Understanding Challenging Behavior

Biting. Screaming. Lying. These and other common misbehaviors in kids often have predictable triggers: hunger, boredom, over-stimulation, being overly tired, or trying to avoid punishment. How a child reacts to these triggers depends upon his temperament as well as his developmental age, explains Jenni Evans, an educator at the Parenting Center of Children’s Hospital.

Toddlers might struggle with biting or hitting as well as throwing tantrums. Preschoolers might push or shove, or have other problems with friends. School-aged children are more apt to lie.

“Some children can be expected to wait a while—they have a calm temperament,” explains Jenni. “But other children? You knew before you got to the post office that they couldn’t wait 10 minutes in that line.” For non-verbal toddlers who bite or throw a tantrum in frustration—that might be the only way that they have developmentally to get their point across, says Jenni. And with developmental advancements, another “challenging behavior” kicks in: lying.

crying wolf?

In Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman detail recent extensive research done on lying in children conducted by psychologist Victoria Talwar, Ph.D. Among her findings: 96 percent of children lie; a four year old will tell a lie every two hours; a six year old will tell one every hour. Younger children lie to avoid being punished for something they’ve done. School-aged children do that too, but also add social reasons for lying—to spare someone’s feelings, to bolster their image, or to control a situation.

Parents think that young children will outgrow lying, Dr. Talwar found. But her research shows that the opposite is true: children will grow into lying. It’s a skill that requires both advanced cognitive development and social skills. Kids who know the difference between the truth and lies are more apt to lie; those who have successfully lied their way out of stressful situations will likely continue to lie.

Three quarters of parents surveyed by Dr. Talwar think that tales of consequences, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, are more apt to prevent lying than tales like George Washington telling his dad he did cut down that cherry tree. But her research shows that children are more apt to lie after hearing about the boy crying wolf; learning how George fared after deciding not to break his father’s trust reduced lying by 75 percent in boys and 50 percent in girls. The NurtureShock authors conclude that children want to please their parents; we need to let them know that telling the truth will do that.

once more, with feeling

When dealing with any challenging behavior, parents should employ empathy, letting kids know that we realize they are tired, or hungry, or bored, or scared of telling the truth, says the Parenting Center’s Jenni Evans. Then move onto the behavior we want.

“A snap decision we do as parents, no matter what the child’s age, is that we start by telling children what we don’t want them to do,” says Jenni. “But then you’ve put that on the agenda. Instead, start with what you want them to do. ‘I want to hear about your day. What you’ve told me so far doesn’t sound quite right. Maybe we’ll wait and talk later.’ That’s really different from saying, ‘You’re lying to me and I can’t trust you to tell me the truth.’”

When there are consequences, parents need to take emotions out of it and remain calm, says Jenni. Like, “‘Because you’ve continued to throw your trains, we’re going to put them up high.’ Don’t [tell the child] you’re sorry,” says Jenni. “You’re leveling a consequence. Do not apologize for it. But you can let them know that you know it’s hard for them.

“Discipline is for learning. It’s not for shaming. If you’ve taught somebody not just a limit, but a skill, then you know that you’re doing discipline right, responding to the challenging behavior right.”


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