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A Rough Measure of Children’s Behavior Problems

by Izzy Kalman (November 2004)

In the previous issue, I presented a few rough guidelines for assessing the prognosis for helping couples with marital difficulties. Today I want to present the rough guideline I use to determine how difficult it will be to help with children’s behavior problems. In contrast to the four questions I presented regarding marital problems, I am giving only one regarding children. (More are possible, but this one is very general and highly useful.)

Ask the following question: Does the child behave poorly in all environments, or only at home?

Children who have behavioral difficulties only at home are much easier to help than those who exhibit difficult behavior in all situations. In almost every family, there is one child who becomes an expert at driving their parents crazy. Yet the very same child behaves wonderfully in other places. Many parents tell me things like, “I don’t understand it. My kid’s teacher tells me how wonderful my child. It doesn’t sound like MY kid. My child is a monster!” The reason for this phenomenon is that children discover how easy and fun it is to drive their parents crazy, and the parents still give the kids everything they need. But the kids aren’t fools. They know that if they treat others the rotten way they treat their parents, no one will like them, they will have no friends, and they will always be in trouble.

So when parents come to you for help with their child’s behavior, ask them how the child behaves in school and at other people’s houses.

If the parents indicate that their child misbehaves only at home, rectifying the situation is usually quite simple. Teaching the parents not to get angry with their children, and providing them with effective disciplinary techniques, will usually be enough to solve the problem. If the child is old and/or intelligent enough, the child can also be taught how to treat the parents better so that the conflicts will end.

On the other hand, if the child behaves the same way outside the home, the situation is more serious. Occasionally, improving the way the parents handle the child at home will have a generalizing effect on all his/her behavior. When that happens, it is because the child used to be so upset with the home situation that he/she was upset 24/7. When the home situation improves, then the child becomes happier and improves in general.

However, if improving parenting skills at home does not affect the child’s general behavior, this is an indication of more deep-seated emotional or neurological problems that need to be addressed. Be prepared for a longer and more intensive course of treatment.

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