By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
When dealing with misbehavior, we have to look at what is its’ root and source.
If we look we will find that most misbehaviors are fueled by unhappiness. The child has a low sense of well-being, he or she is frustrated, bored or feels powerless, and misbehaves in a desperate attempt to relieve that unhappiness. Therefore the solution for dealing with misbehavior is to raise his happiness level. We do this by injecting joy into his day at key points.
One of the main ways of making a child happy is by using kind and gentle words, and refraining from criticism or put-downs. It is amazing how sensitive children are to the way we as parents speak to them! Always be positive and encouraging. Greet children with a big hearty hello. This elevates and warms them, and brings them close to us. Being careful how we speak can prevent many misbehaviors. However there are additional ways.
Dealing With Misbehavior: Punishment
Let's say a child misbehaves in school. Possibly he was talking in class or was disrespectful to the teacher and got “in trouble.” This is actually a frightening and stressful experience for the child, and though this behavior needs to be addressed, the question is how to do it?
If the school calls home, the parents are likely to be upset and show great displeasure toward the child, with reprimands or punishment. This is judged to make the child think: “Wow, the result of my misbehavior was really unpleasant. I don't want to experience that unpleasantness again so I will be careful not to misbehave anymore.” The problem is that this type of response mechanism requires a very high level of maturity, responsibility, self-discipline and self-control. Most children simply can’t respond this way. Often, punishment only succeeds in making the child more miserable, and since misbehavior is caused by unhappiness, more likely to misbehave in the future. The child who was already stressed from getting into trouble in school now has the additional stress of the reprimand and punishment, and of having his parents’ displeasure heaped upon him. Remember kids are very sensitive to their parents’ attitudes, and he is now doubly miserable!
As a result he goes to school the next day feeling terribly unhappy and with a low sense of well-being. Moreover, because of yesterday's misbehavior his teacher might have ‘zero tolerance’ for any further misconduct. Combined with his lowered feeling of happiness, this actually increases the likelihood he will become frustrated and irritable, and he may act out again. Therefore we see that the parents’ reprimand and punitive approach might actually cause further misbehavior in school the next day!
But What Do We Do?
Here is another approach for us to consider. If we understand that a child who got in trouble in school is under what is for the child substantial stress, we can provide ‘emotional first aid’ for his pain. We might say:
- “Wow, that must've been so upsetting for you to get yelled at by the teacher”.
- “It must've been so scary to be sent to the principal’s office.”
- “You must have been embarrassed in front of the whole class.”
- “You must be so angry with your teacher.”
In this way we allow the child to process, resolve and heal his or her hurt feelings. This raises his happiness level up closer to where it should be. Then instead of reprimands, criticism and punishment we are careful to allow him the healthy and pleasant activities that a child usually might engage in after school on a normal day. This raises his happiness level further. So the next day he goes to school in a much better mood, and when an opportunity to misbehave arises he's feeling good enough about himself to enable him to control himself and behave properly.
Remember in dealing with misbehavior, the rule is that increased happiness always results in improved behavior.
What? Reward Him for Misbehavior?
You may say, “What! He misbehaved in school and I'm going to be nice to him and make him happy! I'm rewarding his bad behavior!”
The logic behind this fear is that the child will think, “Wow, yesterday I misbehaved and got rewarded, so today I'm going to misbehave even more and get an even bigger reward.” We know intuitively that this makes no sense. First, we are not approving his bad conduct, but instead we are sympathetic. Second, misbehavior is not really a product of conscious choice. It is rather a reaction to stress and overwhelming emotions. A child never thinks, “I can misbehave all I want and my parents won't get angry at me.” That is a cold, calculating decision, while misbehavior always arises in a mental atmosphere of emotional turmoil. Therefore such a cold calculation is highly unlikely to take place. Do not fear that being nice to a child who has misbehaved will encourage more misconduct, because the opposite is true. Being nice, pleasant, kind, gentle and warm will usually result in improved behavior.
Dealing With Misbehavior: Let Him or Her Be the Boss Sometimes!
One additional important principle is that children crave self-determination. It makes them very happy to have healthy autonomy. Therefore we need to reduce micro-managing and over-controlling their lives. I usually recommend doing this by reducing the number of commands we give them by 10 percent. This makes them feel less “bossed” and brings them into their comfort zone. In addition, giving them more control over their lives makes them much more likely to comply with the few remaining commands you do give them. Which commands do you cut out? The minor ones. Save your commands for important items. For a detailed discussion of this concept, click here.
Furthermore, using such golden phrases like, “Whatever you decide,” and “I trust you to make the right decision,” and “Whichever way you think is best,” empowers them by giving them your vote of confidence that they will make the right decision.
There is a certain amount that each child can tolerate hearing “No” and there's a certain amount of times that he needs to hear “Yes.” Let's say a child is hearing yes 10 percent less often than he needs to. He will then be very frustrated and it will lead to rebellion, misbehavior and tantrums. Therefore, try saying yes that extra 10 percent of the time and you will get a much happier and more agreeable child.
A child’s sense of well-being and happiness is related to a high sense of self-esteem. How do we create this? Self-esteem is just that, when the esteem comes from the self, not from the other. Therefore we should avoid blanket praise such as, “Good boy,” or “You're such a great ballplayer,” or “What a great reader you are,” or “You're gorgeous.” These types of praise make the child's esteem be dependent on the other who is praising them. This is an insecure position to be in because the other can always change his mind and then the child’s sense of esteem will be dashed on the rocks. True self-esteem is created by describing the facts, and then allowing the child to decide on his own how good he is. Instead of “Good boy!” say, “You set the table, you were very helpful.” Do you see the difference? Describing just presents the facts and allows the child to draw his own conclusions about how good he is. Instead of saying, “What a great ballplayer you are!” which puts pressure on him to always live up to a high standard he can’t maintain, describe, “You made the catch,” or “You hit a triple,” and he will judge himself as a good player. Instead of saying, “What a great reader you are,” which will lead him to be disappointed when he later inevitably find things he can't read, describe, “You read the whole sentence,” or “Sounds like you enjoyed the story,” and he will generate his own feelings about himself. Instead of saying, “You're gorgeous,” which will make her think, “You should've seen how terrible I looked this morning,” describe, “That blouse looks pretty with your eyes,” or, “Your lipstick looks great,” or, “I like the color of your hair,” and she can conclude for herself how pretty she is. For a discussion of the pitfalls of praise, click here.
Above all, the most important way to make your child happy and to prevent behavior problems is to be nice. You must be very nice to your child! Always be a source of pleasure to him or her and never be a source of stress. Wake up with the mantra of, “How can I make my child happy today?” Giving selflessly and endlessly to your child will fill him up to overflowing and then he will in turn become a giver when he grows up and bestow kindness on others. He will also develop model character traits.
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