Three Ways Parents Enable Their Child's Misbehavior
These popular parenting approaches might be working against you.
Posted Oct 21, 2019
Taking a child to a therapist in hopes of minimizing their misbehavior in the home can be helpful, but parents should be aware that they will be the primary agent of change in addressing their child's behavior problems.
It's an all too common conversation. Parents feel like they're at the end of their rope with their child's misbehavior. They feel like they've tried everything and nothing's worked. Then, they bring out the big guns: "I think my kid has oppositional defiant disorder."
The prevalence of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is approximately 3.3 percent  and the diagnostic specifications are some of the most subjective in the whole DSM, a diagnostic manual for psychological disorders. With criteria like "often loses temper" and "often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior," there is significant room for interpretation. For parents who worry their child may qualify for a diagnosis of ODD, psychodiagnostic testing can be helpful (like Achenbach's Child Behavior Checklist , which has an ODD subscale).
Regardless of diagnosis, interventions that seek to shift a child's behavior in a more desirable direction will focus primarily on changes the parent can make at home. Here is a brief list of common habits parents of oppositional children might find themselves practicing that enable their child's misbehavior.
1. Mis-disciplining: What does sending a child to their room really do?
Sending a child to their room can be hit-or-miss. Brief time-outs are an empirically supported treatment for misbehavior in younger children . Webster-Stratton recommends making time-out length in minutes equal to the child's age up until mid-childhood. But all too often, sending a misbehaving child to their room accomplishes two undesirable goals.
First, most children have entertainment of some sort in their room. As a result of their misbehavior, they get to spend time playing with their toys, on their computers, or on their phones. Additionally, parents who send their child to his or her room when they're upset communicate the following message: "Because I am upset, I need to be away from you for a while to calm down." The implicit connection in little Johnny's mind is that when he makes mom upset, he has the power to control the scenario. After all, let's be honest with ourselves—is spending time in one of his favorite places really a punishment?
Instead, try a living room or kitchen time-out. And don't forget to explain the reason and the consequences clearly! "Because you raised your voice, you are going to sit quietly at the dining room table for 10 minutes." For older children, time-limited withdrawal of privileges may be more effective. "Because you raised your voice, you are losing your phone privilege until tomorrow morning."
2. Misbehavior-to-good-behavior attention ratio
From the moment they're born, babies are taught that attention, love, and safety are all tied together. When they cry, parents come to soothe. When they giggle, parents giggle with them! Attention is rewarding. And as the child grows up, parental attention is their most desired reward. But parents of a child who misbehaves in the home tend to pay more attention to misbehavior than desirable behavior.
Obviously, we pay more attention to a child who plays too roughly with his or her younger sibling than the child who plays appropriately. In part, this is because adult life trains us to meet expectations (in work, in relationships, etc.) without assuming there will be praise from others. While there's nothing wrong with reminding the roughhousing child to play gently, be careful to even out the ratio of attention by praising the child who plays appropriately. Genuine deserved praise cannot be too generously given.
3. Beta commands and the unclear expectation
Ask yourself: At any given moment, how many tasks am I aware of being responsible for? 5? 50? Whatever your number, maintaining this mental load is an acquired skill (and curse, if you find yourself feeling anxious!). Younger children do not yet have the expertise of keeping multiple responsibilities in their working and long-term memory. For kids with ADHD, developing this skill can be particularly challenging.
Beta commands tend to sound like this: "Johnny, go get your homework from the living room, put it in your backpack, then get your shoes on and get ready to head to school!" Beta commands fall short in two areas: First, many kids genuinely forget the second, third, or fourth list option and are then chastised for their forgetfulness. Next, kids who manage to make it to the end of the list frequently fail to correctly interpret the rather vague "get ready for school" and are chastised for their failure. A sense of hopelessness can develop and eat away at any previously present motivation to comply.
Alpha commands, more suitable for children (especially those with ADHD), go something like this: "Johnny, you need to go and get your homework from the living room and then come back here for your next job!" Remember to meet the successful completion of this task with praise—no matter how ordinary the task. By way of repeatedly meeting reasonable and clear standards by the parent, the child begins to associate task completion with praise, value, and positivity—increasing motivation for future compliance.
Overall, parents shouldn't feel blamed for their child's behavioral problems—they should feel empowered to shift their parenting strategies, knowing that easily implemented changes can result in long-lasting improvement.
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Achenbach, T. M. (1999). The Child Behavior Checklist and related instruments. In M. E. Maruish (Ed.), The use of psychological testing for treatment planning and outcomes assessment (pp. 429-466). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2019). The incredible years: a trouble-shooting guide for parents of children aged 3-8 years (3rd ed.). Seattle, WA: Incredible years, Inc.