“I HATE you!!” “You don’t understand!” “Look at what you made me do!”
“You are the DUMBEST parents in the world!” “But I WANT it!”
“I give up…I’m just stupid anyway” “You don’t love me!”
“I’m worthless” “Of course I studied” “Make me!”
“I didn’t smoke; I was just around people who were; you should be proud of me.”
Have you heard your child say some (or all) of these phrases? After picking up the pieces of a broken plate; pacing the floor while waiting for your child to return home; attending the 8+ disciplinary meeting at school; or conducting an investigation that would impress CSI, you may find yourself asking the same question I have heard from hundreds of parents I’ve seen in my practice: “Why do they act that way?”
Being a parent today is a very difficult responsibility. A parent used to have the most input into their child’s life. As society becomes faster, parents are trying to compete with an increasing amount of negativity from the internet, advertising, video games, music, television, etc., etc…
Though it may seem overwhelming, the key to understanding and answering the question, “Why do they do that?” is found by looking at the basis of negative behavior – emotional control. Remember, people do things over and over again, not because they don’t get anything, but because they do get something.
Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs, a child psychiatrist, investigated the source of dysfunctional behavior and found that children are trying to meet four basic needs: Attention, Power, Fairness, and Competence. All people, young and old, need all four to feel a sense of contentment.
When a child doesn’t believe they can earn positive attention, they work to get negative attention. This does not mean a parent hasn’t given positive attention, just that their child doesn’t see it.
How do these kids gain this negative attention? My wife recently disciplined our child. As he spent time alone in his room, he developed an ingenious idea: If he could not leave his room, his remote control car could! He took great pleasure in working the controls of the car as it sped down the hallway to get the attention he couldn’t get at that time. Though his car was immediately impounded, it certainly made an impression!
Certainly, this behavior is mild compared to a child who gets sent (once again) to the principal’s office for being profane in class or a child who “accidentally” leaves vomit in the toilet after purging. When kids start getting into these acts, I usually receive a call asking for help. I quickly hear the kids describe a situation where they don’t want to act this way, they believe they have to do these things in order to get noticed for something. Eventually, this same child realizes it feels better to do the right thing than the wrong thing; parents realize they are not to blame for the behavior, but need to be aware of the ways they can unknowingly contribute to the behavior.
Attention is a necessary part of being human. It is one of the ways people gauge their influence on others. When teens are seeking negative attention, they are trying to be involved in a parent’s life. One of the top ways to shift things in a positive direction is to catch kids when they’re being good. It can be easy to focus on the negative behavior, but most parents I’ve talked to realize their kids receive a bigger payoff for their negative than positive behavior. At the same time, don’t go overboard on the praise. Try using what I call “stealth reinforcement”. Rather than repeating praise many times, give praise once or twice and switch to another topic. This is like throwing a curveball to your child. It increases their interest in doing the positive behavior again to see if it was just a fluke. With consistent “stealth reinforcement”, you will likely see an increase in negative behavior at first, but a slow decrease over time. If your child does not respond in this manner, do not give up, please give me a call to help. There could be additional issues present that require professional help.