Worried about your child’s poor behaviour?

By Liz Paul, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

When Billy (not his real name) and his parents came to see me, the young boy came presented as likeable, energetic and respectful.

But his parents told a different story.

They said, at home, Billy was argumentative, prone to tantrums and fought tooth & nail with his older sister (who was, according to the parents, an angel). Why was Billy behaving so badly at home when it appeared to me that he was basically a good kid?

After just a few sessions it became clear that Billy was acting out for two reasons.

Firstly, he wasn’t getting much attention from his busy parents. In fact, the only attention he really received was in the form of punishment for his bad behaviour.

This reinforced the bad behavior because any attention is better than no attention.

The second reason he was misbehaving was because his elder sister had perfected the classic ‘parent manipulation’ trick which resulted in her being seen as the ‘perfect child’. This upset and frustrated Billy because he knew she was not the perfect child. In fact, she delighted in teasing and bullying Billy to the point where he reacted physically against her. Her resultant tears and claims, and Billy’s inability to articulate the part she had played in the event, resulted in the parents punishing Billy and consoling the sister.

It became a never-ending cycle.

The solution was pretty simple in the end, but it involved counselling for the parents, not for Billy.

I taught the parents how to give Billy one-on-one time in a way which made him feel special. And I taught them how to better respond to the sibling’s fights, and that was to stop trusting their daughter’s versions of events. Instead, they were to ask Billy why he had acted the way he did, and to then ask the daughter if that was true.

As it turns out, the parents soon realised that in many cases it was the daughter who initiated the fight, and as a result they were able to handle the fall-out in a way that was fairer to Billy. This helped to validate Billy’s frustration at being the unwitting victim of his sister’s games.

In addition, they took a little more time to spend with Billy one-on-one, and importantly they made sure to praise him wherever possible for even the smallest good deed or behaviour – in other words, they replaced negative feedback with positive feedback.

The turn-around was remarkable.

Within two weeks there had been a significant improvement in Billy’s behaviour. His moods were better, he was nicer to his sister, and he was respectful and appreciative towards his parents.

Understanding your child’s behaviour

Most young children display behaviours that would not be socially acceptable in older children, or could cause personal and interpersonal problems if they persisted into adolescence and adulthood. Examples include tantrums, unfounded fears and overly anxious behaviour, aggressive behaviour such as hitting or biting, disruptive behaviour and defiance.

A child’s feelings and behaviours are influenced by temperament, relationships, health, tiredness, family circumstances, experiences of early childhood care and education and a range of other factors. Almost all children show difficulties in managing their feelings and behaviour at times, particularly during certain stages of development. Within the family environment this can of course become complicated by sibling order. Because of this complexity, it can be difficult to determine whether a child’s behaviour or feelings may need further assessment.

For most children, emotional or behavioural problems like those described above are temporary. They can often be addressed successfully as the child develops further and is provided with guidance and support from family and carers.

HOWEVER, if there are ongoing emotional or behavioural problems in early childhood, there may be an underlying developmental delay or disorder or a greater risk of some types of mental illness in childhood or later in life.

Depending on the situation, the benefits of identification and early intervention could include improved behaviour and developmental outcomes, greater community participation and social inclusion, and better academic outcomes.

What should you look for? Signs of emotional or behavioural difficulties in young children could include:

• Significant changes in feelings or behaviour
• Behaviour that is out of step with peers at a similar age and stage
• Persistent separation difficulties or attachment problems with family
• Being withdrawn, fearful, anxious or upset much of the time
• Poor-quality play that seems limited and repetitive
• Difficulty managing anger and frustration, or frequent tantrums or aggression
• Difficulty in paying attention, following instructions and completing tasks
• Frequent defiance and refusal to follow instructions.

When trying to decide whether further assessment is needed, it is important that family members compare the child’s behaviour and capacity with others at a similar stage of development and take into account any contextual factors that may be affecting the child.

Liz Paul

Psychotherapist & Counsellor
Sydney Individuals and Couples Counselling
Think Ahead Centre

Suite 5D, 5 Dee Why Parade
Dee Why NSW 2099

Get Directions


Ph: 0422 306 679

liz@sydneyindividualsandcouplescounselling.com