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Many parents need help in learning how to deal with their child’s challenging behaviour. We share some advice from child development experts.

Children who present with behavioural issues are all too frequently labelled as ADHD. While ADHD is common these days, children are also being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, ODD and generalised anxiety disorder. One can completely understand the need for a formal diagnosis for challenging behaviour, so  parents can access a broader range of resources. However, one wonders whether, in some instances, these labels do more harm than good.


supporting change

“Labels are loaded,” says psychotherapist Lisa Finlay. “When we label a child we imprison him; we give him the feeling of a life sentence. When we diagnose children with anxiety, impulsiveness or attention deficiency, we’ve given them a formal ‘condition’, which offers glum prospects. (And indeed, we’ve provided a great excuse to sidestep any efforts at improvement). Mostly, these aforementioned ‘conditions’ are nothing more than challenging behaviour. We choose behaviours. And we can choose to adopt different behaviours.”

Read about how to understand and handle temper tantrums and  diagnosing and dealing with ADHD

But what if your child’s teachers have identified him or her as a “problem child”? What if you’ve become increasingly concerned by their challenging behaviour? What if you’ve had one too many combative standoffs in public or social settings?

“My son used to have hectic temper tantrums,” says one mother. “The only way I could calm him was to hold him tightly. Also, he was not achieving the required developmental milestones, so my husband and I decided we needed a formal assessment. An educational psychologist diagnosed him with ADHD and pervasive development disorder. The tiger mom in me quickly took over and I focused on getting my child help.

I decided that I also needed support, so I attended a parental guidance class once a week to learn how to play to his strengths and work towards understanding him better. It’s been a long and difficult journey, but he is flourishing at a private school for children with special needs following the mainstream educational curriculum. It has helped immensely that his teachers are supportive, encouraging and compassionate.”

Read our articles on how to stop your child swearing and disciplining peacefully.

shaping behaviour

There’s a delicate balance between thinking every tantrum is a sign of a disorder and thinking it’s just a phase when assessing a child’s behaviour, which is why a formal assessment can be hugely beneficial to parents, teachers and the child in question.

“A child acting out (biting, sulking, spitting, hitting) could be going through a phase – for example, when there’s a new baby in the home or parents are going through a divorce. The teenage years also bring behavioural problems due to surging hormones or peer pressure,” says Gauteng-based educational psychologist Leila Abdool Gafoor. “However, professional help should be sought when parents have tried all strategies and failed to either establish what is causing the undesired behaviour or to succeed in changing it.

Often children need an unbiased outsider to look into their lives and provide guidance and support in a manner that a family member cannot. Educational psychologists provide this assistance while encouraging positive growth and development,” adds Gafoor. Often children with challenging behaviour are written off and banished to the back of the class or playground, but their parents, educators and mentors need to calmly coach them through the struggle and difficulty, instead of taking away that learning moment.

empowering your child

“My son, Simphiwe* (9), was diagnosed with ADHD in July last year. While it was a relief to finally have a diagnosis, which explained his lack of focus and inability to reach his full academic potential, my husband and I refused to use any labels. Instead, we used mantras to empower him,” says his mom, Sindi*. “For example, ‘If you believe, you can achieve.’ ‘Be brave.’ ‘Try new things.’

“We believe that if we brand Simphiwe as anxious, he won’t take risks. If we allow him to use the ADHD label, we stop expecting him to behave and perhaps he would carry the label with him his whole life. Instead, we focus on his strengths, put forward compromises that produce win-win outcomes, and refuse to show up to every confrontation to which we are invited. Now, instead of being afraid of failure, he is more comfortable with trying and has excelled beyond expectation at school.”

focus on the positive

It’s this focus on the positive as a support to parents, and self-regulation in children without undermining their confidence and individuality, which Joe Newman focuses on in Raising Lions: The Art of Compassionate Discipline. Forty years ago, the author was the quintessential “problem child”. In 1970, when he was diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin, his prospects seemed limited, but today he trains and consults with parents, teachers and school administrators to raise and teach healthy, respectful children.

“One of the keys to success with strong-willed children is that the boundaries and expectations must be the same for children at home, in childcare and school environments. Everyone involved with teaching and working with the child must be on the same page,” he says.

Newman also challenges parents and teachers to take the time to understand the differences of children with atypical behaviour and work to accept them as they are, even while trying to shape their behaviour so they can thrive at home, school or in social settings. And just how does one achieve this? One way is setting up what Newman calls “areas of choice”. Giving children choice is empowering but they have to be responsible for their choices. For example, if you’ve given a choice between watching a TV programme or playing a computer game and the child chooses the game, he cannot lament the fact that he missed his favourite TV show, as it was his choice.

setting boundaries

Another theme in Raising Lions is “Meet the Hand”, which deals with setting boundaries. “You state your need or set your boundary, but there is no yelling, no judgment and no shame. This recognises the child’s autonomy and empowers him, yet still aims to shape his or her behaviour,” explains Newman.

Every parent knows that some children are harder to handle than others, but happy, confident, caring children grow up in an atmosphere of flexibility and trust, supported by empathetic and realistic parents who are able to build on their child’s strengths and see challenging behaviour as an opportunity for growth, learning and living. And while you may not be able to always control your child, you can control your reaction to his behaviour. Remember, change always begins with choice.

*Names have been changed.

Find out more about the attention-seeking child

behavioural problems you shouldn’t ignore

Aggressive behaviour

If your child punches a playmate, you’ll step in, but other seemingly less-aggressive behaviour, such as biting or shoving, shouldn’t be ignored either. “If you don’t intervene, rough behaviour can become an entrenched habit. Plus, it sends a message that hurting people is acceptable,” says Cape Town-based educational psychologist Lisa Venter.

Constant interruptions

It’s common for children to be so anxious to share something they interrupt you when you’re talking to someone else, but allowing children to constantly butt in doesn’t teach them to be considerate or patient. “As a result, she’ll think that she’s entitled to other people’s attention and won’t be able to deal with frustration,” says psychologist Jerry Wyckoff.

Tuning you out

Having to tell your child three or four times to do something they don’t really want to sends the message that what you’re saying is unimportant and they are really in control. “I realised that my son ignoring me was a power play and if I allowed it to continue, he would entirely disregard my authority, so I’d walk over to him, look him in the eye and deliver my request in a fun but firm way,” says Sindi.

Bending the truth

You need to confront dishonesty of any kind immediately but make sure you set rules. “It’s important that your child feels safe confiding in you, that you stay true to your word and that no matter what, your child feels loved even if their actions aren’t,” says Abdool Gafoor.

Displaying disrespect

Eye-rolling, sharp retorts and sarcasm may start as early as preschool. “Teach and model suitable behaviour and help your child to appropriately express themselves in different situations. It’s also important to provide consistent consequences for unacceptable behaviour,” suggests Venter.

Samantha Page