While behavior problems in children are common, attitudes towards them are varied. Christian Counselors are often contacted by parents who are concerned by their children’s behavior.
Examples of common behavior problems in children include: talking back, lying, fighting, hitting, kicking, being disrespectful, and so on.
It can be exhausting to deal with behavior problems in children. Parents often feel angry and confused about their child’s behavior. It can be terrifying when you don’t understand what’s happening with your child, don’t know how to help, but feel totally responsible for making things better for them.
For example, how do you handle the situation when your child is having a meltdown? Or when they are sobbing inconsolably? Perhaps your child seems to react to the slightest thing and become aggressive, and you have no idea what to do in that situation. Children who don’t listen or refuse to comply with rules are equally difficult to deal with.
Counselors who deal with children with behavior problems and their parents consider the most important word associated with behavior problems in children is interpretation. This is because behavior is regarded as 90% about the way it’s interpreted.
- Why we think a behavior is happening
- The level of control we think the child has over the behavior
- How we think the child feels
Thinking and assuming are part of interpretation, and interpretation is not the same as understanding. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to engage in therapy with a Christian counselor. Therapy opens the door to move from assuming to understanding why your child is behaving in ways that you consider to be problematic. It also helps to decide whether the behavior is actually ‘normal’ or not.
A Christian counselor with experience in therapy with children and their parents has created a list of behaviors that parents regard as problems and the root feelings that are causing – or contributing to – the behavior.
Feelings Associated with Behaviors
|Behavior||Feelings||Questions to Ask|
A need to hide
|Who or what is causing the fear?
What are they ashamed of other people knowing? What is causing their need to hide, or for what reason do they feel not good enough?
|Talking back; hitting; kicking||Anger||What is causing the anger?|
|Sexualized Behavior||Confusion||Have they seen or experienced sexual behavior first hand?|
|Self-harm or putting themselves at risk||Sadness||What loss have they been enduring? Have they experienced harm or trauma?|
For parents struggling to deal with their child’s difficulties, the principle question that needs to be considered is What is my child’s need that’s being unmet? When we talk about unmet needs, however, it’s important to remember that these are deep, emotional needs, not issues regarding toys or other material things.
Parents need to understand the issues that their child is wrestling with, and why they’re struggling. It may be that your child has something that they long to talk to someone about, but they don’t know how to express it. Similarly, children who are exposed to traumatic situations suffer confusion and it may be that their behavior is their way of trying to sort through the confusion – probably unsuccessfully.
The primary questions that bring parents to Christian family counselors are, “Why is my child behaving like this?” and “can you make it stop?” While these questions are important, in counseling it is beneficial to reframe the questions. Reframing is a way to take the concern and uncover the root issues and needs. The reframed question is often much more complex than the questions that bring parents to family counselors.
Most frequently, the root concern is more likely to be “Am I a bad parent since I can’t get my child to behave right?” It’s not uncommon for parents to see their child’s behavior as a reflection of their ability to raise children well. For family counselors, the next stage of therapy is to normalize the behaviors parents are seeing as problems and help to reduce the child’s need to display those problem behaviors.
Functional Behavioral Analysis
An important technique in helping parents and their children is Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA). This is a method that is based on the idea that While every behavior has a cause, not all behaviors are interpreted in the same way. For example, a parent might approach a counselor and complain that their child is disrespectful because they couldn’t sit still throughout a movie. In the parent’s eyes, the child’s behavior was an intentional attempt to disrupt the enjoyment of the movie for the rest of the family.
Another example could be a parent who, in a therapy session with their child, remarks that the child doesn’t care and isn’t listening, on the basis of the fact that the child is sitting playing silently in the sandbox. In both situations, the parents are viewing their child’s behavior as disrespectful and wanting help to ‘correct’ this. However, FBA questions the evidence that the parent is basing their interpretation of the child’s behavior.
Here’s a reproduction of an FBA chart that visualizes a means of talking about these examples:
|Behavior (bx)||Possible Functions of the bx:||Analysis|
|Child won’t stop moving While the movie is on||A: Intentional disruption
B: Moving to deal with anxiety or because of ADHD
|My child is disruptive
My child is anxious
|Child playing in the sandbox during therapy session about their behavior. Child neither talking nor making eye-contact||A: Child playing in the sandbox because they don’t care
B: Child playing in the sand as a calming or coping mechanism, to deal with shyness or anxiety
|My child is disrespectful
My child is ashamed
It’s clear when looking at this Functional Behavioral Analysis chart that it’s possible to come to entirely different conclusions about the behavior when you consider the function of the behavior. It’s not always as clear cut as parents assume it to be, meaning that problem behaviors are not always problems but rather dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
Look deeper into the roots of the behavior and you might find, for example, that these two hypothetical children had both experienced a significant loss in the past year, such as the death of a family member or being abandoned by one parent. They might come from families with a history of trauma, where security wasn’t a certainty.
Children who are responsive to correction or who are compliant are children who have experienced an adequate level of empathy, warmth, and care that leads to feelings of security and trust in their caregiver.
When these things are less than adequate, or entirely absent, there is no such security and trust, and “problem” behaviors are a child’s way of dealing with their uncomfortable feelings. They don’t feel able to turn to their caregiver for comfort and regulation.
Issues to Consider
Therefore, when it comes to the question of “why is my child behaving like this?” there are issues that need to be considered before labeling a behavior as problematic:
1. Family of origin
Many children who end up in family therapy come from homes that are broken or dysfunctional. Often, they live with one parent, While the other parent has died, is in jail, has become an addict, or is otherwise absent. Children need caregivers who are available to meet their needs on a consistent basis, and in many cases, this is lacking.
2. Frequency of Play
How frequently does the child have the opportunity to play, and with whom? Children benefit considerably from play, particularly when their parent(s) get down on the floor with them and build with Legos and other toys. Similarly, children need the opportunity to play with other children and don’t do well when they’re forced to assume an adult role in the home.
Play is vital for a child’s development, particularly psychologically. Many parents see play as optional, but actually, it’s a necessity. Play helps children to develop self-esteem, creativity, self-awareness, self-regulation, patience, distress tolerance, and much more. Children with behavior problems often don’t have opportunities to play or have never had a parent play with them.
What do they have control over? This is a massive determining factor in child behavior. Adults have control over a lot of things – such as where you go, what you do, what you eat, and so on – but children have much less control. Children are told what they have to do, where they have to go, what and how much to eat, what to wear – the list is endless.
In children whose problem behavior relates to bodily functions, it is sometimes the case that the child feels they have so little control in their life that they develop problem behaviors with their bodily functions because that’s one thing they do have control over.
In therapy, parents are taught the HALT technique before they assume that their child’s behavior is a problem. Is the child Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? Think about your own behavior when you are affected by these feelings.
We excuse our own behavior due to tiredness but are less willing to attribute a child’s behavior in the same way. It’s really important to see whether HALT is causing unwanted behavior rather than jumping to the conclusion that the child is simply unpleasant.
What do the caregivers believe they know about parenting? As harsh as it sounds, parents can often have misconceptions about best practices in parenting, and this can impact on how they interpret their child’s behavior.
Questions to ask parents of children with behavior problems include their understanding of attachment styles, their parenting styles, the way a child’s brain functions when they’re having a tantrum, and how to discuss behavior with their child.
There are two really great resources that parents can use to build their knowledge and understanding:
- The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel – which is available as a book, workbook, and video – helps parents to understand how to handle their child’s behavior.
- Helping the Non-Compliant Child by Robert McMahon – which helps parents bring consistency into their relationship with their child and build the child’s self-awareness.
What is the child’s environment? A difficult issue to raise in therapy is the impact of socioeconomic status on stress levels within the family unit. Other environmental considerations might include families dealing with addiction, and families with a large number of children where kids have to compete for attention.
6. Family Relationships
What is the child’s relationship with family members like? An example of the impact of broken family relationships might be the parent who comes to therapy with a child who is depressed, anxious and is acting out at school, but who later reveals that the father has recently moved out. Young boys need a dad, and young girls need a mom. Problems often emerge when one parent is absent.
Siblings can also contribute to difficult behavior. Older siblings who bully or tease their younger siblings can cause the younger child to resort to bad behavior.
The question of whether a child’s behavior is normal is not easily answered. The best answer that a counselor can give is probably not the one that parents want to hear: it depends. There are a lot of factors that can influence behavior, so there’s no simple yes or no answer to the question of what is and isn’t normal.
If you want to help your child with their behavior, it’s necessary for you to have an open mind in order to explore the root causes and be willing to engage in education on family dynamics. Christian counselors can really help with gaining a full understanding of your child’s behavior and give you resources to help handle it.
“Bali Girl”, Courtesy of Nuno Alberto, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Unsupervised”, Courtesy of Mike Fox, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Ahhh,” courtesy of Jelleke VanOoteghem, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Comfort”, Courtesy of Jordan Whitt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License