I listened to his story I thought of many families I had seen wherein parents seemed to miss opportunities to consistently notice, praise and reward good behaviour. In many instances, this occurs because we are programmed to expect good behaviour naturally and actively respond to undesirable behaviour. However, if we step back we might ask ourselves: What motivation would a child have to demonstrate good behaviour consistently if that behaviour is seldom noticed and reinforced by those around them? Additionally, we should also recognise that even when parents respond to undesirable behaviours with anger, this negative response represents some form of attention, which they have been eager for and not in receipt of when they have behaved well. It seems then that balancing the scales in terms of paying more attention to desirable behaviours and reinforcing those behaviours is a key element for parents to consider taking on board.

Does Punishment have a place?

While punishment may not be the primary disciplinary strategy that we suggest to our parents, we are certainly not saying that it does not have its place. However, to be effective it has to be delivered in a particular way – otherwise, it could do more harm than good to the child’s psychological well being. For example, in some families I have worked with, parents may have allowed inappropriate behaviours to go unchecked for extended periods and then at their breaking point of frustration they crack down all at once with often excessive forms of punishment that may not have been proportionate to the most recent display of challenging behaviours. It is as though the parents were saving up the punishment and then made the decision to spend it all at once.

Parents, of course, have the best of intentions even when life seems to get in the way – however, the key to developing greater consistency in the child’s behaviours is by increasing the consistency in the parental response as well. In fact, the research tells us that inconsistent parenting may place children with oppositional tendencies at risk of greater anti-social behaviours in the teenage years and later in life.

Relying too heavily on punishment tends to create more challenges than it solves problems. When parents overuse punishment, children are less inclined to be honest about their behaviours and their motivation shifts from striving towards more desirable behaviours to avoiding punishment at all costs. What I find most unfortunate about an overreliance on punishment is that it also has negative long-term implications for the parent-child relationship whereby fear becomes a feature of that relationship, which in many instances is not what parents intend.

For punishment to be effective it has to be used as little as possible; occur immediately after the child displays unwanted behaviour; be carried out in a similar manner each time; be handled in a calm business-like way (making it about the behaviour and not the child being “bad”); and be of short duration.

The take home message here is that focusing on children’s positive behaviours and consistently reinforcing those efforts goes a long way to increase the frequency of those desired behaviours. Often times within this process, undesirable behaviours lose their strength and the frequency of such behaviours decreases. Changing our parenting perspective can go a long way in helping us win greater cooperation from children. If you believe you could use support in improving your parenting response or would like support in managing your child’s challenging behaviours, contact our team at Drop of Life Psychology Clinic.

By: Matthew McKenzie B. Psych. (Hons.), M. Psych. (Clinical) (Dist.)

Psychologist, Drop of Life Psychology Clinic

 

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