So, your child is having behavior problems. They might be displaying a range of behavioral concerns. Are they being disrespectful? Talking back to you, hitting, kicking, lying? Working with caregivers who are navigating children’s behavioral problems is something I have run into a lot.
I have worked for several years at a child and family outpatient clinic and met a lot of exhausted, angry, confused parents. There is nothing worse than having no idea what is going on with your child while feeling completely responsible to help them.
What do you do when your child is inconsolable? Or when they are reacting seemingly out of the blue and becoming aggressive toward you, themselves, or others? What do you do when your child won’t listen? What are we to think when our children are simply non-compliant?
If I had to choose one word as the most important word a parent would associate with behavior problems in children, it would be this: interpretation. Why, you may ask? Because, behavior is 90% about how we interpret it (why we think it’s happening, what control we think our child has over stopping it or not, how we think doing that behavior makes the child feel, ect). We think. We assume. Bringing your child and yourself into therapy is one of the best ways to go from assuming, to knowing exactly why your child acts the way they do, and whether that behavior is ‘normal’ or not.
I’d like to start by presenting you with a list of behaviors parents who bring their child to counseling are often encountering, and the accompanying list of feelings I believe are the root feelings these children are struggling with. (This is based on many sessions spent with kids showing behavioral concerns as well as from my education on behavioral problems).
Feelings associated with behaviors:
|Behavior||Feelings||Questions to consider|
A need to hide
|What or who are they afraid of, what are they ashamed of others knowing, and why do they feel they are not good enough but need to hide?|
|Talking back, hitting, kicking||Anger||What are they angry about?|
|What sexual behavior have they seen or experienced firsthand?|
|Self harm or making unsafe choices||Sadness||What loss, harm, fear have they been enduring?|
At the core of all these feelings and questions lies one question for parents to consider: What is my child’s unmet need? And, by unmet need, this doesn’t simply mean, “What toy did they not get this week that they wanted?” It’s a bit deeper than that! It’s a question about their emotional world.
What are they really wrestling with, and why? Do they have something they might need to talk to someone about but don’t know how? Did they see or experience something that made them feel confused and now through their behaviors they are trying to sort through their confusion?
As a therapist with several years of experience working in a community mental health child and family clinic, I have seen hundreds of families bring their kids in wondering, “Why on earth is my child acting this way and how can you make it stop?”
Those two questions are very important. But, as a therapist, sometimes I like to do what is called a ‘reframe’ where I take your concern, internally sort through what you’re really asking or needing, and present your question back to you refined.
What I really hear many of these parents asking is “Am I a bad parent because I can’t get my child to do what they’re supposed to?” Children’s poor behaviors directly correlate to a parent’s sense of effectiveness in raising their child.
My work as a therapist then is twofold: first, how do I normalize the behaviors parents are experiencing from their child, and second, how do I help reduce the child’s need to be having/displaying these behaviors in the first place?
Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is a technique based on the premise that every behavior has a reason, but not all behaviors are interpreted the same way. I had a parent tell me their child was being disrespectful because their child could not sit still during a movie one time. The parent said they felt the child intentionally wanted to disrupt other family members watching the movie.
Another parent, while sitting in the therapy room with myself and their child, voiced frustration saying, “See, they don’t care! They’re not even listening right now. If they were they wouldn’t be playing in the sandbox not saying anything.”
In both of these examples, parents came in with very similar questions: How do you get my child to stop being disrespectful? But before we can answer that question, it might be helpful to first think about the question, “On what evidence does a parent base their interpretation of their child’s behavior?”
Below I’ve provided an FBA chart as a simple visual way of talking about these cases:
|Behavior (bx)||Possible Function(s) of the bx:||Analysis|
|Child won’t stop moving during movie||A. Intentionally being disruptive
B. Moving to relieve anxiety or because child has ADHD
|My child is disruptive
My child is anxious
|Child playing quietly in sandbox during therapy session about their parents’ frustration with their behaviors. Child not talking or looking at therapist or caregiver.||A. Child playing in sand box because they don’t care
B. Child playing in sand to calm themselves because they are shy or to self-regulate and reduce anxiety
|My child is disrespectful
My child is ashamed
When looking at this Functional Behavioral Analysis chart, you can see we come to two very different conclusions about the child’s behavior based on how we interpret the function of their behavior. What I can tell you is that for both of these kids, they were in therapy for a reason. Not necessarily because they were angry, rage-filled, disrespectful kids, but instead because they had both gone through significant losses.
Both had lost a primary caregiver in the last year to either death or abandonment. Both lived in homes where the security of a warm, available presence wasn’t always guaranteed. Both had caregivers who themselves had gone through significant traumas and were just trying to provide basic needs for their family.
What we know about every child who responds well to correction or displays compliance with a caregiver is that they have received a degree of empathy, attunement, warmth, care, etc. that taught them, “My caregiver is there for me to contain the feelings/thoughts/sensations that sometimes I cannot.” With that kind of reassurance, that deep knowing, a child can spring board into the world to become a competent, self-contained individual.
So, the question comes back to, “Why is my child acting up?”
This is a list of some of the major things I try to look at to better understand a child’s behaviors before labeling them with a diagnosis or prescribing meds:
1. Family of origin – this is their nuclear family. For many, many of my clients in community mental health, they come from broken or disrupted homes. They live with only one parent because the other one either died, went to jail, became an addict, lost their rights, or simply went silent. I can’t tell you the number of kids who I see on a regular basis whose basic need for the available, consistent presence of one or both parents has been undone.
2. How often do they get to play, and with whom, and why? Do their parents get down on the floor with them and build things they want to build? Do their caregivers lead by example what it means to relax, to create, to socialize? Do they get to be a kid?
I have one client who, after suffering horrific traumas from one biological parent, was then removed from that family and placed in their current caregiver’s home where they are now taking care of their disabled sibling and a parent whose health could significantly decline any second.
There is no time for this child to play. But play is crucial to the development of the child’s mind. Play is language for children. The number of books dedicated to the importance of play are prolific because somewhere along the way of growing into adulthood, we forget just how wired for play we ourselves were at that age.
Play isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Play encourages self-esteem, safe exploration, collaboration, creativity, insight, self- and other awareness, distress tolerance skills, patience, and so much more. Play is often the key to unlocking a child’s distressed inner world, because for many kids with behavioral problems, they began with one thing: that child’s heart had not been emotionally touched in a long time. And to touch a child’s heart, is to play with them.
3. What do they have control over? This is another big factor in determining whether or not your child’s behavior problems are “normal.” Think about your life. As an adult, you have control over more than you may realize. You (hopefully) get to choose what you will do with your day, where you will go, how you will get there, how you will spend your money, your time, etc. You get to choose what the family eats, what activities you do, and so on.
Now, try and think of what external things a child has control over? They are told where to go, when, how much to eat, what to eat, things are bought for them, they don’t buy them, they are told when and under what conditions they can see their friends outside of school, etc. So, when parents come to me with concerns because their child is doing things like not using the bathroom anymore on purpose, I have to wonder, are they retaliating by using one of the few things they do have control over, their bodily functions, to regain control in other areas?
We teach parents the rule of HALT to ask themselves before interpreting a child’s behavior first: Is my child Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? Isn’t it funny how many behaviors of our own we are so prone to excuse when we have one of these factors working against us?
I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say things I don’t mean or act in a way that isn’t congruent with my character when I’m hungry or tired or lonely or angry. Those are really distracting, big feelings and physical sensations that need to be addressed first before assuming that a child is just all around an unpleasant person.
4. What do the caregivers think they know about parenting? That question sounds harsh, I know. But hear me out. This is really worth paying attention to in order to understand whether a child’s behaviors are “normal” or not.
Do their parents know what their own attachment styles are? Their parenting styles? Do they know how their child’s brain functions during a tantrum? Do they know how to attend to their child’s behaviors in a non-shaming, neutral way? Do they practice attunement? Two of the best resources I can recommend for parents to dive into in therapy to address these questions are:
The Whole Brain Child, by Dan Siegel, in which he has created a workbook, book, and video for parents to utilize as resources to understand how to connect and redirect their child in times of disruption.
Helping the Non-Compliant Child, by Robert McMahon, a book that developed out of research done by the University of Washington which utilizes therapy to help parents practice having consistent one-on-one time with their child and increasing their reflective language around their child’s behaviors so as to increase the child’s self-awareness. This program also goes through how to properly ignore, praise, give warnings, and give time-outs.
5. What is their environment like? I won’t say too much about this, but essentially socioeconomic status plays a part in the levels of stress a family is dealing with. In addition, families where there are lots of kids or only one caregiver can be reasons enough for a child to act in a way that bids for attention.
6. What is their relationship to family members like? I’m starting to not be surprised anymore when a parent comes to me and says, “My son has been depressed and anxious and is having trouble focusing in school.” I immediately want to ask them, “So, where’s dad?”
For a lot of young boys, they need a dad. And for young girls, they need a mom. And what are their siblings like? How do they get treated, especially by older siblings? Many young boys will act out if they are being bullied, teased, picked on, and overall not encouraged or protected by their older brothers. And for young girls, if they have an older sister who is annoyed by them and doesn’t want to spend time with them, this can impact their identity.
So, is your child’s behavior normal? It depends. It depends on a lot, actually. That question taps into a reservoir of bio-psycho-social realms. It is not a simple yes or no answer. It is not as simple as even defining what “normal” is, because, what is normal? Rather, it is a conversation.
It is about being willing to explore further causes for your child’s behaviors as well as being open to education on family systems dynamics. If you are interested in beginning the conversation, I welcome you to schedule a counseling appointment today.
“Look at me,” courtesy of Hermes Rivera, unspash.com, CC0 License; “Splash,” courtesy of Janko Ferlic, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Coloring time,” courtesy of Aaron Burden, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Walk with me,” courtesy of Annie Spratt, unsplash.com, CC0 License