What causes 'difficult' behaviour in children and how to deal with it?

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Parents need to mindful of their behaviour around kids.
Parents need to mindful of their behaviour around kids.

It's normal for children to cry and throw tantrums from time to time, to beg for attention and engage in bad behaviour here and there, but what should one do when you start realising that your child is being difficult for no obvious reason, or her behaviour is different from other children her age?

When your child kicks up a fuss, have you found yourself wondering:

  • Should this worry you as a parent or is it normal?
  • Is there a reason for your child to behave this way?
  • Does this behaviour signal a major problem in your relationship with your child?

Parent24 chatted to a Pretoria-based clinical psychologist Lerato Diale to find out more about such behaviour, and how parents can deal with it.

Diale says that "If a child, for example, happens to experience difficult behaviour in one domain such as school, this could be due to a variety of factors."

"Sometimes when children experience academic challenges, unlike their peers, they may act out their embarrassment and shame by being disruptive in the classroom to hide their lack of understanding in that particular subject," she explains. 

Read: Parenting made easy with these five discipline strategies 

Evaluate the matter systemically 

Diale tells us that it's important for parents to evaluate the matter systemically. In other words, by considering all the factors that surround the child.

Taking into account the child's history, ask yourself if there were any recent traumas or a difficulty to adjust to a particular situation at some point, she suggests.

She adds, "Sometimes the loss of, or even introduction of, a new family member can contribute to difficult behaviour as not all children handle to change the same way." 

"Parents particularly need to be aware and mindful of their behaviour and how they come across to children, most young children are not yet well versed in expressing themselves."

"Therefore, if they are trying to communicate a difficult feeling or response to a behaviour that was initially put out by mom and dad," she says, "this can be expressed through acting out as this is the best way they know how to communicate." 

Diale highlights that parents should remember that most behaviour does not just happen for anything.

"Children don't just express random behaviour, but most of the time it's in response to what their environment is putting out."

A psychological explanation for "bad" behaviour 

Diale explains that children who are disabled or experience struggles with their mental health, or ADHD, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Aggression and so on, have been found to experience more behavioural difficulties, unlike non-disabled children. 

She says that parents must note that this is not always the case, and disability does not always result in poorly behaved children, but that there is often a psychological explanation for poor or "bad" behaviour in children.

Research that was done in London by three researchers coming from various disciplines, including the department of child study, conducted a study in 2017 regarding exactly this.

They found that even though it's not always guaranteed that disabled children will experience more behavioural problems, parents of disabled children exhibited higher levels of stress, more coping difficulties and more conflict than other parents, which may lead to increased negative child behaviour patterns over time.

Also read: International survey finds SA parents are set on raising empathetic children, but only 26% know how 

For children who have no disabilities it is important to remember:

Sometimes if a child may have observed something traumatic or disturbing they may not be able to articulate effectively to mom or dad that they are not well due to what they saw or experienced, and can sometimes do things that mom and dad immediately want to discipline.

It's important to be attuned to children and rather try to find out what has disturbed them, especially if poor behaviour has not always been a pattern in your child. 

What can parents do?

1. Have a relationship with your child

"This means consistently being there for your child emotionally and physically, being attentive to their needs before there is an escalation of poor behaviour," Diale says.

She adds that she believes that being present to your child is most effective, as this allows mom and dad the opportunity of defining an open relationship with the child, hence leading to more open, clear and effective communication.

This also includes an element of nurturing: the more nurturing a child experiences from mom and dad, the lesser the need to act out or cause escalations in behaviour because they already experience mom and dad as warm and empathic to their emotions, she says.

2. Remodel good behaviour

"Remember that as a parent you are constantly being watched or observed by your child even if you are not aware of this. The best way that your child learns something is through observing you more than through the verbal teachings you give them. So, modelling good behaviour to them is important, consistently so," says Diale.

This means that you cannot want to teach your child the importance of using polite language if you are sometimes experienced by others as vulgar, she adds.

Diale says that this applies to other behaviour such as aggression as well. "The more aggressive you are with your child or others around you, this is something that your child learns to."

Lastly, she says that parents should remember at all times that children learn best when something is consistent, so repetition is crucial in modelling good or effective behaviour.

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