Sometimes, through no one’s fault, one child in the family gets into trouble noticeably more than the other children. Maybe this child is a little more emotional, or more active, or more determined than average. Maybe this child is going through a difficult developmental stage or adjusting to some change at home or at school. This child isn’t really “bad” but somehow he or she gets stuck in the role of the "Bad Kid of the family.” It becomes this child’s job within the family to stir things up and cause trouble.
So how can we help a child break free of the "Bad Kid" role? Here are some specific strategies:
Sometimes parents think that comparing one sibling to another will inspire a misbehaving child to behave better. It NEVER works this way. Comparisons hurt. They make the kid with the short end of the comparison feel resentful and determined to be nothing like the glowing example.
Sometimes kids act up because they feel that’s the only way they’ll be heard. Try to step in earlier—when frustration begins but before misbehavior occurs. Ask, “What’s going on?” and summarize your child’s perspective. Use the formula, “You’re feeling ________ because ________.” Once your child feels heard, it’s easier to move toward good solutions by asking problem-solving questions like, “What can we do that would be fair to everyone?” or “What do you think might help?” or “We can’t do that because _______, but what else do you think could work?”
When one child in a family gets into trouble more than the others, I guarantee the other children are involved somehow. They may not do it deliberately. They may not even realize that they’re doing it, but somehow they taunt, exclude, or tattle on this child, which reinforces the "Bad Kid" role.
Emphasizing kindness from all family members can help change destructive patterns. You may want to talk privately to siblings about how this child is struggling and what they could do to help. When you see things heating up, you could ask all children involved, “What would be a kind thing to do right now?”
You may want to try counting kindnesses as a family. I did this with my kids when they were younger, for many years. Each night at dinner, have children report what kindness they did that day. If someone has nothing to report, just move on or say, “You still have two hours until bedtime. I bet you could fit in a kindness.” If you want to, you can collect marbles in a jar to represent each kindness, and when the children collectively reach 50 or 100, you can celebrate with a special activity.
A more subtle strategy for helping a child who is going through a rough time is to touch them more. I am a huge believer in the power of touch. It’s our most basic way of nurturing and connecting. There’s also research showing that kids who are touched more tend to be less aggressive. It’s usually NOT a good idea to touch children when they are feeling angry, but touching them more at other times may head off some angry outbursts.
A very important strategy for eliminating the “Bad Kid” role is to notice and acknowledge times when this child acts in ways that don’t fit the old role. You can also create opportunities for this child to act in new ways. If she’s usually careless, put her in charge of holding your camera for a few minutes and say, “I’m trusting you to hold this carefully.” If he normally teases his little brother, let him try being nurturing by putting him in charge of reading his brother’s bedtime story. If she’s often destructive, let her help you make something, working alongside you, using your good tools.
Usually when I suggest this, parents give me a disbelieving look that says, “Yeah, that’s going to happen!” But think about it: How can children learn to act in a responsible way, unless they’re given the opportunity to do so?
Give your child a notebook, and, every so often, write something positive about that child. Don’t make a big deal of it. Just tell your child what you’re doing, and leave the notebook in his or her room. Your child will be curious about what you write, even if he or she doesn’t say anything.
You don’t have to do a notebook for every child—let it be something special for the one who needs it! If your child is too young to read, you can read the notebook to your child.
Make your comments descriptive, and talk about how your child impacted others in positive ways. For instance you could write, “Thank you for helping me bring in the groceries. That was a big help,” or “It was kind of you to let your brother use the computer first,” or “I noticed that you were peaceful all afternoon. I enjoyed playing catch with you!”
The special notebook helps for two reasons. First, it forces you to notice positive things your child does, and second it gives your child accumulating evidence to support a more positive self-image.
NOTE: Here's a link to my appearance on the TODAY SHOW, with Kathie Lee and Hoda, talking about how labels hurt kids: http://www.today.com/video/today/55974636. See the related article here, in Working Mother magazine.
Q: Was someone in the “bad kid” role in the family where you grew up?
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com
Subscribe to Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s monthly newsletter to be notified about new posts on the Growing Friendships blog.
Dr. Kennedy-Moore's books and videos:
-- Have you ever wanted a parenting course you could do at YOUR convenience? Check out this fun and fascinating audio/video series on children’s feelings and friendships from The Great Courses®: Raising Emotionally & Socially Healthy Kids. || Topics include: Teaching Kids to Care; Developing Genuine Self-Esteem; How Kids Manage Anxiety and Anger; Playing Well With Others; Growing Up Social in the Digital Age. VIDEO preview.
On sale 70% off at: www.TheGreatCourses.com/Kids
-- Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential || Chapters include: Tempering Perfectionism; Building Connection; Developing Motivation; Finding Joy. VIDEO preview.
-- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends || Chapters include: The Shy Child; The Little Adult; The Short-Fused Child; The Different Drummer.
Growing Friendships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation. You’re welcome to link to this post, but please don’t reproduce it without written permission from the author.