Are Your Child's Behavior Problems The Symptom Of A Different Issue?

Dr. Purushothaman
November 28, 2013

Is your child the “problem” or are their behaviors the symptom of another family issue? I have worked with families in therapy and in coaching who are struggling with the behavior of a child. When we talk about what is happening, they are absolutely correct to be concerned about the behaviors and to get support to address them. Whether the child is completely withdrawn or acting out and not obeying rules, the concerns are valid without a doubt. What is always interesting to me, however, is what we are able to uncover when digging a little deeper. Often times, we find that the “problem” behaviors are actually a mask for other problems or concerns that may be going on in the home. I am not saying this is always the case or that anyone is to blame for this, however, it is important to recognize this as a possibility because once families see this…things can change for the better.

It is very common for parents to be in situations where they are carrying around a lot of stress (financial, career, relationship, etc) and because of this stress, they may have a change in their presentation. They may be more shut down or they may have less frustration tolerance and a shorter fuse at home. This can then result in children either acting out in response to a parent’s short fuse or in children withdrawing in an effort to avoid the negative mood or fighting of parents. Children sometimes engage in certain behaviors as a means of trying to control a situation they do not like or as a means of getting attention or letting parents know that they are not OK with what is going on. Of course, it is preferred that they use their words and express themselves verbally however, children and teens are often not at a point developmentally where they can do this effectively or they do not feel they can speak up about something that is bothering them. There are many ways this can play out in a family but what is important to note is that in such situations, the child can be labeled as the “problem” which results in a lot of focus being placed on the negative behaviors of the child which can then result in even more negative behaviors. When this happens, the real concern is not addressed (parents who are carrying around too much stress, parents who are having adult relationship issues or financial issues, etc.) who now have even more stress and frustration because of their child’s behaviors so the problem is less likely to ever improve.

Below are some tips for parents who may be in this situation. These tips will help you look at the larger picture and assess if there are things that are within your control to change which can result in positive changes for the entire family unit:
1.Identify clearly the behavior you see in your child which is problematic and be clear about what you would like to see different.
2.Try to see if there are any patterns to this behavior (certain time of the day, days of the week or following certain situations).
3.Objectively think about how it may be connected to other things going on in the home (during hectic times, following someone having a bad day at work, following an adult argument, when others are preoccupied with other things in the home, etc).
4.Even if you are not sure if there is a connection, try to see how this behavior can fit into the bigger family dynamic and then think about what you can change within the family dynamic.
5.Change something - think about what you can change and stick with it for a few weeks and see if things get better. Some examples may be: focus less on their negative behavior and give them more praise when things are going well, make sure they are not exposed to adult arguing, take an extra 10 minutes after work to de-stress so that you come home in a better frame of mind or let them know that you will need some time when you first get home to unwind so that you feel less stress. There are many, many things you can try based on your individual family situation so get creative!

When we live as part of a family system, the behavior of one impacts the behavior of all - even small changes can result in very positive and lasting results for all members of the family.

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