Dr. Purushothaman
October 6, 2013

As an outpatient child psychologist, I often am asked what
are the most often-reported problems with kids. Here's my list:
"Yelling, Doesn't clean room, Doesn't obey (defiance), Ignores
me or Talks back, Disrespectful, Runs around too much (hyper),
Lies, Verbally or otherwise manipulates, Whines, Critical of
others, Plays too many electronic games, Poor grades, Destroys
things, Physical fighting or is aggressive in general,
Impulsivity, Noisy, Distractible, Curses, Lazy, Temper tantrums,
Selfish, Dawdling, Isn't trustworthy."
Does that about cover it? These are general categories and
there are a million "particulars" or variations on each theme.
These represent about ninety percent of the complaints parents
present when they visit a child psychologist.
So, what do we do with such a litany of complaints. The
first thing is to recognize that these behaviors actually have a
purpose (other than to make parents miserable). On the surface,
they may simply discharge tension, which feels good afterwards
but not necessarily during the "episode." Revenge is another
"popular" reason to act out. It feels good to have others
suffer, too. These behaviors may be designed to communicate
something. Usually this is a "change it" message, heavily
disguised. Kids do not usually have very good ways of
articulating their feelings, wishes, etc., but they sure can act
out with immediacy and intensity.
Paradoxically, many kids act out just to get parents to set
limits. Yes, that's right. Kids actually need limits and will
test parents to see where the parents set those limits. It is
counterintuitive, but children need to know what territory is
safe and what is not. Setting a limit establishes this and
doing so makes actually makes the child's anxiety go down, even
though the parent probably said, "No" to something (hence, the
paradoxical part...). Children will actually act out to get the
parent to set a limit. In general, these negative behaviors may
be the only way kids can tell parents that something needs
adjusting. Our task as parents is to figure out what is the
How do we do that? A very important aspect of children's
behavior is the feeling it expresses. One of the first thing
I teach children is a vocabulary of their feelings. I teach
them what words go with what feelings. If they are very young,
I use a chart that has sixteen feeling words. Above each
feeling word is a face depicting that specific feeling.
Kids usually cannot come up with a word to describe their
feelings, but they instantly can identify the right face.
They point to it and I read the word. Presto! They have an
instant vocabulary (of one word) for that feeling. As I said,
kids do not do this naturally, unless they have an exceptional
parent that regularly verbalizes feelings. I rarely
(almost never) see parents do this.
Then I make it very rewarding for children to start using
those words, out loud, in a sentence rather than acting out.
For young kids, a Star Chart suffices. It's loads of fun and
can be very creative, not to mention rewarding for the child.
Kids get a star when they say the right word. Later, stars can
be cashed in for prizes. Parents like it because it bonds the
family and creates a sense of working together. Now there is
a sense of family cooperation that is rewarded with each good
Older children (about eleven or older) are not as interested
in Star Charts. They like video games or "screen time"
(any electronic activity). Parents cannot treat them in the
same infantile manner, but older kids still can be "shaped."
Older kids want things. They want the latest designer clothes.
They want to be taken to the mall. They want their own cell
phones. They want later bedtimes and curfews. These are their
versions of stars and parents can negotiate with older kids about
how many of these things they get in proportion to how much
effective communication (vs. acting out) the parent gets.

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