I think that it’s fair to say that most kids, at one time or another, exhibit behavior that worries or concerns their parents. When most parents bring their child to a behavioral health specialist, the most frequent request is for the child to undergo an evaluation and possible treatment of child and teen behavioral issues.
Some of the time, pediatric and adolescent behavior problems are symptomatic of emotional disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, disruptive behavior disorder or a condition along the pervasive developmental disorder spectrum. However, in the majority of instances, childhood and teenage behavior problems that occur are “normal” and do not indicate serious mental or emotional problems.
Now, does the fact that many behavior problems are considered normal mean that they should be ignored, that parents should do nothing to address them? By no means. It is important to manage behavior problems in a systematic manner.
What do I mean by “systematic?” Systematic means that a structured approach is employed, an approach that is concrete, specific and consistent. The approach should be employed almost every time the child displays the problematic behavior, and the approach should be adopted by any adult who regularly cares for the child. The child should know precisely what will occur in response to the problematic behavior.
For example, let’s imagine a child is in the habit of throwing a toy when he becomes angry. A systematic approach would include an “automatic” time-out for the child (with the length of the time-out depending on the child’s age), along with losing the use of the toy for a period of 24 hours. This approach to discipline would occur any time the child throws a toy in anger. This becomes the “rule” of the household. As much as possible, such discipline situations should be managed by a rule, instead of being handled in an ad hoc fashion that is often dictated by a parent’s mood.
When systematic behavior management plans are implemented, parents can respond to their children’s behavior in a calm and rational manner, not in a highly emotional or angry way. It is crucial when managing childhood behavior problems that adults maintain their equanimity; systematic plans permit this because parents are secure in their knowledge of how to react to a situation. Consequently, they are not trying to ad lib, are not reinventing the wheel and are not acting impulsively.
There are two approaches to systematic behavior management that I often recommend to parents: SOS Help for Parents (written by Lynn Clark) and 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (written by Thomas Phelan) are two practical, useful and effective approaches to the systematic management of childhood behavior. They have withstood the test of time and have benefited tens of thousands of parents. If you are struggling with questions about how to manage your child’s behavior, these books can provide straightforward, common-sense guidance. By managing behavior problems in a calm and systematic way, your time with your children and your family will be far more positive and enjoyable.
Dr. Kevin Kennedy joined Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in 1991 and practices in the Behavioral Health Department at the Braintree office. He specializes in treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, in the assessment and treatment of neurointegrative conditions such as ADHD and executive dysfunction, and in helping parents manage behavior and plan for their children’s educational needs. He utilizes a practical, goal-oriented approach to therapy and employs cognitive-behavioral and solution-focused treatment.