This Is Why Your Child Misbehaves, And What You Can Do About It
BuzzFeed News speaks to three experts in childhood behaviour to find out what causes bad behaviour and what the most effective parenting response is.
1. There is a scientific explanation for why children are naughty – it's to do with evolution.
"Essentially, there's often a conflict between how much [time and attention] investment parents want to provide to a child and how much the child wants," Dr Emily Emmott, a biological anthropologist at University College London, tells BuzzFeed News. "From the child's perspective, you want all you can get, so you can maximise your development.
"However, parents have other things they need to invest in – for instance, if parents want to have more children, they cannot invest everything into one child. Plus parents need to invest in themselves too – maintain their body, social connections and so on."
And children aren't equipped with the abilities to ask nicely for that extra time and attention.
"So if you want something, often the only option can be to make a fuss. And it takes a very long time for children to develop theory of mind – so from their perspective, all they understand is that they want something but they don't have it. They don't properly understand the social context surrounding why they cannot have something."
2. A regular sleep pattern is key to everything.
A 2013 study using data based on more than 10,000 children suggested a clear clinical and statistically significant link between irregular bedtime patterns and behavioural problems.
Yvonne Kelly, professor of epidemiology and public health at UCL, says: "Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag, and this matters for healthy development and daily functioning."
3. Encouragement is more effective than punishment in teaching children right vs wrong.
Many a parent over the years has said "it's for your own good" when dishing out a harsh punishment. But is this true?
Rachel Calam, professor of child and family psychology at of Manchester University, says that establishing good behaviour is about highlighting when kids get it right, more than when they get it wrong.
"Often parents will be focused on things they're finding difficult, but at the root of establishing good behaviour is parents noticing when their children are doing something that they want them to be doing and praising that and encouraging that," she says.
"It may be that the child had been getting a lot more attention for difficult behaviour than for desirable behaviour. So if the parent changes things around so the desirable behaviour gets the attention, then the child knows the attention is assured."
4. To reinforce good behaviour, you should explain why a child has done something right.
"So if a child puts a toy away," Calam says, "instead of just saying, 'Good girl' or 'Well done,' say, 'Thank you for putting that toy away – it's really nice and helpful when you tidy up,' or, 'Doesn't it look nice now that you've tidied up?'"
5. Your kids mirror your behaviour, including when you’re telling them off.
Every parent gets frustrated. But teaching them about the rights and wrongs doesn't mean shouting, says David Spellman, a consultant clinical psychotherapist working with children in Lancashire.
"I think we often underestimate the impact of tone of voice," he tells BuzzFeed News. "Although it takes quite a lot of discipline, we have to be firm or clear but we don't have to scream or shout. We don't have to point fingers in people's faces.
"Being kind alongside the firm is important – there's no point being all firm and black-and-white if it's hostile and unkind, because kids won't hear the message. The content of what you're saying will be completely obscured if it's said in an angry and hostile tone."
6. It's effective to reward kids for getting it nearly right.
Nobody's perfect, especially children, whose brains and decision-making abilities are still developing well into adolescence (and even beyond). Plus it can take a long time for kids to learn good behaviours and unlearn bad ones. So be patient, says Spellman:
"You can reward and praise kids for getting it partly right or on the way to being right. You can't always make developmental leaps in one step, so when they get close to it, or near to it, or appear to be trying, you should be encouraging."
7. It’s never too early to learn good behaviour.
When it comes to setting clear boundaries and encouraging calm, patient behaviour, it's never too soon to start, says Calam – babies can start picking up on this as well as toddlers:
"Children don't know what the rules are, they need to find out – and one of the main ways they find out is by breaking one.
"With a 3-year-old, you can fairly readily say, 'If you carry on doing that, you're going to have to go and sit on that chair for a couple of minutes until you calm down.' By the time you've got a teenager who's taller than you, it's much harder to do anything about it. Putting these things in place early on is important."
8. Don't get into a battle of wills. If you’re going to give in, give in immediately.
When it comes to tantrums, according to Calam, you either stick to your guns or give them what they want before a tantrum starts, which renders your kid's pester power ineffective.
"We've all been in situations where a child has nagged and nagged for something and the parent has finally caved in and given it to them," she says. "The child then learns that if they make enough of a fuss and keep escalating, eventually the parent will give in.
"Parents have to be very clear: If you're going to give in, give in straightaway without the child making a fuss. And if they're going to stick at something and say no they have to stick, stick, stick with it and not change mind halfway through after the child has made a great big fuss."
9. Children develop at different speeds – age isn't always a reliable guide to behaviour.
"Act your age!" is another well-worn parenting cliché, reflecting the belief that as kids grow older they leave behind inappropriate, childish behaviours.
Spellman points out, however, that because all kids are different and so many factors affect their development, looking for "age-appropriate" behaviour doesn't always work.
"Chronological age is not so reliable because kids vary enormously – I think developmentally, you need to think what is their developmental age," he says. "In one area of life a child may be further down the road than in another area.
"This is particularly hard with teenagers, who can appear like they're 11 going on 21 but the next minute they want to be tucked in and given chicken soup and things like that."
10. If you use a behaviour chart, don't be tempted to take gold stars OFF the chart for rulebreaking.
Charts on the kitchen wall that incentivise kids to do as they're told in return for rewards have become very popular parenting tools in the UK. But Calam says many people make the mistake of taking a gold star away when kids are bad:
"Behaviour charts are very effective. The key is that it's a chart of good behaviour and the child gets some sign that they understand and there's a reward associated with it. The key thing parents get wrong is they take things off the chart. If parents get cross and peel a star off or something, that's really not helpful.
"So the important thing is that if something's earned then it stays earned."
11. And maybe don’t refer to "the naughty step".
Calam also says that taking a child out of a situation as a consequence of rulebreaking can be very effective. But she stresses that it should be done quickly, without fuss, and, if possible, without negative language:
"I don't like the term 'naughty step' because it's giving the child a label. What you want is for the child to stop doing something that's a problem – it's not that you're labelling them as naughty or difficult.
"But having a place where they go, whether it's a chair or the stair or whatever it is, is a great way of saying, 'You've gone a bit too far now – sit there quietly and when you've quietened down you can come back out.'"
12. Keeping a diary is a good way to track and understand what triggers challenging behaviour.
if you are looking for a way to get on top of challenging behaviour, it might be worth thinking about what the environment is like when the child is acting up and what the triggers might be. Calam suggests using a diary: "Parents can track the relative attention levels quite easily with a diary, noting when their child is behaving really well and when their child is doing something they don't like.
"You then think, what was the child doing beforehand and what was the consequence? By looking at that little sequence they can often work out what's going wrong."
13. Don’t be ashamed of seeking help if you need it.
If you have concerns about behaviour that you think might go beyond what's normal, there is nothing to lose by getting your GP's opinion. This doesn't have to be about getting a diagnosis or medication – they can refer you to a range of services that might be able to help. Plus there are parenting classes and advice groups.
But it's not just professionals who can help. Spellman points out that friends, family, and other parents are key to coping with difficult situations.
"Being a parent is really hard, it's really difficult, that's perfectly normal," he says. "If you have a partner or a family member you can talk to then that's really important. You will always have people who say 'What you need to do is x', but you just need to talk to other parents, particularly ones with children the same age – that can be really helpful.
"It's about getting teamwork going, keeping the communication up, and not being afraid of talking to professionals if it's something that needs looking at."