1. They are unhappy.
2. Their behavior is their attempt to “fix” the problem.
We best not lose the message of these two statements in their simplicity. They come very close to saying all we need to know about behavior in children and adolescents. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that we consider neither of these reasons in working with the disruptive and defiant child; we simply want the behavior to stop. Let’s look at the two reasons separately.
They are unhappy
Young people (or adults for that matter) really have no cause to act out in their behavior if things are going well for them. Why should they? Persistently poor behavior is a statement of misery. There’s nothing new here, is there?
For the most part, the behavior of children and adolescents is the barometer that reflects the state of their relationships at home and school. I believe young people are respectful and kind by nature, qualities that can be reinforced by aware and caring adults in their lives.
When a child’s behavior is inappropriate, we’re pretty good at addressing it, but addressing the behavior doesn’t always solve the circumstances within the youngster that created it. Effective intervention has always been a two, not a one-step, process. First, we stop the inappropriate behavior. Second, we attempt to address why the child is so unhappy.
How do we know a child is unhappy? Ask them! Sometimes that’s all we need to do. This doesn’t mean that we can always fix the problem. (What if Suzie is still very upset that Grandma died?) We can, however, let the child know that we are there to support her, and will support her, but that their behavior is wrong and must stop.
What if a child says, “I don’t know,” when we ask them why they are unhappy? Unless we have a useful tool for prying the real truth out of the child, we have to accept their answer, show our support, and continue to show it.
Sometimes we can suggest possibilities like, “You know, Suzie, ever since Grandma died, it seems like you’ve been angry a lot. Is it because you are still very sad about Grandma?” Again reflect back to the child that, regardless of her sadness, Suzie has no call to be inappropriate in her behavior, but you will do what you can to help her through the difficult times. In this example you can’t bring Grandma back, but you can assure Suzie that you are there for her, and that, day-by-day, things will get a little better.
I’ve also encountered youngsters who knew why they were sad, but didn’t want to say for fear of consequences or for fear that their feelings wouldn’t be honored. Whenever we ask a child to tell us the truth about something, we should validate the courage it might take to tell it. Most adults know exactly what that feels like.
Their behavior is their attempt to “fix” the problem
Behavior quite often speaks loudly; sometimes it screams at us. What a child does is the best indicator of what’s going on inside. A child’s behavior is not difficult to read, but it does take a bit of practice.
If a youngster is fearful that his parents will separate and divorce, how does he stop them? I’ve seen youngsters get into so much trouble at school the parents had to come together to deal with it. As long as they youngster is in trouble, Mom and Dad are communicating. So what would the youngster continue to do in that situation?
I remember a high-school girl from a single-parent family (her mother was deceased, one huge, unaddressed source of the girl’s unhappiness) whose father was on the road all the time in his work. She found a way to pull him off the road; she failed the ninth grade (in fact, she failed it more than once)!
When a small child criticizes the artwork or the accomplishments of other youngsters, is it possible she’s really saying, “What happens around her to a little girl who doesn’t know how to draw very well?”
What’s the message when a boy destroys the new bicycle he just got for his birthday? Could he be saying, “I’m not the kind of kid who deserves a nice bike like this,” not to mention the hurt he could inflict on his parents with such an action.
Mary is crying. Her best friend is concerned and says, “What’s wrong, Mary?” In response Mary screams, “Can’t you just leave me alone? Why do you keep butting into my business?” Could it be that Mary, in her turmoil, can’t handle the closeness of a friend right now?
Yes, it might take a little practice to read some of the messages hidden in a child’s behavior, but it’s worth it. When we can respond to the message, and not just the behavior, things get better.
Research tells us that happiness is relationship driven. Isn’t it interesting that all of the examples we’ve considered here involve relationships? Although relationships are our greatest cause for unhappiness, we need others to be happy.
Although a nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, author and speaker, Dr. James Sutton deeply values his first calling as a public school teacher. Today he is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters, and his skill for sharing it. Dr. Sutton is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network, a popular internet radio program supporting young people and their families, and every month he publishes The Changing Behavior Digest, offering tips on managing difficult children and teens. Both resources (and others) are available at no cost through his website, http://www.DocSpeak.com.