I like to think that I know my children fairly well. Their personalities and temperaments are usually stable from one day to the next, and I generally know what to expect of their behavior. There are times, though, when they throw me for a total loop.
As parents we've all experienced it: a formerly sweet, sensitive child lashes out at a friend at school. The kid who's the first to fess up tells a whopper of a lie. The quiet little girl inexplicably starts throwing epic tantrums. What gives?
I know what it's like to suddenly worry that my child is exhibiting potentially serious behavior issues, and folks? It's not fun. It's downright terrifying to have those middle-of-the-night fears about a child's behavior.
So where's the line between "typical" and "troublesome" behavior? I've consulted with two parenting experts, Katie Hurley, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist, and Deborah Gilboa, Board Certified Family Physician, who are here to give us their takes on six common issues families face.
Katie's Take: While those first lies are often told on impulse and can be attributed to a confusion between wishes and reality, from about age 4 on, kids lie to avoid punishment, to boost self-esteem, to gain some advantage, or to avoid some other consequence. The best way to figure out how to confront a lie is to determine the goal of the child's lie. As always, model the behavior that you want to see and let your child know that there is always a chance to make it better. And that begins with honesty. The more you show forgiveness, the more likely you are to get the truth in a timely manner. Children fear consequences and disappointing their parents. If your child is a habitual liar (lies often throughout the day about big and small things and to various people), seek help. Habitual lying can point to low self-esteem, anger, environmental stressors, and/or other psychological stressors.
Dr. G's Take: Four and five-year-olds may still be in the land of make believe sometimes, certain that if they say something, that makes it true. Kids who lie are normal, parents who call them on it are doing a great job!
2. Not listening/Not following instructions
Katie's Take: Children within the 4-10 age range are known to continue their play and avoid eye contact with the hope that the parents will just stop redirecting. It's a very normal part of child development and points toward independence. Try talking to your child about listening skills in a calm moment, when there isn't a pressing errand to run. Timers work well for some kids, while others respond to repeated warnings. When giving directions, meet your child at eye level, use a calm voice tone, be very clear, and demonstrate patience. And always praise positive behaviors!
Dr. G's Take: Remember that it is hard for most of us to listen and to follow instructions. For a child to truly hear us, we must be looking in each others' eyes, and they need to be able to repeat back the steps. And keep your instructions developmentally appropriate. A 6-year-old can follow two- or even three-step instructions if she can go do them right away. Not even a 10-year-old may remember after school to do something that you told him about at 7 in the morning!
Related: 7 habits of highly effective kids
Katie's Take: While a 4 year old doesn't understand that stealing is wrong, kids 5 and up know that taking something that doesn't belong to them is wrong. However, young children lack impulse control. Older children might feel that a parent would say no to a coveted item, so they steal to get the item they so desire. While a couple of instances of stealing is not a reason to sound the alarm (provided that the item is returned and the parents teach the child about right versus wrong), habitual stealing almost always points to a larger problem. Possible motives for stealing: Anger, peer pressure, loneliness, lack of attention at home, relationship problems at home (divorce, neglect), or they've seen friends or family members steal. The best way to confront stealing is to remain calm and talk to the child directly about the reasons behind the stealing.
Dr. G's Take: Younger kids do not think in terms of other people's ownership. For them, if something is in their hand, they can hang on to it. Once a child hits the age of reason (usually around age 6 -- rule following) they know that items are owned and that ownership takes money or words. The first time a child takes something, they need to return it with an apology. The next time they need a stronger consequence.
Katie's Take: The best way to get more disrespectful behaviors out of your child is to yell, roll your eyes, use sarcasm in the face of frustration, and take away every fun thing that they own. Model the behaviors you want to see in your child. Provide choices whenever possible. When to worry? If your child displays these behaviors daily and at school or within the community, seek help. Often there are other underlying emotional issues when children repeatedly engage in disrespectful behaviors toward adults.
Dr. G's Take: Older kids are starting to realize that parents don't know everything. And we're encouraging them to speak up about what they know! So talking back is a normal consequence. However, kids need to learn to speak to adults one way and kids another -- think of it as a secret code of earning (and keeping) respect from adults. So enourage kids to avoid the word "But" at the beginning of a sentence and try "Oh! I thought..." instead.
Katie's Take: I've written two posts on this topic: Zero Tolerance for Bullies (Tips for taking a stand on bullying)and Bully Busters: Tips for Preventing Bullies.
Dr. G's Take: All kids will "try out" social power. What matters most is the reaction they get from adults. So when kids manipulate or insult each other, we must call them on it at any age. Even if they do it to a sibling.
6. Aggression/Angry outbursts
Katie's Take: While aggression is a very normal part of child development in the preschool years, beyond age five it should start to taper off. Aggression is most often shown in response to negative input (teasing, criticism, bullying). It's important to keep in mind that aggression in the school age years is often a learned behavior. By about age 7-8, impulse control starts to improve, making it reasonable for children to make positive choices in the face of negativity. While aggressive children often get pegged as angry, the behavior more often has its roots in low self-esteem, extreme environmental stress, or depression. While a little rough and tumble play is no cause for alarm, your child should be able to play in other ways too. Be direct when confronting your child about aggressive acts at school or at home and give him/her the chance to explain. Having an open line of communication (that does not include judgment and immediate/unfair consequences) is the best way to encourage your child to talk and work through difficult emotions.
Dr. G's Take: At both ends of this age spectrum, angry outbursts are normal. They usually decrease in frequency in the middle elementary years and get worse again in puberty. If a child is lashing out with words, that is normal and appropriate. They need to learn only to do this in private and avoid insults. If a child is lashing out physically towards herself or others, it is time to talk to a counselor or doctor to get some help understanding and controlling these behaviors. Kids demonstrate many behaviors that are developmentally normal but not acceptable. This should be reassuring to us as parents; there is nothing wrong with our children, but they still need strong parenting to stay on track!
- By Mary Weimer
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