Negative ("Bad") Behavior in Children - When Is Ignoring It Not An Option??
This piece was prepared after I ran into a forum thread on whether or not parents should punish a child for "bad" behavior or ignore it. The subject was one that I thought would make a better full-sized piece of writing than forum post.
Here's the question asked in the thread: "According to a friend who is also a family therapist, some bad behavior or what he considers to be acting out should be ignored since it is usually a ploy to gain attention. More specifically; tantrums, yelling, whining or any other behavior that is negative but not harming the child or anyone else. I'm not so sure I can agree with this completely. While I agree that it is used for getting attention, I don't think that always ignoring the behavior is an option. So what should be done in those situations where punishment seems necessary? What do you think?"
One reason I thought this question was one worth elaborating on is that "bad behavior" is such a common topic among parents. The negative ("bad") behavior, itself, is often just a small part of a bigger picture, even if that bigger picture is a common, normal, and even temporary one that exists at the time of the negative behavior. What follows addresses the larger picture, as well as some of the smaller, "bad-behavior" pictures.
All Negative Behavior Is Not Equal
This question is over-simplified because 1) there are parental responses that fall between either "extreme" of ignoring or punishing; and 2) many of child-behavior incidents/situations that can take place are among a wide variety of different behaviors, so parents most often need to use their own common sense (provided they have some) as their guide in each situation.
Also, this question includes a phrase that, to me, doesn't particularly indicate a solid enough understanding of children. That phrase is "ploy to gain attention". It's probably safe (and accurate) enough to say that most "bad" behavior comes from a child's need for attention, but I don't think the signs of needing attention should necessarily, or always, be interpreted as a "ploy" (which suggests the child just willy-nilly decides he'd like some attention for himself for no particular reason other than his own ego, and then sets about creating a llittle plan to get that attention. Some "calls for attention" may have more conscious planning to them than others, but a good part of the time negative behavior is more a matter of something like complete and utter frustration that may or may not also include physical discomfort (like being tired or hungry).
Some negative behavior can come, too, from a child's not having learned the proper way to handle things when he's faced with a situation that is beyond his ability to comfortably, acceptably and adequately deal with it.
Often, too, while negative behavior is very likely a sign that a child needs attention; a good part of the time the child, himself, doesn't even recognize or understand that it is his need for attention that's at the root of the behavior in which he may not even be able to stop himself from engaging.
Added to the mix of factors that make "bad-behavior" question a matter of not always having a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all, answer is the fact that each parent's expectations (realistic, reasonable and/or misguided) can color whether or not some behavior is "bad". The emotional maturity and general developmental level of each child, and each general age-range (as well as the parent's understanding of different age ranges) also factor into, not just whether or not the behavior is seen as something of concern, but the expectations of the parent.
Before ending this description of all the factors that prevent the negative-behavior (and how to address it) issue from being a simple, black-and-white, one; it's worth including one more of those factors: The definition of "ignoring it". When some people use "ignore it" in the context of discussing this issue they mean exactly that - ignore it, don't do anything or say anything about it (ever), and just wait and hope that the child outgrows the negative behavior. On the other hand, some people who use the phrase, "ignore it", don't really mean "ignore it". They really mean "don't punish the child for his behavior and/or at least, don't punish him on the spot, right then and there.
My own interpretation of "ignore it" involves not always, and absolutely, addressing the matter with the child right then and there. Then again, what makes me say that not absolutely every last, little, misdeed always has to be immediately addressed with the child is that I have a fairly high threshold for determining what I think of as "bad behavior". Having said that, and in general, however, I don't think parents should ever ignore negative behavior. I think a whole lot more parents (and more importantly, children) would benefit if more parents had a better understanding of the roots of negative behavior in their own child and in each situation; and )that's why I'm not particularly a fan of the "punishing" for a whole lot of the negative behavior that a lot of parents believe warrants punishment. (There's a difference between "consequences", "parental responsiveness", and the "results achieved" by the child's negative behavior.
To get to a more direct reply to the question-in-question:
I don't think any parent should generally make a habit of ignoring any negative behavior. That doesn't mean "punishing" the child for it, though. It does mean the parent needs to take some action - just not always "dramatic" or "punishing" action. Why? Because, if nothing else, a child needs to learn that his negative behavior isn't the right way to deal with whatever his problem is. Something to consider, however, is that the kinds of behavior mentioned in the question above (tantrums, whining, yelling) is very often not behavior that should warrant "punishment". It's behavior that warrants "addressing" (either immediately or in the near future) - and there's a big difference between punishing and addressing.
Something else mentioned in the question above is using "not harming the child or anyone" as a determining factor when it comes to what should be addressed and what should be ignored. This one is a little tricky because "not harming the child or anyone else" isn't always as clear-cut as it may seem to a lot of people. For example, the child who gets angry at his parent and, in his anger, runs out into a parking lot to get away from the parent has done something that is potentially dangerous to himself (not to mention potentially disastrous for any ill-fated and even slow-driving drivers unfortunate enough to have him run into their path). That example is an easy one when it comes to deciding what could be harmful or dangerous.
Here, however, is an example that may not be so easy: Suppose a five-year-old gets close his mother's face and screams something disrespectful at her. Some people might say, "Oh well, nobody is going to get harmed." Here's where the "harm" comes in, though: A five-year-old child needs to know he can count on his mother to be the one who can, and will, help him deal with a world in which he has existed for such a few, short, years. His mother needs to know how to establish the kind of relationship (which includes respect between the two of them) that will grow, rather than erode, not just through the child's childhood, but (hopefully) throughout the rest of their lives.
The potential harm in allowing this kind of behavior to go ignored is ultimately to the child's emotional well-being, the relationship between him and his mother, the child's development of solid social skills, and even the overall health of the family/household environment. One five-year-old who yells at his mother this way only once, and in a rare instance of complete and utter frustration; may not ever do such a thing again. The problem is that children this young are at the age when they're learning how things are done, and what they can get away with. Making it clear to the child that such behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and letting him know that if he ever does it again there will be consequences (such as not getting a treat on the next shopping trip, not getting to go somewhere he hopes to go, etc.) is important.
The child for whom this behavior is a rare and uncharacteristic thing probably already knows that he "lost it" and probably already feels bad about it. Letting him know that the behavior is unacceptable isn't sending him a message he may not already know. If, on the other hand, he didn't already know that the behavior won't be tolerated, now he will.
Some negative behavior (like the yelling in this example) may be a matter of earlier earlier negative behavior having escalated to a more noticeable level. Sometimes, on the other hand, if the behavior is generally uncharacteristic of the child, what needs to be addressed (besides letting him know the behavior isn't acceptable) is the cause of his action. For example, a child who lives with the chronic teasing and over-powering of an older sibling may live in a chronic state of wishing his parent would stop the older sibling once in awhile, if not permanently. The parent who is oblivious to her child's chronic state of feeling over-powered/mistreated may not see that if her five-year -old "explodes" on day that's the result of his "not exploding" for a good stretch of time. The straw that breaks the camel's back could be one, seemingly out-of-the-blue, demonstration of anger toward the mother (maybe at a time when she has, yet again, failed to step in on the child's behalf).
In a situation like this, letting the child know what the behavior won't be tolerated and addressing the underlying cause of the behavior are two separate things. It's always wise, in a situation like this, to let the child know the yelling won't be tolerated. In a case like this, the fact is the child IS in need of attention. His behavior, however, is not necessarily a constructed ploy to get that attention. He's just plain miserable and frustrated, and what he needs is for his mother to do her job of protecting him from a situation that makes him so chronically upset.
Some young children just haven't yet learned how to express frustration in a socially acceptable way. Most, to one degree or another, aren't able to manage their own frustrations in the same way that some (but certainly not all) adults have. Also, some young children learn the negative behavior from the very parent who sees it objectionable when it shows up in his child, because one of the biggest ways children learn about behavior is through emulating the behavior of parents.
Emulating aside, when a household includes some types of behavior that essentially amount of a child's seeing that behavior as "the way things are done are in this house" (or in the world) that's what the child learns about the ways things are done. One difference between parents who engage in what may be a less extreme version of the same behavior is that parents can know (or think they know) when to draw the line on their own behavior. Children are known for not knowing where to draw lines. That's why parents need to let them know where lines are drawn.
That's also why parents need to ask themselves whether, in fact, they draw their own lines when they should, and particularly whether or not they have a different set of lines for other people, as opposed to their child. Children see how their parents treat others, and they feel how their parents treat them. Somewhere in the mix of what children see, feel, and are told with regard to what's acceptable and what isn't is the message they get - but also the difference between whether they see the reason and good sense in it or see only contradictions.
The point (again) is that letting a child know that behavior won't be tolerated is a very different thing from addressing the cause of one incident (and particularly several incidents), and sometimes it can be completely misguided to hope that even punishment will be effective when there is conflict in the message, the rules, and the examples of acceptable-versus-unacceptable behavior.
When children are (and feel) respected by parents it comes more naturally to them to treat their parents (and most other people) with similar respect. One of the most effective weapons a parent can have is being able to say, "We don't treat you that way, and you will not treat us, of anyone else, that way either. That's not what we, in this family, have going on in our home."
Of course, different ages bring different challenges to kids. A five-year-old child already has much of nature/behavior established. A two -year-old has a different set of challenges, but a lot of what a two-year-old does is the result of his being so new to being the youngest age at which a child is "an independent, but still very little, person", a lot of the "behavior bugs" in two-year-olds are more a matter of frustration and social awkwardness than anything else. That doesn't mean a parent should tolerate her two-year-old's slapping her in the face or intentionally kicking her or the cat, but it means that there's most often nothing more to be understood than the fact that two-year -olds still have a lot of learning and maturing to do. I , personally, think it's wisest to let even a two-year-old know that yelling at his mother is not acceptable and won't be tolerated. Then again, if a two-year-old yells in church or the movie theater the best response to that just might be to leave the church or theater. Two-year-olds aren't consistently (if ever) capable of sitting quietly for longer than their age permits. Expecting them to do so isn't just expecting too much of them. It's contributing to their frustration.
A child this young counts on his parents (even if he doesn't realize he's doing it) to kind of act as a go-between between him and the frustrations of his day and of the world. When the person he should be able to count on doesn't realize the ways he needs her to make things a little easier for him, it shouldn't be a surprise that a two-year-old suffers the double-whammy of the situation, itself, and the fact that the person who should help him feel better doesn't know that that's what she needs to do. "Double-whammy frustration" is tough even for adults. It's no wonder so many two-year-olds "lose it".
The parent who has a pretty good understanding of ways to often prevent tantrums in two-year-olds usually know that, at best, even that understanding will only be so effective over the course of the years between just-before-two and, maybe, just-turned-three. One important thing to keep in mind about tantrums in a two-year-old is that, even if they're generally part of being around two for a lot of young children, that's when parents need to know how not to "teach" their child that tantrums are an effective way of getting what he wants. Still, treating the tantrum-throwing child as if he's doing something worthy of punishment is like treating a one-year-old who steps into the street the same way. Plain and simple, it's a parent's job to oversee the situation in which toddlers and the youngest pre- schoolers find themselves, and it's a parent's job to help such young children manage situations that are simply more than their developmental levels allows.
Essentially, the first three years of a child's life are major, major, developmental-advancement years. When a child is three, has good language skills, and has ironed out all the "social bugs" of his first three years that's when a whole lot of socially unacceptable behavior dies out naturally.
I think that if there's one crucial year in a child is interested, anxious, and receptive in learning "how things are done" socially, it's the year when he is three years old. The child who gets to four or five and hasn't yet learned what's acceptable already has a couple of years of negative social behavior on which to build and/or that needs to be un-learned. The tantrum in a five-year-old is a very different thing from the tantrum thrown by a two-year-old. "Addressing" something like tantrums in a five-year-old may or may not be something a parent knows how to do, but if she doesn't know how to do it (other than just punishing the child), asking for professional help in learning how to do it would be wise. (It's always less than a year before a five-year-old turns six, needless to say. A junior-high guidance counselor/vice principal once commented to me, "I can go to "X Elementary School", see how a kid is when he's seven years old, and have a pretty good idea about whether he's likely to get into serious problems when he's a teenager." This individual did add, "Of course, you can't always be 100% certain, but I can tell you that in general, it can be a pretty accurate way of knowing which kids are going to have problems."
His point was (and my point is) that by the time a child is seven years old, behavior problems in day-to-day getting along in life and being generally socially-acceptable people aren't usually associated with "something understandable" (like their developmental level).
On the other hand, while the behavior issues associated with much younger children, and associated with "no harming themselves or anyone else", may be more numerous and more likely to occur; the negative ("bad") behavior that can surface in grade-school aged kids, but still be associated with their developmental level and emotional/social immaturity, can seem far less benign (and far more ominous) to parents.
Whether the negative (bad) behavior of a child in this age range is yet another matter of his immaturity or not can depend on the behavior, how many incidents of it take place (or take place within in a certain time frame), and any number of other things too specific to the incident, the child, the situation, and his parents to easily know.
While lying and/or stealing are common in kids this age, there are times when one or both are a sign that the problem goes beyond just immature, insecurity, and/or resisting urges and temptation. With the increased age, seriousness of some of the issues that can arise in this age range, and the child's increased ability to understand right from wrong; it's always important not to ignore some of this behavior. At the same time, while it is my personal opinion that talking about the reasons one deed or another are unacceptable is important, and while having consequences result from the deed; I think parents need to understand that there's a 50% chance their child already feels ashamed of himself for having not been able to resist temptation or for not being able to "just be honest". There's also a 50% chance their child is a child who doesn't feel particularly guilty or ashamed for what he's done.
How each child and each situation should be addressed depends, I think, on whether the child is generally a caring, decent, child who has "slipped up" because "all kids do stupid things at one time or another", or is a child who may have quite some time ago stopped worrying about trying to be the good person his parents say they want him to be (and who may have given up bothering for one reason or another).
So the children who "stop bothering" have anger after feeling nobody has met their needs for "x amount of time" (even if they don't know enough to recognize it on an intellectual level). Some may not have anger. Instead, they just have trouble doing what they know they should be doing (and not doing what they know is wrong).
Sometimes, too, "stopping bothering" isn't something that the child does across the board, or that seems to be a part of the nature he's developed. Instead, it may involve only individual people or situations. For example, a child who behaves perfectly well at school may act up at home - or the other way around. A child who bothers to try to do what's right at, say, holiday gatherings or restaurants may not be a child who is able to (or feels the need to) keep bothering when it comes to his school work.
No, "bad" behavior is not a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all, thing. Neither is the precisely appropriate approach to addressing it. Still, too often, too many parents treat what should otherwise have been seen as "understandable" behavior as if their child must certainly be headed for a lifetime of crime. Also too often, parents who approach their child's negative behavior as if it's nothing more than a matter of "what all kids do" learn too late that not "all kids" keep getting away with that behavior, and their own child's behavior goes from something that was once fairly understandable based on his age has turned into something far more serious.
None of this discussion even addresses the matter of the challenges faced by, and posed by, kids who have reached their teens. The stakes are often higher for teens in a lot of ways. Their world is larger than it was five or ten years ago. The teen years are a time when even "the best kids" can do some really dangerous and/or stupid things. Those years are also a time when some of the "issues" a kid developed as a young child turn a lot more serious. The pull to be grown up, and the need to be cool (or at least not shunned), can call for a resistance to peer pressure that even a lot of parents (who also want to prove that they're the adult and/or also don't want to be shunned by one person or group of another) can't always muster up. A lot of a teen's conscience has (or hasn't) become well developed by this age. Also, their ability know what's right and how they ought to behave is a whole lot more developed for them than for four-year -olds. The outward picture of a teen doesn't necessarily always indicate that, however, because there are so many factors that can go into which teen may adopt which unacceptable behavior (and even whether the behavior is truly unacceptable, just unacceptable to their parents, or unacceptable in view of their age).
In any case, the situation with negative behavior in teens is too complex to address here. The point is negative behavior in kids this age often either stems from their having developed that mind of their own or else from their having a brain that hasn't quite had the finishing touches put on it. Their inner world, home world, and the world outside their home all combine to contribute to either good or unacceptable behavior. In a way, however, it can almost be a little easier for parents to differentiate between "what isn't harming them or anyone else" and "what may be harmful" (to the teen, his future, his health, his relationships with his parents and others in his family, etc.).
Contrary to the above example of the five-year-old who yells in his mother's face, it can be a lot easier to determine whether there's harm in dying one's hair purple versus whether there's harm in using drugs or hanging around with delinquents.
When all has gone smoothly until the teen years, there's usually no more worrying about whether a child will yell out in church or a theater. The teen whose parents have managed to do a pretty good job isn't likely to resort to that kind of behavior. As little as even this much accomplishment as a parent can seem to mean when a teen is "going through a thing", the fact is a solid, respectful, relationship built between a parent and a child in those earlier years does give a big edge to parents when it comes to getting through some of those more challenging teen issues. The child who stopped bothering at ten isn't likely to start bothering at fifteen.
In any case, a teen is certainly old enough to know that doing something like yelling at parents is not acceptable. My personal belief is that while not being too tough ("punishing") a five-year-old who slips up in the behavior department is the understanding thing, it's the teen years when - really - kids are old enough to know better and old enough to have more expected of them. To me, this is the age when punishment (rather than just lesson-based consequences) can be more appropriate. As with younger kids, I don't think one slip-up (with something like yelling at a parent) necessarily calls for punishment, provided the message that the behavior won't be tolerated has been received loud and clear. To me, however, the fifteen-year-old who "mouths off" more than once may benefit from being punished with something like not being allowed to go to some event/place; or not being given money for one thing or another.
Even with teens, however, I still think things aren't always all that black-and-white or one-size-fits-all. The teen who is generally a well behaved, decent, caring, kid and who "loses it" once may need the kind of "pass" a parent who, in his lifetime, has ever once "lost it" would give himself.
Regardless of a child's age, where common sense can come in is in knowing one's own child, having one's eyes open, and in being able to recognize whether one incident of bad behavior is just that or is, instead, part of a larger picture of overall negative behavior. Regardless of a child's age, it's usually easy enough for a kid to see the fairness in consequences that result from behavior that even the child, himself, knows is unacceptable. What's not as easy for kids of any age to understand is the fact that their parents often don't react to some misdeeds in a way that seems to indicate that their parents understand why some kids sometimes do some things.
And what about that whining that was mentioned?
My own opinion of whining is that while it's certainly unpleasant behavior, it's far from "bad" behavior. Although there are, of course, kids who have learned that whining is the only way to get some version of results, whining is sometimes not at all what it seems to be to some parents. Much of the time, children who are miserable are going to express it. Some children are more aggressive and/or demanding, so if/when they express their anger and/or other misery it doesn't come out in the form of whining. Children are aren't the least bit bold or aggressive can tend to voice their misery in a tone that comes out as "whining". Rather than add yet more words to this already too-long piece, I'm including a link to a short piece I wrote awhile back about whining: