What if Most of Your Beliefs About Children Is Wrong?

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What if Most of Your Beliefs About Children Is Wrong?

Dr. Bob | executive function, temperament traits | 1 Comments | Post Date: April 18 2019

The Two Greatest Myths About Children

For the first myth about children, I will tell you a story about a cold February morning in 1981. I began my pediatric practice day with a six-month-old child who came for a checkup. Entering the quiet exam room, both parents were beaming at their cooing child. Everything was wonderful; he was “so good,” sleeping through the night and on a regular schedule. Both parents were patting themselves on the back for their fine parenting skills.


I entered the next appointment room, also for a six-month checkup, and found the baby girl screaming on the treatment table and her mother in the corner, with her tears and mascara running down her face, lamenting that she was a failure as a parent because her daughter seemed to cry all the time. 


Neither parents’ feelings were correct. The first parents’ skills weren't greater than the second parent’s any more than the second parent’s was a failure. The first baby was easy, and the second was a very not-so-easy child.  This story illustrates the first myth that all children are the same.  


Now wait a minute, you’re thinking. I don’t believe that, and I know children are different. Then let me ask a question, “Why do most parents believe, insist and search for that one way to manage their child. The Internet is full of parenting blogs proclaiming, “How I got my child to eat vegetables, become potty trained at two, while studying for their pre-SATs.” This implies you can accomplish this if you follow her model. The problem is that her child is different from yours. Parenting has no one answer. Even within a family with three children, each is unique and requires a different plan to fit each child. This is why parents complain, “I’ve tried everything, and nothing works.”


Children are different and require their own specific management plan. One size fits all doesn’t fit anyone well.


Children come in two types, easy or not-so-easy. For the 40% of kids who are easy, most any plan will work, and those parents usually proudly take credit for that success. For the 60% of children who are not easy, those parents quite commonly feel guilty that they must be doing something wrong because their parenting experience is so difficult. For those parents, please don’t blame yourselves, you are doing a good job, but your child requires a different approach.


We will discuss at length these differences and how best to help your child strengthen skills that may be weak. Children are different because of the way their brains are wired. This difference in wiring is genetically determined. As illustrated by the story the difference in wiring is evident in infancy. The good news is that although your child’s wiring is genetically determined it can be altered with specific approaches and repetitive training. Relying on parenting advice without an understanding of your child’s temperament will have uneven results. These brain functions called temperament traits, and executive functions will be discussed in detail in later articles.


The second great myth about children is that behavior is intentional, on purpose and chosen. Most of us were raised with certain repeating phrases in our brains about how children behave. Phrases such as, he's only doing that to spite you, she's just spoiled, he's just acting out, she has to always have her way, he's just doing it for attention, you can't let your child have the control; you have to show them who's boss, or it's just a phase.  My favorites, they'll outgrow it, if they know they’re loved, nothing else matters, or if she can't get her way, she'll get under your skin. 


Most of these phrases are linked to a nineteenth-century colleague of Freud’s, Alfred Adler. He professed the goals of children's behavior are; get attention, power, control, revenge or to display inadequacy.  Most of Freud’s theories have been displaced by neuroscience research, but for whatever reason, Adler’s, unfortunately, seem to persist.  Parent advice books are still full of these same overused out of date suppositions. I beg to differ, disagree and will offer many better reasons why children act and react based on neuroscience. 


The main problem I have with these theories is that there's not much you can do to change the child's behavior if you believe the cause of his or her behavior is to get attention, power, or revenge. You can overpower the child with a running power struggle. You can attempt to manipulate a child using guilt with the good vs bad trip, creating other sets of problems.  Let's replace these popular, but ineffective efforts to “control” your children with something that helps them build skill sets to self-manage their behaviors.


Let's replace the intentional behavior myth with an understanding of why kids behave the way they do and exchange it with effective interventions to help children achieve the behavior they, believe it or not, want to display. Children want to do the best they can if their brain’s wiring allows it. We all do the best we can. If that is not happening the child (or adult) has weak skills for problem solving.


I will discuss the functions and processes and symptoms these issues cause. Commonly a diagnosis is made but this both limits possibilities and labels a child by putting her/him in a box. Many times, a child doesn’t fit all the criteria for a diagnosis.  What then?  To make a diagnosis of ADHD the child must have five of nine symptoms for hyperactivity and inattention. What if your child has only three or four of these symptoms? The diagnosis isn’t made, but your child continues to struggle. Children under ten years of age have symptoms before they rise to the level of a diagnosis. I will focus on symptoms, not diagnoses.


What is misbehavior really?

Behavior is not intentional, on purpose and certainly not to get under your skin, although sometimes it does seem that way.   Let's break it down into four categories.

First, there is misbehavior of adventure or experimentation or the “let’s see what happens if I do this” misadventure. They are considered poor choices or accidents if an adult does it, but misbehavior if it’s a child. 

Second, there is the misbehavior of defiance or what seems like defiance. It's that spoiled, ‘have to have their way’ kid, frequently followed by a meltdown, or as I say, “trip to the mud hole.”

The third misbehavior is the result of being overwhelmed when children simply freeze up because something is overwhelming their capacity to solve the problem and prevents further action. This is like the shy child forced to meet a stranger. 

Lastly is, misbehavior of the embarrassment to escape the responsibility of a stupid act or from responsibility.  Then they compound it by doing something foolish.


The Follow Through 

For the first misbehavior of adventure/experimentation should be forgiving, “What did you learn, young man?” type response. Unless of course there was some bodily harm done to someone. Do not chastise, denigrate and yell at your child for a learning occasion that went bad. Experimentation and failure are good tools of learning. The child’s cleaning the mess, fixing the fallout is a way to learn from mistakes.


The second, misbehavior of defiance, needs further discussion. It looks like defiance or as many relate, “disrespect." It is neither but the simple inability to solve a problem. In fact, this is the main reason for most struggles in children. Some kids seem to go through this process much more often. These specific NSECs, accounting for about a fourth of kids, is because they have a less adaptable temperament trait (see next article). These children seem spoiled, and struggle because they have only one answer to everything, and they want everyone to arrive at that exact answer also.   They live in a world of their best-case scenario. When what they desire does not happen, they fritz. They cannot solve the problem of “that isn’t going to happen, so now what.” These kids I refer to as the,” No Surprise Kids." They are easy to frustration, slow to transition and adapt.  They are not spoiled, defiant, disrespectful or hardheaded, but simply have difficulty problem solving.  How to help these children is outlined in the Getting to Now What help sheet of my book The Normal but Not-So-Easy Child.


The third misbehavior resulting from being overwhelmed is handled by more preparation and role-playing and overcoming the conditions that overwhelm the child.


The fourth misbehavior from embarrassment or attempting to escape responsibility is handled by ignoring the embarrassment and imposing the responsibility for the action.


Children do not misbehave for attention, power or revenge but out of poor problem solving and misadventure of learning. Be patient with the latter and teach new skills with the former.


Concerning the myth phrases; it’s a phase, they'll outgrow it, they are just immature, or a boy, and if they know they’re loved, nothing else matters, here are my responses. It is not a phase; they will not outgrow it, it is not because he is a boy, and love is important but not enough to correct a less resilient temperament. What are the symptoms that should concern every parent at age 4 years or older? 


The following twenty symptoms are color coded into groups having the same cause. If symptoms occur in several groups, this increases the risk and the need for serious awareness.


1.  Frequent tantrums, meltdowns after age three 

2.  Low frustration tolerance leading to lock ups and meltdowns

3.  Difficulty with transitions from one activity to another

4.  Inability to except change (schedules, plans or expectations)  

5.  Insistence on their way only,  no compromise and must win all games

6.  Excessive shyness

7.  Unwillingness to try anything new

8.  Excessive worrying

9.  Acute awareness of sensory input from the four senses

10.  Greater awareness of others, including empathy for other's suffering

11.  Less empathy for others or lack of concern for their well-being

12.  Aggressive behavior towards others on a regular basis

13.  Poor sense of humor or missing social/emotional cues

14.  Chronic negative mood

15.  Chronic positive mood

16.  Poor impulse control

17.  Lack of persistence

18.  Excessive distractibility

19.  Lack of focus, attention and/or organization

20.  Difficulty with sleep on regular basis or awaking often in the night


These are not phases that will go away. These are significant symptoms signifying issues of less resilient behavior that will lead to struggles, suffering and maladaptive adjustments and unhappiness over their lives.


Most everyone minimizes  the symptoms at age 4, as developmental phases. They are not. Even professionals all too often have a “Let’s wait and see” attitude that delays addressing these significant behavior and learning symptoms.


My research team has recently completed an early-childhood research project assessing over 1000 pre-K students in a suburban public school district. We wanted to see if it was possible to predict at the beginning of the school year which students would have difficulty with behavior and/or learning issues. We were successful. The assessments predicted accurately which students would have either behavior or learning problems or both. Hundreds of early-childhood research papers on executive functions show that these essential brain processing functions are necessary for both academic and social-emotional growth.


Parents, please quit looking for simple fixes for any of your child's annoying symptoms and look for the underlying cause and what can be done to strengthen these weaker executive function skills. The good news is that these weak skills can be strengthened, but the caution is the earlier the better. After 10 years of age it becomes much, much more difficult to change.


Children are all different, and each has unique ways to behave and learn and need specific individual ways to help them develop skills and succeed.


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Stacey-5/1/2019 4:35:54 PM

Very informative article. Cant wait to read more.