It is disturbingly common to hear stories of parents who are at war with their kids. How did your bundle of joy turn into difficult, exasperating, pain in the proverbial? Well, potentially one of many reasons actually, but believe it or not the fix can be relatively simple.
Parents with an uncooperative, attention seeking child (or maybe more than one) are stressed and confused. So many questions – do they have a behavioural disorder? Is it my fault? Where am I going wrong? Is it genetic? Must be, mustn’t it? They feel embarrassed by their child’s behaviour and feel a need to be justifying and excusing the little s***s behaviour. Meanwhile it is stressing parental relationships, often adding to the stress of making life work. This stress then feeds back into the child’s behaviour. If you haven’t experienced this, I’m pretty sure you have seen it happening with families you know.
And what about the paediatrician who reckons that it’s best to medicate? Should you or shouldn’t you? I know of a family in which first one child, then the next, and then the next – and then the mother! – were all prescribed dexamphetamine! Woohoo – thank god for big pharma!
So what to do?
Engage. To be honest I’m really sick of hearing about ‘attention seeking behaviour’. That statement is clearly missing the point. (Having had the benefit of living in multiple cultures in Africa and Asia for many years, I can say that this reference (and perceived problem) is a very Anglo / Western one.) To cut a long explanation short, children are not seeking attention, they are seeking engagement. These are two entirely different things. Engagement is highly valued by children as a mechanism that allows them to believe that they are valued, loved, respected and that they belong. It allows them to feel secure and to believe in themselves. Lack of engagement results in feelings of loneliness and rejection – and this is the essence of the problem. There is no greater pain in human life than rejection, especially for a young child who feels that they have been rejected by their parents.
Children have a very simple perception of life, and it based on emotion, not reality. If a parent does not engage with their child, the child will feel the emotion of rejection, they will feel insecure, and the perception they will form is that their parents are the problem. It is inevitable that the child will fight back by antagonising the source of their pain, while also demanding that their parents engage with them by expressing this so-called ‘attention seeking behaviour’.
So here’s the test – how much do you engage with your child? First, a definition of engagement: it is that one on one time, that is exclusively theirs, which involves direct ‘transactions’ between just you and them. A simple example is playing games – like throwing and catching a ball, or making and throwing paper planes. Or snakes and ladders, or card games. As ridiculously simple as it may seem, the time you are giving them to the exclusion of all other things makes them feel valued, important, and loved. For them it is a great big, giant, validating hug.
What engagement is not, is taking them to the park to play while you sit and watch – or even worse, sitting on your phone scrolling through Facebook. Your child will only interpret your time on Facebook as being more important to you than they are. Just being there is not enough – it is not engagement. It is disengagement. Officially it is referred to as ‘proximal abandonment’ – you are there but not there. The bigger problem is that your child will grow up finding ways to cope – like shutting off and hiding in their room on a computer. They will disengage from you, because you won’t engage with them. You rejected them, so they will reject you, and they will probably give you grief in the process.
So this is the big question – how much time did I spend today directly engaged with my child? Or yesterday? Not just with them, not just in the same space, but time spent one on one, time that is exclusively theirs, interacting directly with them exclusively. If you add it up, you may be surprised how little time you have spent in this way – and maybe none at all. I find that some days my engagement time is way under what I would expect of myself despite my deep attention to it.
Change your expectations as they grow. We’ve all heard of the ‘terrible twos’ – that age when children can be difficult because they want to start asserting authority they ‘officially’ don’t have – that is, they start to argue! But the reality is that every year, if not every few months, they are a different person in many ways. This is because of brain development and the new abilities and potential they develop with it.
There are two problems for parents in this – one is that there is always a lag between what they are now capable of, and their existing ‘data set’. Whenever my daughter has started to behave in ways that we consider not okay it has been because of this – she doesn’t know how to express her new potential based on what she knows at the moment. Therefore my wife and I have to step back and think about how we can guide her in her new capacity that is constructive. It works every time.
The second problem has been our own expectations. Nothing revealed this more than when she was six. She was no longer a baby or toddler. Her brain development went ballistic, as is typical of six year olds. At 6 ½ she was suddenly capable of thinking on a whole new level. It was like she was suddenly ten. It was very confusing for us and we both found ourselves shouting at her for the blatant ‘crimes’ she was committing. Shouting only produces bad outcomes as it does not involve any kind of consequence that has meaning for a child.
Thinking about it we realised that our expectations of her had skyrocketed with our perceptions of her new found awareness. We had unconsciously developed what is referred to as ‘expectations of maturity’. In this case it wasn’t her behaviour that was the problem, but our expectations of how she should behave given how smart she now seemed.
The thing was that we had unwittingly come to think that she was capable of understanding the relationship between action and consequence. But as any parent will tell you, this is probably the last thing a child learns, and given that most adults don’t seemed to have learned it, we should stop expecting our six year old to! So the shouting stopped and we went back to the process of trying to help her catch up with her own brain. After all, it was only a few months ago she could be forgiven for just about anything.
Consider food intolerance. This is something that is rarely considered in context of children’s behaviour. In fact there is a general denial in the medical profession that there is a relationship between food and behaviour at all. However there is an abundance of evidence that there is – a data base of severely tested parents who have gone to extraordinary lengths to find the cause of their child’s inexplicable and outrageous behaviour. Unfortunately the medical profession doesn’t know what it doesn’t know while there also tends to be an arrogance about what they do know. Thus the dexamphetamine prescriptions and no consideration as to the potential effect of the millions of compounds found in food – both natural and unnatural.
Food intolerances can generate reactions in children that can make them aggressive, violent, abusive, oppositional, hyperactive, and extremely difficult. But their reaction can be very individual – different children react in different ways to the same stimulus – for example while one child may get eczema, another may experience chronic fatigue, while another may run off the rails altogether.
So what’s causing this? And why is it so dramatically on the rise?
Firstly, children are eating highly processed foods soaked in chemicals – flavour enhancers, colouring agents and preservatives. Humans have not evolved to digest these chemicals and lack the digestive enzymes or processes to deal with them. We are all affected by them in ways we don’t realise, but some children are visibly affected, sometimes in quite serious ways.
Secondly they are eating foods that are neither local nor seasonal, and in quantities that are just not natural. For example there has never been a time in history before now where it was possible to consume handfuls of nuts – everyone in the village or tribe would have been entitled to their share too! This means that the traditional understanding of food and diet – and the wisdom that enabled societies to recognise that ‘something was not right’, has been lost in the diversity and complexity of the modern diet.
Even whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, contain phytotoxins (plant toxins) that can adversely affect the human body. A good example is salicylates, a naturally occurring pesticide that is present, by degrees, in virtually all plants. Most people can tolerate them, some cannot, and they send some children completely off the rails. According to The Food Intolerance Network, 70% of children with a recognised hyperactivity disorder also have an intolerance of salicylates.
Other plants have a much stronger self-defence, for example ricin, the most powerful naturally occurring poison known to man. The key message is that everything you eat is affecting you in some way – it may energise you (as it should), but sensitivities can cause fatigue, moodiness, irritability, hyperactivity – the list is endless. Children are much more sensitive than adults and therefore will react, in some cases, far more seriously.
It is therefore essential to consider your child’s diet if you are finding their behaviour difficult. Rather than me reinvent the wheel, I highly recommend that you visit www.fedup.com.au for more valuable information on food intolerance.
So the bottom line is: hug your child often, play with them, not just be there. Evolve your expectations as they evolve as children, and consider food intolerances. So the next time your child says ‘play daddy?’ say yes. They will love you for it. They grow up so fast, and you don’t want to miss out!