Monday, August 26, 2013

When Your Kid is the One with the Behavior Problem

One of the most stressful and isolating times for parents is when their kid has a behavior problem. Parents of younger kids may deal with tantrums and hitting while parents of older kids may deal with fighting, disrespectful language, or defiant behavior.  It is a maddening and scary time and you are desperate for answers yesterday.

I get it and I am with you in this.

First thing is first.  Take a deep breath. 


The first reaction that parents have when their kid begins to act out is panic. You become increasingly aware of the number of well-intentioned comments you are receiving about your child from friends.  Your child's teacher may have called you or sent an email inquiring about problems at home.  You notice that your child is becoming less popular as invites to playdates decrease. You might even be noticing that invites you are making are getting declined.

After panic, that darned parent guilt sets in and suddenly you are blaming yourself for why your kid is acting out.  You start to blame yourself for working too much, not giving them enough 1:1 time, not being perfect.

Adding your shame to your child's behavior problem is like adding fuel to a fire. Speaking the truth with awareness prevents sparks from turning into flames.

Take a deep breath.  You need to see this clearly. Guilt and panic won't help.

Here's the thing:  If you have a younger kid who struggles with sharing, biting, or hitting, it isn't a secret to anyone.  You see it at home, you see it on playdates, and you see it in public.  If your older one is becoming defiant, disrespectful, or treating his/her friends poorly, word gets out.  You hear about it.

It's not a secret that your kid is struggling so don't let embarrassment further isolate you or cause you to hide.

First, get a sense of what you think is going on with your child.  Why do you think this behavior is happening? What have you tried so far?  What is your intent in correcting the behavior?

Get really in tune to the answers to these questions, even if you don't know.

Newsflash: Include your kid in this process, too!

The nature of my business is that I often talk to parents about behavior problems their kids is having.  I cannot tell you how often, when I ask what the child has to say about everything, I hear "Well, we haven't told her.  We don't want her to feel bad that she isn't getting invitations".


Tell your kids what you want them to think.  Something like "Shelly, I know you like coming to the playground but have you noticed that you get in trouble a lot when you're here?  Why do you think that is?"  Talk to your kids about what you are noticing.  Ask questions.  Get information and come to an understanding.  Then, make a plan for how you're going to respond.  If it's in your nature to include your child in such a plan, go for it.  Otherwise, come up with one, yourself, and talk to your kids about it.

Your child should always know what new skills he or she is working on.  How else can progress be measured if they aren't included in the goal setting?

Next, rather than avoiding or hiding from the criticism you and your child might be receiving, face it head on. 

Tell the people coming to you, be it friends, family, or providers, what the deal is.  Try saying something like "I know Shelly has really been struggling when she is in groups of girls.  She keeps trying to make friends by putting herself in charge and bossing people about.  I know bossing other kids around is making her unpopular.  I assure you.  We're teaching her how to make friends in a more positive way.  We're aware of the problem".

I know.  That's a really vulnerable thing to do.  It's honest, though, and it's the truth.  It's so much more freeing to speak your truth than hide from embarrassment. Tell people coming to you with concerns what you want them to think.  No, you can't help it if they walk away with a different, more judgmental message but there is no shame in having a child who is struggling with something. 

A funny thing happens when you start being honest about a parenting struggle.  Suddenly, everyone is an expert!  You get tons of advice and feedback.  Any time your child does anything, you are likely to hear about it.  It can be overwhelming and add to the stress and strain you are already under.

Here's the good thing.  By "outing" yourself as a parent with a child that is struggling, you then can control how you get information and receive feedback.  You can say to a friend "I appreciate you caring about my daughter but I am trying to learn a lot right now.  While I appreciate your support, reading an article on "helping your kids make friends" just overwhelms me.  The best way you can be a friend to me is just listen to and support my struggle.  I know we've all been there and will be there again".

You can tell teachers and providers the same thing!  It's ok to ask for feedback and reports the way that you will best hear them and at the frequency with which you can manage them.  It sets you up for more productive communication with your providers.

Now, during this time while you are helping your struggling kid, go easy on yourself.

It's ok to keep to playdates with kids and families that are more supportive and understanding. It's ok to avoid kids and families that challenge you or your child more. It's ok, too,  to plan on more home days than going out days while new skills are being learned and tested.

This sets you, and your child, up for success.

You've got this and I am with you all the way.

Want my take on your child's problem behavior?  Consider giving me a call for a consult. I'm happy to help.

Hang in there.  You've got this.

Until next time,

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