Are some children born naughty?
A new TV series wades into the nature versus nurture debate and looks at ways parents can tame a wild child.
Published 14/05/2015 | 02:30
Eyes blazing, expletives dripping from her rosebud lips, Honey hurls herself about the classroom in uncontrolled fury, throwing tables and chairs as she goes. Her own mother, Stella, and two teachers are unable to calm her down as she vents her rage against a perceived slight made by two classmates. This incident is just the latest in a succession of uncontrollable tantrums by the nine-year-old girl.
"She was violent towards us, her teachers, pupils at school and her own sisters," says Stella, who has three other daughters. "It was completely out of control. We'd had all the advice and parenting classes, and everything we tried worked for the other three children, but never Honey."
Her father, Ben, says: "We were always being told that we hadn't disciplined her enough, or that we had disciplined her too much. It was always nobody's fault but ours."
The exhausted parents turned, as a last resort, to programme makers at Channel 4 to help them understand Honey. Have they, deliberately or inadvertently, caused their child to behave abominably? Or does their child have a medical condition, perhaps hereditary, that causes a child to behave badly. And, if so, what are they to do?
It is these nature versus nurture questions such as these that Born Naughty, a controversial new Channel 4 series, attempts to answer. Over four weeks, the programme - hosted by Dr Dawn Harper, one of the resident experts on Embarrassing Bodies - will follow eight children exhibiting extreme behaviour and attempt to establish their causes - and how to cope with them.
Noel Janis-Norton, the renowned behaviour specialist and author of Calmer Easier Happier Parenting, dismisses the idea that any child is "born" naughty: "Most behavioural problems in children are a combination of nature and nurture," she says. "The nature is that the individual genetic inheritance of that child that has given them an extreme temperament which in turn makes life very difficult for the child and any adults they deal with."
Examples of extreme temperament can include being very active, hyper-sensitive, overly intense, impulsive or inflexible - symptoms that, says Janis-Norton, can be further exacerbated by environment. "Especially if the child with the extreme temperament is the first-born in the family, the parents just assume that's the way things are and it's easy for them to drift into catering to that child, which only makes things worse."
The most common and controversial behavioural condition is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is believed to affect one child in 20. It can be diagnosed by the presence of a number of tell-tale signs, such as short attention span, hyperactivity, sleep problems and impulsive behaviour - but without a blood test or brain scan, neurological conditions such as ADHD are difficult to diagnose and, crucially for parents, to have taken seriously.
A 2011 Dutch study suggested that there could be a link between premature birth and emotional and behavioural problems. Of particular interest were the babies born moderately premature, between 32 and 37 weeks. The results showed higher rates of emotional and behavioural problems for these children by the age of four.
For girls, this was likely to manifest itself as anxiety; among boys, it presented as aggression. Many of those children then go on to be diagnosed with ADHD, but child experts are divided over the benefits of labelling children.
So what can you do if your child starts exhibiting extreme behaviour? Janis-Norton, who developed her strategies when working as a special needs adviser in the US, suggests there are three steps to turn around naughty behaviour: "The key areas are prevention, minimisation and motivation. Not only can you prevent further misbehaviour, you can motivate them to want to improve their behaviour.
"All children want to please their parents and all children respond well to improvements in their lifestyle," she says.
The most basic improvements you can make are in nutrition - don't feed them excessive amounts of sugary foods and refined carbohydrates - and sleep.
"Often badly behaved children are sleep-deprived," says Janis-Norton. "Children aged three need 11-12 hours a night, reducing to 11 hours by age five, 10 by age nine and nine hours by age 14."
As well as sleep, a well-behaved child needs to be active, too. "Exercise releases endorphins, which enhance mood." Similarly, reduce their time spent in front of a television screen or iPad by rewarding them with time spent one-to-one with you.
To minimise an outbreak of bad behaviour, try "listening to your child to understand things from their point of view before you attempt to reason".
Janis-Norton adds: "You can motivate a child by offering descriptive praise, whereby you praise specific actions or improvements in behaviour, such as: "Well done, you didn't say no to me."
Of course, even with expert parenting, some children will still act out. For many parents knowing when to seek professional help is not always obvious. According to Dr Harper, they should be guided by instinct. "I'm a great believer that mum knows best, especially if she has had other children and can see that one child is different from the others. As a general rule of thumb, if you are struggling to manage your child, if their behaviour is disturbing family life, school life and those around them, you should be asking professionals to help you."
And Honey? After consulting a series of medical professionals, she was diagnosed with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), a relatively new form of autism. Sufferers of PDA share the same problems with communication, interaction and imagination as others on the spectrum, but because they have an anxiety-based need to be in control, they are also driven to avoid demands and expectations. The family have been learning clinically approved strategies to manage her condition centring around order and routine - the polar opposite of the out-of-control behaviour Honey was once displaying. And told to keep her away from sugary foods such as honey.
Born Naughty? is on Channel 4, tonight, at 9pm