Behavior Problems in Children

By Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

Behavior problems in childhood in the absence of any other psychopathology (mental or emotional illness) are quite common. In contrast to emotional disorders (depression and the like), behavior problems are readily modifiable with a cooperative engagement of the therapist, the family and the child.

Difficulty in the treatment of behavior problems usually involves a failure to follow through with the recommendations or requests of the therapist. This is often related to a parent having a history of conflict in their family of origin, which undermines their ability to set and maintain limits on, and consequences for, problem behaviors.

Behavior management begins with the birth of the child. Parents first must create an environment where the newborn can learn socially appropriate sleep cycles (going to sleep at night, going back to sleep after awakening during the night, etc.). Human development involves an ever-increasing assortment of behavioral skills which must be mastered. Children do best when their parents are assertive, encouraging, and consistent.

Soon after birth, the child comes to expect the appearance of the mother's smiling face to be accompanied by the reduction of internal stress (hunger, thirst, wetness of diapers, etc.). By the age of 4-8 weeks, the child "smiles" in response to the mother's smile. This parent-child exchange marks the first evidence of what psychologists call "behavioral reciprocity." In everyday language this means, "you do something for me, and I'll do something for you." It is the basis of all human interaction, and through it we learn that behavior has natural consequences, either pleasant or unpleasant.

By five or six months of age, a child readily distinguishes between a parental smile and a parental frown. These facial displays are critical to the training process. When correctly applied, they communicate the parent's emotional state long before language can be used to convey that to the child. Young children through toddlerhood tend to repeat behaviors which get parental smiles and inhibit behaviors which elicit frowns.

By middle childhood, language is more heavily relied on to communicate emotional states. If the parent is able to communicate the unpleasant consequences of a child's behavior, then they can interact to mutually agree on changing behavior. If the parent attempts to "rule by law" (the "do as I say, not as I do" camp) the child will be motivated to lie, manipulate and be sneaky. By adolescence, such kids often have more serious emotional problems.

By that time, the parent has the opportunity to help the child evaluate the natural effects in real life of the child's decisions about behavior. Structuring the relationship with the child so that he or she can "make mistakes to learn from," without fear of ridicule, rejection or punishment, is an important parental task which promotes competence, independence and responsibility in children. Failure to do this leads to dependency, oppositional behavior, and inadequacy.

When faced with behavior problems, counseling interventions seek to quickly establish mutuality in the parent-child relationship (mutuality is NOT the same as equality!). The child is entitled to respect the same as the parent is, but may not be entitled to the multitude of "extras" which the parent provides out of love and concern, if he or she is not willing to participate as a mutual member of the family, contributing to the family by cooperating with the parental attempts to guide and direct him or her and respecting his or her place within the family structure.

On the way to a successful intervention, the parent is asked to remember how children learn. The parent is asked to "catch the child doing something good" as much as possible, and to comment on it when it occurs. This creates positive feelings for both parties and increases the closeness and mutual respect they feel. Parents who expect their children to behave differently than they themselves behave, just don't "get it." Consideration of others' feelings is learned when one's own feelings get considered.

Parents should not expect a linear progression - progress may be slow and/or backsliding may occur. Consistency, staying tuned in to how you and the child are feeling, and the continued expectation and focus on positive outcomes will greatly increase your chances for success.