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Dealing with Difficult Behavior in Children

WHY IS THIS? Here’s an excellent and insightful email response to the April newsletter:  
From your last newsletter, it sounds like, in cases like this, there’s no remedy to solve the problems of oppositional children. (It leads one to believe that) defiance is just basic human instinct, to give a negative charge to what the other person wants the outcome to be.
I believe that, in milder forms of defiant behavior, this can be exactly the case. This is especially true in good kids who pull their load at school, make decent grades, have friends and, in general, function pretty well. There are dispositional traits to defiance that might make a youngster a prime candidate for the debate team … even a winning debater. They are geared to take issue with just about everything, and once in awhile they’re even right.
Problems surface when a youngster’s behaviors create short and long-term serious damage, especially to self. (In fact, the DSM diagnosis of ODD notes this.) Failure in school, alienation of friends and relationships, self-medication with drugs, alcohol and sex (and other self-effacing behaviors) and progression into full-blown mental illness are unacceptable to anyone who cares about this child or adolescent. “Remedy” is a pretty strong word for mental health professionals, but here’s how I would encourage parents to approach the behaviors of a child that are more than just a “difficult phase:”
1. Don’t throw gasoline on the fire. Too often, the energy of our response to inappropriate behavior further “feeds” what we don’t want. It can tell the youngster just exactly how effective the rotten behavior was (especially when it’s written all over our face).
2. Discern, if you can, the child’s “self” message. Some kids beat themselves up with their behaviors because they see themselves as “bad” or unacceptable in some way. These youngsters usually have difficulty with peers, also. Even when they desperately want a friend, they’re apt to destroy the relationship. Young children keep peers at a distance (because they can’t handle them up close) with behaviors that don’t make much sense, but they work. Older kids are a bit more sophisticated in the behaviors, but the message is the same: “Don’t get too close, because you won’t like what you’ll find.” (My 72-page e-book, Improving a Child’s Self-Esteem, has a five-part evaluation for assessing components of self-concept, along with suggestions for addressing areas of concern. This guide is not a panacea, but it does offer real help, especially with younger children. For more information on it, CLICK HERE.)
Haim Ginot in his marvelous classic, Between Parent and Child, tells the story of a parent taking a three-year-old to a day-care facility for the first time. The boy looks around the room and shouts, “Who drew all these ugly pictures?” The parent, aghast at the lad’s behavior, started to correct him. The day-care director immediately intervened, saying to the boy, “Here you’re allowed to draw pictures however you want to.” She had correctly interpreted and addressed the boy’s “self” message: “What happens around here to a kid who doesn’t draw very well?”
3. Work on the “self” message as much as you work on behaviors: Cognitive Behavior Therapy, one popular intervention,operateson a simple premise: “Our core beliefs are displayed in our behavior.” As core beliefs change, so does behavior, although the textbooks fail to mention that it’s more difficult to put into practice what’s simple to put into a paragraph. (This is precisely why I’m not a big proponent of behavior modification and the use of rewards to change behavior. These measures have their merit, but they don’t address core beliefs much at all.)  
Although professional help might be in order, I don’t believe parents are powerless to create lasting and positive change. We will continue to address this issue in future (free) installments of the ODD Management Digest.

May 14, 2009 Posted by | adversity, Counselors, family, Parents | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Listen to What’s NOT Being Said

“LISTEN TO WHAT’S NOT BEING SAID” Much defiant and difficult behavior in children and adolescents comes from their reactions to circumstances and situations in their lives. The burden cast on parents to play the guessing games happens when youngsters, for whatever reason, don’t talk about it. They often suffer through, with their behavior being the expression of that suffering.
Although there can be many reasons why youngsters don’t talk about what troubles them, three reasons cover most of the bases:
1. They don’t know HOW to talk about it.
2. They are afraid that expressing themselves and how they feel will only get them into yet MORE trouble.
3. They feel that talking about their troubles only makes them bigger.
By way of an example, let me share about a time when I was convinced I had only a few days to live. I was nine years old.
It’s not difficult for a few third-grade boys to get into trouble. One day we played war at the pencil sharpener, sword fighting with freshly sharpened pencils. I was stabbed in my right hand. The lead broke off, leaving a good-sized chunk of the point in my palm.
“Too bad,” one of my friends lamented. “That’s lead in your hand. You’re going to get lead poisoning … and DIE.” The other boys concurred with his diagnosis. I was terrified. (To be totally accurate, I had been wounded by graphite, not lead. But just try to figure that out while your friends are dividing up your stuff.)
I wasn’t certain they were right, but I was certain that I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the school nurse about it. I wasn’t up to hearing an adult confirm what the boys had told me.
I just suffered in silence until it was time to go home.
Eventually, I knew I had to tell my parents. I remember watching my father one evening before supper, wondering just how I would tell him his only son was dying. The poor man was trying to read the paper when I blubbered out the whole story.
Dad didn’t tell me my fear was silly or foolish. He validated it, and then promised he had something that would fix the whole thing. He went to the bathroom medicine cabinet and came back with a small bottle of what he called Monkey Blood. He wisely told me this cure would hurt, but that the pain would be a sure sign the medicine was working. He then dumped half the bottle into the palm of my hand.
I was never so grateful to feel pain (a lot of it). I was going to LIVE! I still carry a small graphite tattoo deep in the palm of my right hand, a reminder to be a bit more understanding of the fear and concern of another human being.
This story is about fear; other stories are about anger. Depending on the circumstances (and it seems families today have plenty of them), a youngster can “stew” in an issue months before behaviors surface. Encouraging a son or daughter to talk about it is critical to managing the behavior effectively. Here are a few suggestions for accomplishing just that:
1. Always try to exercise patience. We live in a society that wants instant cures and instant answers, but haste will cripple communication.
2. Let the youngster know that talking with you about their problems doesn’t make them larger and unmanageable; it brings additional resources for dealing with them.
3. Realize that some youngsters have trouble handling direct questions when they are scared or upset.  “Why did you do THAT?” will bring few, if any, answers you can use. Instead, focus on finding the issue by offering a small “menu.” Here’s an example of a simple two-part menu:
When you screamed at your mother earlier, were you really angry at her, or were you still upset that Grandma is in Intensive Care?
Parents are pretty intuitive, they can generally get very close to the issues and open the door to discussion.
James Sutton, Psychologist
(Pages 69-72 of my book, What Parents Need to Know about ODD, outline a process I call “Good Faith” Confrontation. Over the years it has worked well when parents follow the steps. It’s an approach that gets dialog going quickly and focuses on both the issues and the relationships.)
   (You’ll find more great ideas for parents in Dr. Sutton’s book, What Parents Need to Know About ODD(Friendly Oaks Publications, 2007). Click on the title for more information and to order. This great resource also is available in ebook (pdf) format at a reduced cost. For specifics on the ebook and for the option of immediate download, CLICK HERE.)

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Counselors, Difficult Child, Educators, family, Parents, Self-esteem | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defiant Children: Why Some Interventions DON’T Work

This post is taken from my December issue of the ODD Management Digest (click here to subscribe). It poses an interesting question.

It’s happened to all of us, hasn’t it. We implement a new intervention we have learned … and it falls FLAT! It not only fails, it flops miserably. Why?

A 9th-grade teacher tried Karen Ledet’s idea from the November issue of the ODD Management Digest and emailed the following concern (essentially, Karen, a teacher in Vernon, Florida, posed a really simple, but powerful idea: to provide a desk separated from the others for any youngster who just wants more “space” when they do their classwork):

  I tried the “Privacy Desk” technique with one student, but he does not like it because he says I am isolating him. I would appreciate your advice.

Obviously this would not be a strategy to use with a student who considers it a punitive measure. I might isolate a student as a disciplinary measure, but that would be a different intervention entirely.

As I see it, and as Karen explained it, the benefit of the “Privacy Desk” is that it runs mostly on automatic pilot. Students who feel they need a bit more space from others can use the “isolated” desk. There are those times when some youngsters WANT to be alone in a crowded classroom.

This teacher’s concern is both valid and real; I’ve definitely “been there; done that.” The whole issue brings up the importance of the role of perception in determining exactly HOW a student will handle an intervention.

An example. I once provided counseling services in a small school district in southeast Texas. I was only there once a month, but I quickly got to know most of the students. They would come up to me in the hall and ask me if I would sit next to them at lunch. To them, it was a big thing.

But consider the youngster who cannot behave or keep his hands to himself. The teacher tell him he will sit with her at lunch, and will not be going outside with the others for lunch recess. That kid HATES it. The same behavior, sitting with the teacher or counselor at lunch, can be Heaven or Hell to a child depending on how it is “packaged.”

A youngster’s perception of an intervention is a key ingredient to its success. 


James Sutton, Psychologist

December 9, 2008 Posted by | Counselors, Difficult Child, Educators | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment