Naughty or needy?

What is age-appropriate behaviour and when should we worry?
By Glynis Horning

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I still recall the day a friend’s toddler sidled up to my sleeping four-month-old and sank his teeth into one plump pink toe. My son’s yowls were soon drowned by the toddler’s as my outraged friend planted several sharp smacks on his behind. “We don’t” – SMACK! – “hurt” – SMACK! – “people!” she admonished him. The contradiction between her words and actions stayed with me, raising a rueful smile.
 
Ten years on, her toddler had turned into a teen of distinctly bossy bent, who on his last visit reduced my quiet, easy-going son to seething frustration by dominating every game and insisting on having his way. Later his mother called, voice tight with tension.
 
“Did your boy give Max* two music DVDs and a pack of Yu-Gi-Oh cards?” she asked.
 
A quick check showed them missing from his room.
 
“I don’t know what to do,” she sighed. “Is it hormones, or have I raised a delinquent?”
 
Hurting, bossing, lying, stealing – all inappropriate behaviour that seems especially disturbing in children, who we think of as innocent and sweet, yet is common. “In the early years especially, children can struggle to separate fantasy from reality and accept family and social rules,” says Patricia Tau, an educational psychologist in Brakpan. They are self-absorbed and can’t always express or control emotions and impulses.
 
Thankfully, with the right guidance and maturity most grow out of it, says Tau and Durban clinical psychologist Ros Lowry agrees. “The key is to understand the reasons behind it and find and model appropriate ways to deal with it,” says Lowry.
 
Hurting: biting, hitting, pinching
 
Why they do it: Children between four and seven months often bite simply because they are teething and it feels good. They are too young to grasp the difference between chomping on a toe or a toy, says Tau. At around 12 months they discover cause and effect, and biting, hitting or pinching can be a way to get attention. This may also be a way to express anxiety or anger, she says, such as when they are separated from their mothers. For toddlers, who are learning independence, these behaviours can also be a way to control others – to make them move, or give them the toy they want. Older children using them tend to have trouble expressing feelings in words and asking for help. They may also be acting out to relieve stress from family conflict, bullying, abuse, moving home or a death.
 
What you can do: “Never shout or lash out; it makes things worse,” says Tau. Comfort the victim then turn to the biter, speaking firmly but calmly. Just tell a baby “No”, and remove them from their victim. Look a toddler in the eye and say: “It’s not okay to bite/pinch/hit; it hurts.” Lead them away by the wrist and let them cool down for a few minutes. “There needs to be a consequence to any negative behaviour, a time-out or taking something away from the child,” says Lowry. “And whatever your family chooses, it needs to be consistent.” Explain to your child that you love them, but what they did was unacceptable. Give a hug and move on.
 
Best prevention: Be sure to notice good behaviour and reward it with attention. “Children have an emotional need to be acknowledged, heard and understood, and would rather have negative attention from being reprimanded or even physically punished than no attention,” says Lowry. “Reward systems such as star charts are a great form of positive reinforcement that young children usually enjoy; they contribute to your child’s sense of competency and self- esteem.” If the behaviour stems from stress (divorce, moving home, death), provide the security of a predictable routine. Teach children to recognise and name their feelings, and express them appropriately using words, exercise, sport, dance or art. Explain: “It’s okay to be afraid, sad or angry; it’s never okay to hurt others.” If deliberate hurting continues, get professional help.  (See “when should you worry?”)
 
Dominating: bossing, bullying
 
Why they do it: Domineering behaviour can come from an absence of authority, where a parent is away often or abdicates the leadership role. The oldest child or the one with the strongest personality will often play this part with siblings. This may not be a problem if the child has balance and maturity, but without these the child may use bossing and bullying. Busy, working parents or single parents can come to rely on the bossy child to keep order and may be reluctant to rein them in, leaving younger children feeling unprotected, cautions Tau. Bossing and bullying can also stem from authoritarian parenting – a child who feels dominated can vent feelings of resentment, helplessness, anger or fear by dominating others, she says. Bossiness is often a sign of insecurity, but sometimes it simply signals an assertive personality. If you help shape it, it can give your child useful leadership skills. But left unchecked it will alienate others and cost your child friends.
 
What you can do: If a child or adolescent is trying to run your family, even if you are a single parent and secretly welcome it, give them clear, consistent boundaries. “Boundaries make a child feel safe and secure,” says Lowry. Tell them, “You’re a great help, but you’re not a parent, you’re my child.” If the rules are broken, enforce them quickly and calmly.
 
Best prevention: Watch interactions with siblings or during playdates, and if your child always dominates, take her aside and explain they could lose friends and respect. Have a signal such as tapping her arm. Explain and calmly enforce the need to consider others’ feelings and needs, to ask nicely, take turns, and to not always have to win. Above all, says Lowry, model them yourself.
 
Deceiving: lying, stealing, cheating
 
Why they do it: Children under three years old don’t deliberately deceive, says Tau. They are experimenting with words, and may lie to avoid punishment, but they don’t fully appreciate the difference between “yours” and “mine” when they take things and have yet to develop a moral code. Three to six years is the age of imaginary play, and children may make things up as part of this rather than intentionally deceiving. They’re beginning to respect things that belong to others, but may take or trade them without being aware of their real value. From around seven years old, children generally know lying and stealing is wrong and can be strictly moralistic, but may do it anyway to test adults’ limits or to copy other children or fit in with them. Lying, stealing or cheating often signals that they feel insecure or inferior, says Tau. They may not be receiving the praise or attention they need, and may be afraid of not measuring up, and try to “buy” status or affection. They may also be depressed, she says, stealing to vent feelings of fear, anger or guilt over family conflict, poor school performance or losing a loved one.
 
What you can do: After age three it’s important to confront your child, says Tau. “Don’t overreact, simply say: ‘You’re not allowed to take what’s not yours,’ or it can become a habit.” Focus on uncovering their reasons and work with them on those. If they lie to avoid a chore or punishment, stick to the punishment and explain it would have been lighter had they been honest. If they steal to keep up with or impress friends, have them return the item and apologise, and give appropriate punishment. Tell them, “We treasure trust and honesty.” Explain that values don’t rest on material possessions. Talk about what your family can afford, and help them budget, save or do chores or jobs to earn something they truly want, says Tau.
 
Best prevention: It’s ironic that lying, cheating and even stealing is often rooted in children not wanting to disappoint us. “Make sure your expectations are realistic and that you aren’t being too pushy, looking to them to meet your needs,” Tau says. Tell them often that you love them no matter what, and that you value the effort they put into things more than the end result. When they make mistakes, break things or fail tests, don’t berate them. Calmly help them sort out the problem, help them understand what went wrong and learn from it. When they own up to something, tell them you admire their honesty and courage. Above all, model these qualities yourself. If you’re caught speeding, let them see you admit it, apologise and accept the fine with good grace. If a cashier gives too much change, let them see you return it. And tell them how good it feels to do the right thing.
 
*Name has been changed.
 
When should you worry?
 
“It’s important to sift out what is developmentally appropriate behaviour from what is inappropriate,” says psychologist Ros Lowry. “The best advice is to trust your parental intuition – when things don’t feel right, they usually aren’t, and it’s useful to get the opinion of a professional who works with children.” Difficult behaviours may be symptomatic of underlying feelings or emotional difficulties that they don’t know how to express or that don’t make sense to them, she says. But if the behaviour is accompanied by the following, it can indicate depression or psychological problems, and you should speak to your doctor, school counsellor or a psychologist:
 
  • tearfulness, anxiety
  • irritation, anger
  • sleep problems
  • change in appetite or weight
  • hyperactivity
  • few or no friends
  • skipping school
  • shoplifting
  • damaging property
  • hurting animals

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