There are no bad kids; just troubled ones.
While this statement might seem debatable if you have ever struggled with a child’s undesirable behaviours , children at every stage communicate through their behaviour. A hungry baby cries, a happy toddler smiles, and an angry teenager slams a door and yells, “You are ruining my life!”. At each age and stage of development, we have a range of behaviours we come to expect as “normal”, and we use these behaviours as indicators of maturity, social acceptability, and even likeability. If a child conforms to our social expectations of behaviour for their age and stage, we feel comfortable with them and guide them with confidence.
But what about the 12 year old that throws a toddler-like tantrum when they become upset? Or the toddler who is constantly biting or kicking other children at their daycare? And then what about that one child that no teacher wants to land in their class because he insists on being the “class clown” all day every day. Are these just bad kids?
A persistence in anti-social or undesirable behaviours put children at risk of being judged, stigmatized, shamed, and/or excluded. This can lead to long term negative impacts such as poor academic performance, difficulty in establishing meaningful connections, and increase risk of mental health distress. Without understanding a child’s behaviour, our responses can lead a child to low self-esteem, self-loathing, and even an increase in the very behaviours we wish to change.
If you are a caregiver in any capacity, understanding the function of a child’s behaviour is essential to effectively provide for their needs. “Bad” or undesirable behaviour is a sign of inner turmoil, not character flaw. Again, there are no bad kids, just troubled ones. Here is brief guide to help you better understand your child or student’s troublesome behaviours.
Determine the child’s behavioural baseline. Understanding a child’s baseline is about getting a sense of how they behave day to day in a calm and safe setting. Is the child typically high energy and happy-go-lucky? Do they engage positively with others? How do they communicate? Are they outgoing and engaging or usually more quiet and shy. Trying to assess a child’s undesirable behaviors will be difficult without a baseline to compare to. To establish the most accurate baseline possible consider reaching out to adults who supervise the child in other settings e.g. (day care providers, babysitters, teachers, grandparents etc).
Explore your expectations. Define the behaviour you are expecting from the child and explore whether or not it is appropriate and/or reasonable to that child in that setting. For example, expecting a toddler to respond to instruction right away when they are tired might not be reasonable. Likewise, expecting a typically energetic 7 year old to sit quietly for a 3 hour ride to Grandma’s house might also be asking for a lot.
When setting your expectations, consider the child’s age and stage of development; the child’s physiological state (sleepy/hungry etc), their emotional state(angry, afraid, anxious), their relationship with you and the overall goal you are trying to achieve. It is also important to know how much of our expectation is about your needs and not the child’s. Are you stressed? Running late? Feeling overwhelmed? Just wanting them to not argue for once! Trying to have a child behave solely according to what you need in the moment is a surefire way to create more stress for you and for the child!
Understand Your Relationship. Who are you to the child? What experience has he/she had of you? Do they experience you as consistent and supportive? Authoritative? Safe? How the child experiences you (not how you think they SHOULD experience you) determines how they feel about you and in turn, how they will respond to you. A child who trusts their adult caregiver and feels safe in their presence is more likely to perform and behave better than a child who feels untrusting or insecure in the same adult.
As an adult in a child’s life, you become an integral part of how they see the world and themselves. Taking time to build trust in your relationship will help the child feel more confident in your guidance and willing to heed your direction.
Dig Deeper into Undesired Behaviours. If you’ve taken time to explore the factors above and still struggle to understand or modify your child’s undesirable behaviours, it may be time for a deeper look. If the child is old enough, encourage them to discuss their needs, feelings, and perspectives. Often, as adults, we can underestimate a child’s ability and desire to have a voice of their own. By inviting the child to self-advocate, we gain a clearer picture of their inner world while also teaching them to self validate.
For children who are too young, unwilling, or unable to speak on their own behalf, a deeper exploration into their previous and developmental experiences might be required. A child’s history can give important insight into the child’s psychology and behavioural development and the type of support they require. Children who have experienced overwhelming emotional turmoil or trauma may exhibit behaviours rooted in the ways their brains have responded to these events. Punishing or correcting these behaviours in an exclusionary or shaming way can have damaging effects on a child’s sense of self. Trauma based behaviours are best understood and alleviated with help of a Trauma-Informed Mental Health Professional.
However distressing a child’s behaviour might seem, children want to feel safe, loved, and supported. By getting to know a child’s experiences, building trusting relationships, and anchoring our expectations and guidance in the child’s best interest, we stop ourselves from labeling “bad” children and better equip ourselves to help troubled ones.