Tuesday 20 March 2018

David Coleman: My son (9) behaves well at scouts and soccer -- but not when he's at home

My nine-year-old son (the eldest) has good behaviour at scouting activities, football training, school and so on, but at home will not do as he is asked. He takes great pleasure in annoying both his seven- and five-year-old brothers.

I have restricted his access to DS, TV, etc, but it doesn't seem to make any difference.

I stay focused and will not let him rise me, but eventually I start shouting and giving out.

Arguments can be over keeping his room tidy, annoying his siblings, not doing as he is asked or any other topic you can think of.

His behaviour is much the same with his dad, but I am at home so he sees more of me.

Please advise us as I don't want us heading into his teenage years and not to have a good relationship with him.

David replies:

IF YOUR son can behave well when he is outside your house then that gives you useful information to better understand what goes on at home.

Firstly, he has the potential to act appropriately all the time. If he can do it when he is out then he can also do it when he is at home.

Secondly, he must have learned how to behave well from somewhere and it is quite likely that he learned this from you. This suggests that you do set good enough standards and expectations of his behaviour, because he keeps to those standards when he is out.

Thirdly, if his behaviour is different at home then there is something specific about what happens at home that probably causes him to misbehave there. Your job now is to try to identify what that might be and then to make changes that will help him.

Let's look first at his relationship with his brothers.

He is the eldest of three boys and there is not that much of an age difference between them. It is quite possible that there is a lot of competition between the boys for any number of things. Most importantly, however, they are probably competing for you time, attention and love.

As the eldest he may feel he has lost out most by having siblings. For the brief two years he was a lone son he probably got loads of time and attention. Once his brothers arrived he had to share.

I could imagine that he harbours some quite intense feelings of jealousy (and resentment) towards his brothers, whom he may see as usurping his rightful place in the family, that he expresses by trying to annoy or frustrate them.

You may need to spend some time empathising with him about what it is like to have to share everything. He may need to hear that you can understand that he may feel jealous or resentful towards his brothers. Once he knows you understand this then he will have less need to show you by antagonising them.

If he is generally well behaved in school, at scouts and at football then I would guess that his teachers, coaches and scout leaders probably feel and act quite positively towards him. They, no doubt, get opportunities to praise him, and to acknowledge how well he is doing. This will encourage him to continue to act well.

In contrast, it seems that you have slipped into a very negative cycle of interaction with him. It is very easy to do, and can seem quite hard to turn around. However, getting out of the habit of catching him misbehaving and into the habit of catching him being good can transform your relationship with him.

Punishment, while it can have some short-term success in changing behaviour, seems to inevitably lead to a spiral of negativity as children become more annoyed with the punishment they receive, less inclined to try to be good and so more likely to be punished for bold behaviour instead. They soon end up hating us and we can end up disliking them.

At the very least you need to balance punishment with praise and in an ideal world you will reduce punishment significantly. It may seem counter-intuitive but the less you punish children the less you need to punish them.

At the moment it sounds like you are forever finding things to give out to him about. Turn that around and search for things you like him to do, things that you can praise him for and things that you and he can feel good about.

If you recognise that sooner or later you end up shouting at him, then try to catch yourself before this point and walk away to give yourself a chance to calm down. Thankfully there are very few parenting situations that can't wait to be dealt with. You know yourself that when you are calm you handle things better, so give yourself the best chance of staying calm.

To help stay calm you can also decide which issues are worth challenging him over. Focus on bigger issues like fighting, which needs to be dealt with, and focus less on things like the tidiness of his room for example.

A bit of horse-play, or play-wrestling particularly, with his dad wouldn't go astray. When boys wrestle with dads they learn important things about their own strength and about who's really in charge (because dads can still "win"). Symbolically they can challenge authority and learn that the authority can be held safely. He will then show less need to challenge your, and his dad's, authority in other situations.

Finally, make sure you listen to him. Encourage him to tell you about his frustrations and, perhaps his perceived injustices. If he feels you understand his struggles he will have less need to demonstrate those struggles through bad behaviour.

Have you got a problem for David? Email him at dcoleman@independent.ie

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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