The myth of the badly behaved child
We all have a deep desire for perfect kids as that would, in turn, make us feel good about ourselves. When they do not fall into the socially prescribed narrative of ‘good kids’, we try to 'fix them' by criticising, complaining, shaming and blaming them. And when they push back in frustration, we react with anger and censure.
Rahil’s mother was very upset with him. “He is rude, aggressive, and of late, he has also started lying to us. If I try to scold him, he answers back or just walks out of the room. There is no respect for us.” Rahil sat sullenly looking at the floor and refusing to make any eye contact. I checked with him if I could spend some time alone with him and after some reluctance, he agreed. After a while, I asked him what he thought the problem was. He was quiet for a while and then said, “Nothing I do is good enough for my parents. They are constantly comparing me to my older brother who is good in studies. In school, my teachers are always criticising me. I don’t think anybody likes me.”
He sat twisting his hands, fighting back his tears, sharing his pain of hurt and rejection.
We all have a deep desire for perfect kids as that would, in turn, make us feel good about ourselves. When they do not fall into the socially prescribed narrative of ‘good kids’, we try to ‘fix them’ by criticising, complaining, shaming and blaming them. And when they push back in frustration, we react with anger and censure.
Our relationship with our children is like an emotional bank account — we make deposits but we also make withdrawals. The deposits are in the form of spending time, playing, chatting, hugging, cuddling, words of recognition, making them feel special by doing things for them and so on, whereas the withdrawals could be criticism, comparison, shaming, blaming, complaining, hitting, abusing etc. Now in most homes, some withdrawals are inevitable as we all are human and will end up withdrawing unwittingly. However, it is only when the withdrawals outweigh the deposits that the emotional bankruptcy manifests in the form of aggressive behaviour, lying, stealing, rudeness, not listening etc. We are quick to label these ‘behavioural problems’ which needs ‘disciplining’ but we do little to understand the underlying emotions which might be causing them.
There are some children who are more vulnerable to a higher level of ‘withdrawal’ from this emotional bank account – for example, children with learning difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, or other disabilities. All these children are wired differently and do not fit the society’s criteria of a ‘good child’.
Then there are children who are emotionally intense and struggle to regulate their emotions or are going through difficult transitions in their life such as family conflicts, parents’ divorce or childhood trauma. Sometimes it is very difficult for them to identify or express their feelings.
When I see my children being rude, it is very easy for me to blame them and difficult to look within and reflect on my emotional bank account, or what I call ‘Connect’, with them. If I am honest with myself, I invariably find that I have been preoccupied with some work, been snappy or just not been mindful of their presence.
Therefore, without realising, we end up feeding and energising the negativity in our children. Let’s look at ways we can flip the energy and strengthen our Connect:
We all have a dream child in our mind and if our child does not match that, there could be feelings of disappointment and inadequacy — “I must be a bad parent, that’s why my child is not good enough.” Children can pick up this feeling of “not being good enough” and react to it either by seeking approval, becoming withdrawn or just reacting with anger. Each child is wired differently and acceptance of that can be liberating for both the parent and the child. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be if every child got the message, “I love you just the way you are. You are unique, you are different, you are you.”
The greatest gift we can give our children in the present-day world is our attention. With our rushed lives, always running against time, our compulsion of checking our phones through the day, we do not have much time left for being really present for our kids. Mindfulness is about being in the here and now with our complete being – eye contact, full attention, relishing every moment of being with our kids.
Kids want to do well, that is the way they are wired. However, when they face rejection or criticism, they give up and fight back. Once Rahil’s mother started listening and empathising with Rahil, she noticed a tremendous change in him. He seemed much happier, willing to listen to her point of view and open to making changes. We have to work with our children and not against them.
Rahil’s parents had got into this negative pattern where they would notice everything he was doing wrong. They thought by calling out these behaviours, they would stop him from doing them, however, it actually worked the other way round. It made Rahil resentful and fight back, which, in turn, led to an impasse where both sides ended up feeling inadequate and frustrated and stuck in a vicious cycle. I suggested to them that instead, they could flip the energy and recognise every smallest thing he did well.
“I saw how you shared your chocolate with your brother; that was generous”, or “I can see that you have put in a lot of effort in your homework today”.
I want to highlight that there is a difference between praise and recognition — praise is like junk food which gives a quick high but does not have much nourishing value — for example, “You are so smart”, “you are beautiful”. There is clear research evidence which indicates that what really works is recognition which is specific, focuses on a skill, something that you value in your child that you want to nurture – for example, hard work, honesty, generosity, compassion, kindness, grit etc.
The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voices and the way we talk about them become their life stories. These stories create their core identity and sometimes they start living according to them. Rahil’s stories at home, extended family and school were that he was “aggressive”, “a liar”, “lazy”. It took his parents and him time to change his stories around so that the other stories of being “adventurous”, “kind”, having “leadership skills” and being “an out of the box thinker” could emerge. As Rahil reauthored his stories, it restored his confidence and sense of agency on how he wanted to live his life. Last time I met him, he said with a big smile, “I am the same person I was earlier but I see myself differently and so do other people.”
(Dr Sen is a therapist, writer and co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute.)
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