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Why Children Misbehave

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This article will help you to educate parents concerning the causes of childhood misbehavior, urge parents to identify those causes or contributors to misbehavior that may exist in their families, and to encourage parents to begin to remedy those causes of misbehavior that can be rectified within their families

Outline

  • Open discussion of parents’ views of the causes of misbehavior
  • Presentation of a model for understanding child misbehavior
  • Child’s characteristics
  • Parents’ characteristics
  • Situational consequences
  • Family stress events
  • Reciprocal interaction among these factors
  • Goal of therapy: Designing a “Best fit” between parent, child, and the family circumstances
  • Some handicaps are behavioral
  • Homework
  • Family Problems Inventory
  • Child-proofing the home
     

Review of Events 

At the beginning of every session the parents are invited to describe any significant events that have transpired since the parents last met with the therapist. In the firs session this will have been in most cases the time of the child’s initial clinical evaluation. In some cases, the family will have been seeing the therapist regularly in ongoing treatment, the focus of which is now shifting to direct instruction in child management skills. Since each session begins with this review of prior events, it will receive no further discussion in the description of subsequent steps in the program.

Children’s Characteristics

Some children are born with a certain predilection toward deviant behavior and psychopathology. Such children may have inherited predispositions toward through disorders, psychotic behavior and intellectual delay, as well as attention deficits and impulsivity, to name but a few, given the evidence presently available on the familial nature of these disorders. Other children appear to manifest difficult temperaments that, very early in their development, bring them into conflict with their care-givers. Temperament here refers to the children’s activity level, general attention span, emotionality, sociability, response to stimulation, and habit regularity. These aspects of temperament appear to be inborn characteristics of the children to a great extent, are often easily identifiable within the first 6 months of life, and are stable over years of time.

Each characteristic should be briefly explained. After each have parents indicate on the handout whether that characteristic is problematic for their child. Activity level here refers to the specific level of motor activity shown by the child. Attention span refers to the average duration of time a child usually spends watching, listening to, manipulating, or otherwise behaving toward stimuli in the environment. Impulse control refers to the child’s ability to stop and think before he or she acts. Often children are trained to be more reflective, to consider the consequences of their actions before behaving. Some children, however, have great difficulty in inhibiting immediate responses, placing them at much greater risk for behavior management conflicts with their caregivers. Emotionality describes the child’s general emotional reactions to events within the environment. Some children are generally irritable, cry often, are hard to console when upset, and emote very easily and often to excess. Sociability refers to the child’s general level of interest in others as opposed to things. Eye contact with others, initiating interactions toward others, and generally viewing others as more important things to interact within a situation than are objects are all aspects of sociability in children. Response to stimulation is used to capture the child’s general reaction to tactile, auditory, or visual stimulation, noise, movement produced by others and so forth. Some children withdraw when only slightly stimulated by their environment. Others may cry easily when stimulated. Others still may seek out stimulation, explore novel aspects of an environment vigorously, and in some cases enjoy mild stimulation from others. Finally, habit regularity refers to the consistency of the child’s biological habits, such as eating, sleeping and elimination patterns. Some children are fussy or picky eaters, develop colic easily, have shorter-than-normal sleep patterns, or have irregular habits of elimination. Obviously, these can add additional stress to care-givers in trying to establish an infant or young child’s “routine”.

Explain to parents that these are overlapping features of children and are simply lumped together into one general impression of a child’s temperament. The greater a child deviates from normal on these dimensions of temperament and the more dimensions on which he or she is deviant, the greater is the likelihood of conflict developing with the parents. Such parent—child conflicts will often be greatest for the parent who must make the most daily demands on the child. Such demands are more likely to elicit the child’s negative temperament, resulting in that parent having a far more negative view of the child’s manageability than the parent having fewer daily management encounters with the child. It is not hard to see how this could lead to marital strife, with one parent carrying a greater brunt of the child’s negative temperament than the other.

It is also not difficult to see how such child characteristics could lead to conflict with other adults and the community in which the child resides. In a society that values controlled, well-channeled activity levels, sustained attention, reasonably regulated emotional reactions, moderate degrees of sociability, curiosity evinced in healthy but channeled ways, and predictable regularity of habits that lend to easy caretaking, an infant or child who is seriously deviant or negative in these areas is destined to have great difficulties in social and familial adjustment.

Physical characteristics are another feature that may predispose children toward misbehavior. The child’s physical appearance, motor coordination, strength, stamina, and general physical abilities are well-recognized factors in determining to some degree how others will react to them at least initially. A child who is unattractive, uncoordinated, weak, or generally different from others in physical abilities will have less positive initial interactions with others, may accidentally damage property, may be unable to participate gracefully in children’s play or games, and may be at risk for failure in certain academic areas (e.g., handwriting). Such problems not only result in initial rejection, dislike, or outright hostility toward the child so afflicted but can render damage to the child’s self-esteem and desire to be accepted by his or her family, peers, and society. The mere fact that a child may resemble someone else in the family who was disliked a (a former husband, for instance) may subtly affect the types and manner of interactions with other family members (the mother in this case).

Finally, a child’s developmental abilities may place the child at risk for behavioral problems. Like physical characteristics, developmental competencies also affect how others initially perceive children and subsequently interact with them. For instance, a mild delay in language development, impaired speech expression, less-than-average intellect, or poor visual-motor coordination may result in poor social acceptance, teasing, or other forms of social maltreatment. Such delays may also affect a child’s social problem-solving abilities, ability to understand and comply with parental commands and requests, or ability to learn appropriate habits or emotional control. These may lead directly to conflict with caregivers and others with whom the child interacts. Parents should be invited to give examples in each of these areas as to specific characteristics they may have noted that affect children’s social behavior and acceptance.

At this point, ask the parents to give a brief profile of their child in each of these areas in order to see what factors the child may already have that could predispose him or her toward misconduct.

The Parent’s Characteristics

You should now discuss with the parents the fact that their own characteristics play some role in the development or maintenance of behavior problems in their children. Following the same outline of characteristics used above in describing the behavior problem child, discuss how parents may have certain inherited predispositions to personal psychological disorders, temperamental characteristics, physical features or disabilities, or developmental disabilities that place them at risk for contributing to behavioral difficulties in their children. This seems to occur as a result of the effects of these characteristics on the parents’ consistency and effectiveness in managing child misbehavior when it arises. Virtually the same difficulties that may plague the behavior problem child in these areas can also be seen in some parents. Parents are then encouraged to provide within these categories specific characteristics that they recognize may contribute to the problems parents have managing children, especially those with behavioral disorders. Then have the parents complete the  characteristics profile that accompanies the handouts with this manual. The intent of the parent and child profiles is to make parents more cognizant of the fit between their own and their child’s characteristics and to note where conflicts between them may arise. Also, parents may strive to modify their own characteristics where possible, or at least preclude them from exacerbating their management problems with the child by keeping them in mind as they raise this child.

Situational Consequences

Probably one of the most important factors contributing to child behavioral disorders are the consequences that occur in families because of inappropriate behavior by the child. In fact, it is through these consequences, particularly those provided by the parents, that several of the other factors described in this model operate. It appears that parent characteristics and family stress events operate directly on the ability of parents to provide consistent, appropriate, and effective consequences during the management of child behavior. Child characteristics certainly affect the manner in which the child reacts to these management efforts and hence indirectly affect the consequences the parents will subsequently employ to deal with the child’s reactions.

Describe for the parents the notion that children do not behave without cause or reason, that is, child behavior is not random but occurs because of particular response predispositions of the child (the characteristics described above), his or her learning history within the family and the consequences occurring in the immediate situation in which the problem behavior arises. The processes whereby these consequences operate can be subdivided into two fundamental concepts positive reinforcements and escape/avoidance learning. These processes were discussed in chapter 1 and should be presented to the parents in language that is readily understandable to them.

Essentially, parents are taught that children may misbehave to gain positive consequences or rewards, or to escape from ongoing unpleasant, boring, or effortful activities. Parents are asked to describe the types of positive consequences that may accrue to children for misbehavior. Most parents are quite capable of providing a rather accurate list of such consequences. They appear to have somewhat greater difficulty generating a list of consequences that children might wish to avoid, and so your assistance here may be necessary. Point out to parents that most of the activities we assign children to do, especially chores, are not especially pleasant, often require extended effort and require the child to stop what he or she was doing (usually something enjoyable) to do this unpleasant activity. As a result, children may experiment with ways of escaping from or avoiding chores by developing oppositional behavior toward parent commands. You may find it helpful to show the schematic diagram of a noncompliant interaction and describe it in some detail so parents can appreciate how consequences they are providing for oppositional behavior are serving to create and sustain it. 

Explain that a child need not be successful all the time in gaining positive consequences or avoiding unpleasant activities in order to show disruptive, noncompliant, or oppositional behavior to most commands. This is the principle of intermittent reinforcement, and as most therapists know, such partial schedules of consequences can strengthen and sustain noncompliance in children even though the child succeeds with such behavior only a minority of the time. Sometimes using the example of adult gambling and how it is maintained by small intermittent payoffs helps to convey this notion to parents. Again, teaching the jargon is not so important as conveying the principle or concept to the parents.

Family Stress

Now you should review with the parents a variety of potential stress events that families may experience. These can be subdivided into stressors related to personal problems, the marital relationship, health problems, financial problems, stress related to one or both spouses’ occupations, problems with relatives and friends, and problems created by siblings.

Parents should be taught that these stress events can act in several ways to increase the likelihood of noncompliant or inappropriate behavior in children. First, because they directly affect the parents’ own emotional well-being, they will certainly affect how effectively and consistently parents will deal with unacceptable behavior when it occurs. Parents may fluctuate in their management tactics much more when under stress. On one hand, they may increase their commands, supervision and punishment of a child because of their own irritable mood. On the other hand, they may withdraw from managing the child’s behavior because of preoccupation with the stress events and the anxiety and depression that may accompany them. Either way, parental management of children becomes far more variable and inconsistent, leading to greater success of child oppositional behavior in escaping or avoiding unpleasant or effortful tasks.

A second way in which family stress affects child misbehavior is by altering parental perceptions of the child. Depressed, anxious, or distressed parents tend to exaggerate their reports of child behavior problems. Should parents act on these perceptions, which they typically do, then they will behave as if the child’s behavior were deviant or unacceptable when in fact it is not. In so doing, parents may inadvertently punish normal or acceptable child behavior, increase several of the other factors described in this model operate. It appears that parent characteristics and family stress events operate directly on the ability of parents to provide consistent, appropriate, and effective consequences during the management of child behavior.  Child characteristics certainly affect the manner in which the child reacts to these management efforts and hence indirectly affect the consequences the parents will subsequently employ to deal with the child’s reactions.

Describe for the parents the notion that children do not behave without cause or reason; that is, child behavior is not random but occurs because of particular response predispositions of the child (the characteristics described above), his or her learning history within the family, and the consequences occurring in the immediate situation in which the problem behavior arises. The processes whereby these consequences operate can be subdivided into two fundamental concepts: positive reinforcement and escape/avoidance learning. These processes were discussed in chapter 1 and should be presented to the parents in language that is readily understandable to them.

Essentially, parents are taught that children may misbehave to gain positive consequences or rewards, or to escape from ongoing unpleasant, boring, or effortful activities. Parents are asked to describe the types of positive consequences that may accrue to children for misbehavior. Most parents are quite capable of providing a rather accurate list of such consequences. They appear to have somewhat greater difficulty generating a list of consequences that children might wish to avoided, and so your assistance here may be necessary. Point out to parents that most of the activities we assign children to do, especially chores, are not especially pleasant, often require extended effort, and require the child to stop what he or she was doing (usually something enjoyable to do this unpleasant activity. As a result, children may experiment with ways of escaping from or avoiding chores by developing oppositional behavior toward parent commands. You may find it helpful to show the schematic diagram of a noncompliant interaction from Figure 1.1 and describe it in some detail so parents can appreciate how consequences they are providing for oppositional behavior are serving to create and sustain it.

Explain that a child need not be successful all the time in gaining positive consequences or avoiding unpleasant activities in order to show disruptive, noncompliant, or oppositional behavior to most commands. This is the principle of intermittent reinforcement, and as most therapists know, such partial schedules of consequences can strengthen and sustain noncompliance in children even though the child succeeds with such behavior only a minority of the time. Sometimes using the example of adult gambling and how it is maintained by small intermittent payoffs helps to convey this notion to parents. Again, teaching the jargon is not so important as conveying the principle or concept to the parents.

Family Stress

Now you should review with the parents a variety of potential stress events that families may experience. These can be subdivided into stressors related to personal problems, the marital relationship, health problems, financial problems, stress related to tone or both spouses’ occupations, problems with relatives and friends, and problems created by siblings.

Parents should be taught that these stress events can act in several ways to increase the likelihood of noncompliant or inappropriate behavior in children. First, because they directly affect the parents’ own emotional well-being, they will certainly affect how effectively and consistently parents will deal with unacceptable behavior when it occurs. Parents may fluctuate in their management tactics much more when under stress. On one hand, they may increase their commands, supervision, and punishment of a child because of their own irritable mood. On the other hand, they may withdraw from managing the child’s behavior because of preoccupation with the stress events and the anxiety and depression that may accompany them. Either way, parental management of children becomes far more variable and inconsistent, leading to greater success of child oppositional behavior in escaping or avoiding unpleasant or effortful tasks.

A second way in which family stress affects child misbehavior is by altering parental perceptions of the child. Depressed, anxious, or distressed parents tend to exaggerate their reports of child behavior problems. Should parents act on these perceptions, which they typically do, then they will behave as if the child’s behavior were deviant or unacceptable when in fact it is not. In so doing, parents may inadvertently punish normal or acceptable child behavior, increase their commands, directiveness, and general negativism toward children, and begin using negative words to describe a child’s character or personality, which can affect not only child behavior but self-esteem. This may lead to deviant behavior by the child where not previously existed, confirming the parents’ initial perception that the child was deviant.

A third way in which family stress increases misbehavior in children is by its direct effects on children and their emotional well-being. Like the parents, children can become preoccupied with family stress events, and these create anxiety, depression, or distress. These reactions may then heighten the likelihood of the child’s displaying negative, oppositional, or noncompliant behavior.

You must help parents appreciate the role of the family stress in creating or exacerbating child misbehavior. Marital discord, family financial troubles, tense relations with relatives, and so forth, can all create an emotional climate in the home in which child oppositional behavior may flourish. Certainly, the parents cannot be expected to solve all of the potential stress events immediately, but they should be encouraged to begin making plans for how they intend to reduce the stress created by a particular stressor in the family. Many times parents have simply chosen to accept their fate and live with whatever stressors may be occurring even though efforts can be made to try to resolve them. At the very least, parents need to become aware that such stressors are affecting their management of the child and take steps to see that such an influence on their management is reduced. To help initiate this process, one of the homework assignments for the parents will be to complete the Family Problems Inventory so you can take stock of potential stressors and start proposing solutions to them where feasible.

The Reciprocal Interaction Among These Factors

You should now briefly explain to the parents that while each of the above factors contributes directly to creating or sustaining noncompliant behavior in children, it can also influence each of the other factors, resulting in even further difficulties in the family. For instance, medical problems of either a parent or child can influence the family financial situation, which itself may then affect the parents’ marital relationship. This feeds back to exacerbate child misbehavior. This can create a veritable cauldron of risk events within families that may, over time. Foment even greater behavioral problems with the child.

The Goal of Therapy: Engineering a “Best Fit”

At this point, it is helpful to summarize the foregoing presentation by saying that many times the characteristics of the parent and child are such that each will naturally prove irritating to the other. Similarly, certain parent or child characteristics may not react well to certain family stress events, which further bring out the deviant parent or child characteristics and increase deviant behavior in both parties. One goal of therapy is to try to change these poorly fitting situational, parental, and child characteristics where possible, so as to lessen the behavioral problems of the child. This can be achieved through showing parents how to:

  1. Recognize their own “risk” factors and change them where possible, or at least try to prevent them form interfering with their effective management of their child.
  2. Recognize certain “risk” factors in the child, attempt to change them where feasible, and at least learn to accept those that cannot be changed and strive to cope with them as best as possible.
  3. Change the situational consequences they are providing that may be serving to create, maintain, or exacerbate child non-compliance.

The Need For a Prosthetic Social Environment

For parents of children having mild behavior problems or oppositional behavior, it is very possible that this program will bring their child’s behavior back within the normally accepted range of social conduct. In other words, the problems for which the family sought help can be “cured.” However, with more serious behavioral problems, such as those experienced by hyperactive or attention deficit disorder children and children with pervasive developmental disorders or psychosis, this parent training program will not “cure” the disorders. Instead, it will greatly reduce the distress the parents and child experience over the child’s disruptive, noncompliant, and generally unacceptable behavior. In such cases, parent training can create a long-term, ongoing, prosthetic social environments for the child that maximizes his or her ability to behave appropriately. Even at their best, such children will certainly have more difficulties with familial and social conduct than normal children; however, they need not experience the level of deviant behavior often seen at the time of referral. A corollary of this is that such children need these methods if hey are to do what normal children appear to be able to accomplish without help. Like a mechanical prosthetic limb, these behavior management techniques will serve to permit the behaviorally handicapped child to become more normal. Remove the prosthetic techniques, and the child may well revert to previous deviant behavior. It may eventually be possible, however, to gradually reduce the frequency, intensity, and systematic usages of these behavioral methods over long intervals as the child matures and gains greater self-control so that the gains of therapy  are maintainted.

Explain the above issues that apply to the particular child and circumstances. Here also a strong case should be made for the role of parental motivation in the treatment program. No matter how effective for others, these techniques must be applied by the parents or will be no help. Stress that you cannot do it for the parents; they must practice and implement the procedures themselves if any real hope of changing the child is to be realized.

Homework

There are two homework assignments for this session. First, the parents are to complete the Family Problems Inventory over the next week. Encourage each parent to complete one separately. They need not share their answers with their spouse if they choose not to, but where this occurs it is obvious evidence of marital disharmony. The parents are to list briefly the stress events occurring under each category and then propose what, if anything, they intend to do about it. They do not have to solve heir problems this week, but they should at least formulate plans to reduce those stressors noted. I am often surprised to find that material is divulged on the inventory that was not revealed in the initial evaluation of the family, now that the parents can appreciate the role of such stressors in child misbehavior. For families receiving training in a group, you should state that the contents of their inventory will not be shared with the rest of the parent group when it is turned in at the next class instead, you will review it privately and speak with the parents about an significant stressors that may deserve more immediate attention. Occasionally, an issue is revealed that results in training being temporarily postponed while that issue is addressed. For families receiving individual training, review the inventory with the parents at the beginning of the next session.

The second assignment is to have the parents child-proof their home if they have not already done so. Research indicates that behavior problem children are more accident prone, more likely to damage property and valuables. And more likely to create accidents for other than are normal children. Parents should be encouraged to review each room in the home for potentially harmful agents or machines, for valuable property that could inadvertently be damaged by the young child, or for times that the parents wish to preserve or protect that are now within easy reach of the impulsive child. 

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