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In Children's Shoes

Air Date: 05/17/11  Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.  Synopsis: Parents spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to correct their children's behavior-sometimes without much success. Before you try to change behavior, though, you have to understand what it means to the person doing it-in this case, your child. Here are some suggestions for understanding your child's misbehavior-and helping her change.                                                             *  *  *  *             I had a long conversation the other day with an overwhelmed mom. She has a teenager in her home-and she has an active three-year-old boy with sensory integration issues. Her little boy has been hitting and biting teachers and other children at his preschool and mom was at her wits' end trying to get him settled down. The school marks his daily report with smiley or frowney faces-not a favorite method of mine, by the way-and mom spends hours trying to convince her preschooler son that he needs to get smilies every day.             "I don't understand him," she said to me. "He knows I want him to do well and he doesn't like being in trouble, but every day he gets more frowney faces. Why can't he just behave? Sometimes I get so frustrated that I just yell at him, and I know that doesn't help."             Well, there are a number of answers to that question. First, he's three. Three-year-olds have a tremendous amount of physical energy-more than they will ever have again in their lives-and they're at a developmental stage when "no" is lots of fun. Second, he's a boy. Little boys are more active, more curious, more emotional and more impulsive than little girls in the first few years of life. And last but not least, he has sensory issues, which means his brain struggles to make sense of the information being sent by his sensory organs. In other words, he's young and unskilled, active and impulsive, and it doesn't feel very good to be inside his skin. When you stop and think about it, it would be a minor miracle if he did behave himself all the time.             Mom understood right away. She said, "When he's upset, he brings me gloves and likes to have me stroke his back and legs"-something that is typical of kids with sensory issues-"so if I do that first, he'll probably behave better later-right?" And sure enough-that's exactly what happened. When this mom took the time to get inside her little boy's skin and look at the world as he perceived it, solving his behavior problems got a bit easier.             Parents often make the assumption that children perceive and experience the world just as we do, but nothing could be further from the truth. The human brain doesn't fully mature until our early 20s, and in childhood and adolescence, massive changes are taking place, both physically and emotionally. In addition, parents shape their children's world, so your child watches you every day for clues about what "works" in your family. If whining gets your attention, she'll whine. If having a tantrum gets her a toy at the store, she'll throw tantrums. Like it or not, all human behavior has a purpose, as Alfred Adler taught us decades ago. When you're talking about children, however, the person doing the behavior may not fully understand what that purpose is.             Let's say your child refuses to do her homework. Parents try all sorts of schemes to "get" kids to do their homework, with varying degrees of success. They try rewards; they take away toys and privileges. Sometimes, nothing seems to work. But let's take a deeper look: why is that child refusing to do homework? Well, it could be because refusing gets you to sit down next to her and do it with her-in other words, it gets lots of attention. Or it may be that refusing shows you that you can't boss her-it gives her a sense of personal power. Maybe your child knows that grades matter to you and because she's feeling hurt or ignored, she hurts you back by refusing to do something that matters to you. Or perhaps the work is really hard. She honestly doesn't know how to do it, and feels too discouraged to keep trying.             How you respond will depend on what's going on for your child. In other words, if you assume she's being defiant when she really doesn't understand it, you won't be effective in helping her change.             Think for a moment about something your child does-something you wish she wouldn't do. Now ask yourself a question: why does that behavior make sense to your child? What is she getting out of it? And if she repeats the behavior, you can be sure she's getting something. When you address her beliefs instead of just trying to change her behavior, you'll be far more successful.             Children want a sense of connection and significance and they use their behavior to get it. When you can understand your child's world, solving behavior problems can become a lot easier. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.