Understanding “bad” behaviour

By Associate Psychologist Laura Moresi

Far too often in our work we hear people talk about children’s ‘bad’ behaviour. We hear comments like they “know better”, they are “attention seeking” or are trying to “get a rise” out of the adults around them. Just like adults, children are constantly striving to do their best and receive positive attention from those around them. Unlike adults however, children don’t always have the skills to do this in an effective and adult friendly way. When we are trying to understand and change a child’s behaviour, it is essential for those around a child to learn how to look beneath the behaviour and respond in a supportive and skill-building way. 

Different families will have different expectations about what is appropriate, acceptable behaviour and what is considered inappropriate behaviour in their house. Some of the behaviours families say they find challenging in school-aged children include defiance (i.e., refusing to follow parent requests), lashing out (i.e., hitting or kicking others), lying and anger when a child does not get their way. 

When I speak to families or teachers about children’s behaviour in the clinic, one of the first places I start is trying to understand the skills that are needed for a child to behave in what the family considers to be an appropriate way. This typically involves:

  • reviewing developmentally appropriate behaviours for that age and ensuring that we are not expecting too much of a child too soon, and
  • taking a closer look at the many emotional, social and independence skills that can get in the way of a child doing what is expected of them.

When breaking down skills involved in difficult behaviours, we are often reviewing a child’s ability to do what is being asked of them and regulate or manage the emotions that may come up.

For example, if parents are concerned about defiant behaviours when asking a child to get ready for bed, we will review if the child is able to complete all of the steps required to meet this request. Can they complete these steps consistently and without adult support? Is the child experiencing any big emotions that may be getting in the way of them completing this, for example feeling anxious about bedtime?

In breaking down the behaviour in this way we are often able to identify areas of real difficulty for a child, for example they may be having trouble holding the multiple steps involved in getting ready for bed in mind while completing these, or they may be feeling nervous about going to bed alone in the dark. When we can identify and support the areas in which a child is experiencing difficulty, we see a decrease in the need to use more challenging behaviours to compensate for, or distract from, these difficulties. 

In our work, a message we give to families and teachers when discussing “bad” behaviour is this:

when children have the skills and support to do well they will.

When a child is displaying “bad” or difficult behaviour, it is therefore essential to look beneath this behaviour. We must try to understand and support the things that may be getting in the way of them doing the best that they can.

Laura Moresi is a psychologist completing the Educational and Developmental registrar program. Laura is passionate about working collaboratively with families and other professionals to support children and adolescents to reach their best potential. Laura has experience working with a variety of development and mental health concerns.

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