Behaviour org uk

How Parents Create 'Badly' Behaved Children
And How To Reverse the Process


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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Restoring Childhood
How We Create 'Badly' Behaved Children
©Copyright Warwick Dyer 2016
(Copyright Unedited Beta Version)
(To be read online only)

Book One

Chapter 9

How parents undermine their own leadership and their children’s sense of security

Even when I was a child the most famous sayings associated with parenting were already being said with the tongue in the cheek or with a twinkle in the eye - “spare the rod and spoil the child” - “children should be seen and not heard” - “children should know their place”. Today none of these sayings are quoted even in fun. The first two were always primitive, abusive and out of touch. The third reflected the hierarchies and class distinctions from a time when some still thought the majority of the working population needed to “know their place”.

However for a ‘badly’ behaved child the principle of knowing his or her place in the family has to have, needs to have, a meaning completely separated from the class prejudices of earlier times. As I follow interactions between ‘badly’ behaving children and their parents each day two things become clear. Firstly that these children have no idea where and how they fit into their families and secondly they often haven’t been helped to realise that for each or us the world is divided into two distinct categories. Things that are possible and things that are not.

“I am having a problem with my 4-year-old being very rude and sarcastic towards not only us, but also his sister and other family members. It seems to mostly happen when he is not getting what he wants; he is very impatient when things don’t go his way. My husband and I have tried teaching him that if you are patient maybe it will work out, but this doesn’t seem to work.”

These parents try to teach their son that if you are patient maybe it will work out when it can only work out if they back down and allow something that they previously denied him. Their tendency to placate means that they avoid teaching their son that for everybody some things that are possible and other things that are not. Yes, good parents try to put as little as possible in the second category but no child or adult can function unless they accept this second category exists. Most of the parent’s I work with think their children refuse to follow individual categorical instructions when in fact the problem is more fundamental than this. The problem many of them have is that their children have not yet accepted the existence of a class of things in the world entitled ‘I want but cannot have’. They have not been taught that such a class of things actually exists for them. They have to accept that in some areas their parents have the right to say ‘no’.

These parents need their son to know that for some of his requests it does not matter how patient he is it will not work out. He needs to know that for some things being patient will just mean that he is wasting his time. This is the key to changing his behaviour because once children become sure they are wasting their time they stop wasting it. This child is not sure his refusal to accept what his parents say is wasting his time. He is not sure precisely because his parents look to placate. They look for a compromise over something that should either be 100% ‘yes’ or 100% ‘no’. By doing this they offer him a principle that will undermine every categorical they ever try to teach him.

They also fail to see that it is pointless to try to teach their son to be polite while demonstrating its opposite. They fail to see that some of his rudeness and condescension must have been learnt from them. It is impossible for a 4-year-old to spontaneously generate sarcasm. The only way he could have learnt to use something so subtle would be by experiencing or watching lots of examples of it.

Delegating leader status

Leaders cannot water down a categorical as these parents do and expect it to be understood as categorical, but neither can they continually delegate their leadership or allows others to take it and still expect to lead. This is what happens when parents allow grandparents, aunts and other relatives or friends to correct children under their noses; or, worse still, allow them to correct or second-guess their decisions while the child is listening. Others having the right to openly question a parent’s parenting just encourages their children to do the same.

This includes other siblings even if they are much older. They too should not be allowed to ‘tell off’ a problem child or ever provide ‘tale telling’ information to parents that they act on. I have worked in families where absolutely everyone – including much younger siblings – has been allowed to speak to the problem child as if they were parents. All of this seriously undermines parental status and will only confirm the universal ‘bad boy/girl’ status of the ‘problem’ child.

“My 8-year-old is utterly rude and disobedient to me. She will not do anything I say and if I send her to her room for punishment, she calls me names (e.g. fat pig, mean mum and ‘I hate you’). She is also very strong-willed and very insistent in her ways. She used to be such a loving, caring girl. She was the peacemaker in the house and always went out of her way to make me happy. Now she has gone the complete opposite. … All three girls …fight every minute they are together, and when I ask them to stop, they just keep on going”. This child could not remain an ‘angel’ any longer. Her mother seriously undermined her own leadership when she allowed herself to be overtly supported by an 8 year-old. When children are allowed to act as honorary parents they undermined their parent’s leadership and they find it difficult to step back and sometimes to ‘do-as-they-are-told’. Children have their own role and relationships with each other to establish and acting as peacemaker and going out of her way to make her mother happy is unlikely to go down well with her sisters. Did her mother really think that she needed help from an 8-year-old? Did she really think her support was helpful? It is already hard enough for such parents to maintain their role without sharing aspects of it with children who are bound to have their own agenda. To allow delegation of her role is to undermine it. Teachers quickly discover that if they allow children to say “Shhh” in support of their attempts to get the class quiet, that noise generated by children saying “Shhh” will quickly outweigh all other noise.

Behaviour does not have to be what we think of as ‘bad’ to be thoroughly inappropriate. The behaviour in her daughter that this parent praises was always at variance with how her daughter needed to behave as a sibling and a dependent child. Although their mother does not see it, her children’s relationships became healthier when her daughter gave up her peacemaker role and joined in the general ‘bad’ behaviour.

The parent as servant

Another way parents can undermine their leadership in the home is when they continue with behaviour that was only appropriate for a younger child. In a fairly typical exchange with the parents of a problem 9-year-old boy, I asked what should be a key question for all professionals working with children with ‘bad’ behaviour:

“What happens if your son was in a different room in the house and wants to see or speak to you?”

His mother replies that he would call them. “What happens then?” I ask. “We go to him”, she said. The father, perhaps realising where I was going, added, “unless we are busy, and then we tell him we can’t come.” I asked them to recall and relate the last time this had happened. The mother said the previous evening her son had been upstairs playing on his PlayStation and had called her and asked for a drink of water, which she got him. She was completely unaware of the powerful symbolism here. What would an anthropologist looking down on an unknown family in a new community think when trying to work out the pecking order which individuals are the leaders, who is subservient to whom? They would observe an individual who is not ill, not in bed, but does not make his own trip downstairs to get a mug of water. Instead, he asks his mother to, first, come to him for instruction, second, go downstairs to get the mug of water, third, bring it back upstairs and, finally, go back downstairs to continue what she was doing before she was summoned. This boy could have gone downstairs and come back up two journeys. His mother covers twice the amount of ground to perform a task that he is perfectly capable of performing for himself. This behaviour is very common but with no other information it would lead any anthropologist to conclude that this child was the leader in the home.

Perhaps the reader can guess what happened fifteen minutes after this little bit of theatre. Fifteen minutes later, these same parents were disconcerted and angry when their son refused to put his pyjamas on for bed. How on earth did his parents ever hope to establish themselves as leaders if they are still at his beck and call in this way? It means when they asked him to put his pyjamas on, they are also asking him to reverse roles. They were asking him to forget that, just a moment ago, he was the ‘king’ and his mother was his servant. Nine year old children are not babies. Servant behaviour quickly ceases to be an expression of love and care and becomes instead an extremely harmful hindrance to social skills training.

“Is that all right?”

Parents can undermine their leadership the words they choose. A parent is walking with her son to school, telling him what will be happening when he comes home from school.

“We will be going to see your Nan on the way back from school and we will need to get some shopping. Is that all right?”

A temper tantrum can be rewarded even when it does not occur. This parent is plagued by violent temper tantrums from her son. Quite rightly, she does not want to surprise him with disappointing information. She tells him what is going to happen in advance, but she adds “Is that all right?” These words imply two things that parents must avoid, firstly that she is seeking his permission and second that he has a choice about how she organises the day to day family agenda.

Children who bully know when deferential behaviour stems from fear. They can read the signals. Something as simple as a parent suddenly softening the tone of their voice in the face of aggression can imply weakness and reward that aggression. This is why a parent’s tone should be positive at all times, not just at sensitive times, and never as a de-escalation when a child becomes aggressive. The temper tantrum that this parent is trying to avoid does not have to occur to be rewarded.

“Give Mummy a hug”

Yet another way parent erode their place as leader in the family comes when they allow a reversal of their role of being the person that gives emotional and physical comfort. Some parents can be seen continually attempting to force their affection on increasingly reluctant children. Children quickly become very aware of the logistics of apparent need within the family. Who is it that moves to whom, who it is that has needs and requests or summons or demands and who it is that supplies that need. They understand how important this symbolism is to leadership. It is not unknown for seriously ‘badly’ behaved children to rudely rebuff all signs of parental affection. They, of course, have no idea how harmful this is to their relationship with their parents or how serious it is to deprive themselves of the comfort and security that this physical contact provides. Parents need to continually show affection and warmth with their voices and faces but they need to very cautious about making requests for affection that their ‘badly’ behaved children are, of course, entitled to refuse. They may just be joking when they say “give Mummy a hug” or when they insist on physical contact from a demonstrably reluctant child but these requests can seriously undermine a later insistence on compliance. We need to be very sure of the behaviour of our children if we are to make a request that so obviously falls outside what a leader is entitled to ask from those being lead. Even if we are only pretending to really need a hug, we are still requesting emotional bolstering that is liable to make our child feel powerful or alternatively feel that we are abusing our power.

Deliberately reversing roles in any way is ill advised if ‘bad’ behaviour tells us that the actual roles, the relative ‘places’ in the family have still to be established. I am not saying that every parent asking a child for a hug is doing something horrendous. What I am saying is that in a home where ‘bad’ behaviour is rife all symbolic reversals of role have the potential of being far more harmful. Children know the power of a parental hug to provide comfort, so may be bemused when parents appear to need this comfort from them. They are children. They will always choose the short-term power they get from refusing or by complying reluctantly. They may even begin to use parental warmth that they need so desperately as if it were a pawn in their power game.

A baby that ‘would not let her dad’ change her nappy

Parents need to be very careful of the leadership that they can inadvertently hand over to their children. I am a 34 year old parent with two daughters one aged 4 and one aged 2. My husband and I have no problems as such with difficult children I have always maintained discipline and routine in a loving and caring manner with my children. However one nightmare continually rears its ugly head that we are not sure of how to solve. As long as I can remember my eldest daughter has favoured me to do everything for her such as dressing, feeding, carrying to bed, taking to the car and putting on the seatbelt etc. Whenever their dad tries its tears and tantrums all round. Once I refused to get her out of the family car and she would not let her dad do it and proceeded to sit in the car for over half an hour until I succumbed. Their father is the most loving and caring dad I have ever seen and it upsets him (and me) to see them treat him that way. I have not been able to find any books here anyway to help me with this predicament. If you cannot help would you be able to steer me in the right direction where I can find some advice on this topic.

Clearly, before giving advice on a problem like this one has to be sure that children are not being secretly pinched or knocked or picked up aggressively inappropriately or sexually. Once we are sure we can dismiss any of these reasons this then becomes a fairly common problem. It comes about because parents do not gently ignore in the first instance an illogical protest or refusal made by a child. Parents need to gently persist with what needs to be done. We have to ask what does "would not let her dad do it" mean. This child has been refusing to allow physical contact since she was a baby how exactly does a baby stop her father doing such simple and necessary things? The answer, of course, is that she never ever stopped him doing anything – she simply made a fuss. Her mother’s resolve to solve this problem consisted of ‘once I refused to get her out of the family car and she would not let her dad do it and proceeded to sit in the car for over half an hour until I succumbed’.

Sadly this means she gave half an hour to this problem once and then gave in. The objections of very small children are usually not objections at all but the natural reaction of a tired child to being touch or moved by somebody different. If parents make sure they share these tasks right from the beginning this can never happen. Being over protective can turn children into kings in the home. Once a small child knows that their objections do not prevent a parent doing what a parent must do they stop objecting. With small children the first time is everything. The first and second times are when really harmful precedents are set. The time to teach the child is the first time a parental right is challenged. Once children have foolishly been given the right to object to basic necessities like this it becomes far more of a problem to get these essential parental rights back.

As always this contest between parent and child is the contest between the child’s pursuit of a short term desire and the parent’s pursuit of the child’s long term best interest. It should never be assumed that a child's apparent “distress” during contacts with either parent is more important than the principle of their becoming used to normal and natural contact with them. If this mother had allowed her husband to ignore the objections of their children and use soothing words and calm movements to gently continue with the nappy change (or whatever) they would not now have a problem. Parents who allow one sided parenting like this to develop – and I have seen many examples of this – have to ask themselves what they think will happen on those occasions when the other parent is not around? The rule is so simple, what they will have to do if the other parent is not around they need to also be able to do when they are. Parents have a duty to make decisions that reflect these future inevitabilities. Two parent families should never allow themselves to be cajoled into acting like single parent families.

The prime directive

The prime directive for parents is to eventually enable their child to fit into the real world outside the home. All the more serious parenting faults involve parents forgetting this. They can begin to think that the bubble inside their home is far more important than it actually is and can end up rewarding ridiculous behaviour simply because their child asks them to. Look at these two examples: A child is in bed and about to be left for the night, but is worried about ‘monsters’. The child asks their parent to look inside a cupboard to check that there are no ‘monsters’ inside. The parent looks.

The request is very common and the fear being expressed is often very mild, but it is a useful example of how easy it is to set an unhelpful precedent. Many parents would do what the child asks without realising that they are in danger of telling their child that they also think that there might be a monster in the cupboard. When a child is frightened by their own irrationality, by far the most comforting thing for the parent to do is to let them know that they think they are being silly. Parents prepared to look in a real or metaphorical cupboard join their child in their irrationality. Refusing to look – but allowing the child to look, if they insist – must surely be far more reassuring for the child.

There are of course much more serious examples of this:
“Apart from always arguing and not wanting to do as he is told, I am becoming increasingly worried by my son’s obsessive behaviour. He is six. He must have his socks at just the right height and when he is tucked in he has to have the bedclothes ‘just so’. Sometimes I have to go back five times before he is satisfied. I am very worried about what I should do.”

This parent is worried by an alleged ‘obsession’ of her son. But which world does she inhabit? Does she inhabit her son’s world – where socks need to be tucked in five times – or the real world where you do not? She is the one who comes back five times. She is the one who failed to say right at the beginning that this type of precision was not just unnecessary but is always impossible to achieve. She is the one who foolishly thought that doing what her child wanted took precedence over common sense. Yes, he might turn out to have an obsessive disorder, but even if he has she will not help him by placing herself squarely in his non-logical world. She is the one who, even now, is still doing all this returning to solve a problem that does not really exist. A parent cannot help a child with an idiosyncratic view of the world by joining them in it. It is often how parents respond the first time – again setting the precedent - that turns a child’s momentary whim into an obsession.

The chief advisor

Our anthropologist would begin to notice that struggling parents have a surprising chief advisor. Although they may refer to their own parents, listen to relatives and friends, consult books or seek professional advice, their chief advisor is none of these and often has far more importance, relevance and authority. They listen to this source’s opinion on what to do in response to behaviour; they hang upon this person’s every word. Parents often tell me that this advisor has told them he or she ‘does not care for’ this approach, or that this advisor has told them that if they do such and such ‘this’ or ‘that’ will happen. They tell me this advisor ‘really hated’ the suggestion that they do such and such.

This key advisor is often the most important influence on what parents do. What this advisor says about their parenting, and about them as people, is of vital importance to them. Their feelings can often be badly hurt by a simple comment from them. With all this power and the fact that parents continually refer and defer to them it is surprising that most are not even aware that they have a chief advisor. Who is this this person?

Well, you have probably guessed, their chief advisor is the problem child him or herself. “We just don’t understand why she keeps acting out. She has structure, rules, and she is disciplined with time outs and chores. She comprehends when we discuss her behaviour with her, but she continually acts out and says ‘I don't know’ when we ask her about her problems”.

“My girlfriend and I are having tremendous problems with her 12-year-old daughter, who throws really nasty tantrums and then cannot remember why she has done this.”

These parents ask their ‘badly’ behaved children to explain why they are behaving ‘badly’. Their children are completely in the dark. The best answer they can give if they were brave or angry enough to be honest would be “because I wanted to” or perhaps “because I could”. Children do not know that in reality their parents unknowingly reward the very behaviour that they are asking them about. “We have a 15-year-old son who wants us to ‘stay off his back’. We have tried to encourage him all the way along and made sure that he did things he wanted to do, not what we wanted. It became clear that he was not working as he used to in school. We have tried to stay off his back about it, as he asked us. He has asked us again today; I told him that our trying to do this obviously didn’t work. I am confused as to whether I should just let him go ahead and walk all over us by leaving him to do as he pleases, or tighten things up more by being tougher.”

These parents follow the advice of their ‘badly’ behaving child about how best to change his behaviour. The deal, in the father’s mind at least, was that he would not check whether his son was working, provided that he was working. Children are clever. This boy manages to get his father to give away a vitally important parental right in the hope of getting a single act of compliance. Then, what a surprise, his son fails to comply. Why would a son who intended to work want a deal that stopped his father checking?

Children of this age, on some level, know they are making the wrong choices and desperately want help with issues like applying themselves to work. Unfortunately, this boy’s parents have been hoodwinked by his fake appeals. They allowed his phrase ‘stay off my back’ to prescribe their actions; and for no other reason than he said he wanted them to do this, they did it. They gave away their parental, long-term reasons, and gave their child the right to swap them for his childish, lazy, now reasons. Why do parents agree to give up a pillar of the parenting role like this? The answer is simple and ridiculous - because the youngster asked him to.

“I said if he wanted to go to the party he had to promise to get to school on time all next week. He was not even on time on Monday!” Again, deals like this display a gullibility that undermines leadership and increase the child’s sense of power. Naïve trust does not make our children more trustworthy: it turns them into blasé liars. This child is showing that he seriously dislikes school and this parent is effectively saying that the child can have their ice-cream now as long as they promise to eat your vegetables afterwards. All the child really hears is the ice-cream now part. Fine to use this incentive to get compliance in the week prior to the party but to expect it to work when the reward has already been enjoyed is to misunderstand not just children but human nature. Most battles with teenagers involve this same underlying conflict between the child’s ‘what I want now’ view of the world and the parent’s ‘behaviour that benefits the child throughout life’ view. We should not be surprised when children fail to hold up their end of the bargain when we throw away the ‘now’ incentives that should be used to help them to do it.

‘I will stop needing your leadership if you will only stop leading’

“We have tried the reward system, i.e. get up every day and get yourself to school on time and you can go out on the weekends. He says that as a result he hates school. He used to be such an easy-going guy, we can’t pinpoint what has happened and we are very concerned that he may really hurt himself along the way.”

A child can’t fail to think of themselves the ‘king’ or dictator in the home if they can get logic like this to work on supposedly sensible adults. We might be inclined to laugh if it were not so horribly common. This parent actually had consequences that might well have got his son up and into school each day which he tried but then discarded. Why? Because the boy told him that it is the consequences that his father provided only after he has not gone that made him not go? The absurdity of logic like this is very clear to parents when it is pointed out, but in their desire to placate their children they do not spot it, or do not want to spot it. Their chief advisor tells them it is so and they believe it. This youngster is saying “I will stop needing to be led but only if you stop leading.” When children try to make deals like these they are really reversing roles and threatening to punish their parents if they continue to act like parents. Although it is couched as a complaint rather than a threat they are saying is “I may not go to school, but if you make me suffer a consequence for it then I definitely won’t go to school.” They ask their parents to believe that although they clearly don’t want to go to school if all consequences are taken away they will be more liable to go. Once parents see the flawed logic behind these deals they might begin to realise that a child’s attempt to stop parents using a consequences suggests that if the consequences is allowed to continue it might have some effect.

Parents need to understand that their child’s role, the child’s place in the family is defined and unalterable. As such it needs to be underpinned by categoricals provided by parents that ensure their child’s safety and their life-prospects. Only within that correct place or space in the family can children feel loved and secure. They cannot usurp the roles of leader or ‘king’ or ‘dictator’ or ‘chief advisor’ in the home with the complicity of their parents.

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©Copyright Warwick Dyer 2016

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