Kids Behaving Badly

Often in my clinical psychology work at the Smart Therapy Centre, parents come in and tell me that their out-of-control child is anxious and needs treatment to make them calm.

This seems to be a common misconception.  Usually, I find that there is not an inkling of anxiety in the child and it is just that they are behaving badly because of parental confusion.  This probably results from so many conflicting messages to mothers (in particular), as a result of which it is easy to get parenting wrong.

In terms of basics, there are three main styles of parenting:  Authoritarian (‘I’m the boss and it’s my way or the highway’); Libertarian (‘do whatever you want and walk over me while you’re at it’); and Authoritative (‘take proper responsibility because there will be positive or negative consequences for your choices’).

Parenting styles in the past were often authoritarian, strict and could be brutal.  It was found retrospectively that this parenting style could damage children, so our society flipped the coin and moved towards the very libertarian styles of parenting that we currently see all around us.  We see parents giving their children infinite chances, placating them, soothing them for minor disturbances, over-praising them, and trying to be friends but often ending up being servants to their increasingly tyrannical children.

Having seen thousands of people over the years, I’ve strangely found in my clinical work that libertarian styles probably do even more damage than authoritarian styles of parenting.  

This is because children desperately need limits to correctly understand and interpret society in order to function well within it.  They need to know that expectations out in the real world are generally much, much higher than libertarian parental ones and we rarely get anything for nothing. 

Children also need high motivation and crucial skills to accomplish important tasks and if they are told they are wonderful for barely lifting a finger, then they easily lose any motivation to try, persevere and accomplish those important tasks.

With libertarian parenting, it is easy to end up with entitled, poorly-adjusted, rude and unskilled young adults.

On the other hand, authoritative parenting is realistic.  It is friendly, explanatory and kind, but also very strict with high expectations.  The child quickly learns to take proper responsibility for their own behaviour since they receive immediate feedback via positive and negative consequences that are delivered consistently and without punitive motivation.

Family stress at Christmas


Although the weeks leading up to Christmas can be wonderful, catching up with old and new friends and celebrating with work colleagues, sometimes Christmas Day itself can be difficult and even heart-wrenching.

This is often because families have old, unresolved wounds that can result in all sorts of tensions.  These tensions can be bad enough that family members become so alienated that they end up spending the day alone and lonely.

More commonly though, when long-standing conflicts have not been resolved, there is sheer boredom and emptiness when families come together, simply because they have nothing they can talk about without causing a huge eruption.  Just like all roads lead to Rome, all ‘real’ conversation leads to eruption. 

Therefore, topics become unreal, safe and tedious (often talking endlessly about the children) with people getting drunk to cope and falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV.  These are the sorts of hollowed out and empty relationships that occur when conflicts build-up and compound over time and are not resolved.

But even with these tedious and safe avoidance strategies it doesn’t take much (maybe a little ‘barb’ or a nasty little ‘joke’ inserted into the conversation) to be back raking over the coals of past family injustices.

Unfortunately, what I frequently see in my clinical work is that people then start debating what did or did not happen in the past when they were 8 or 14 years old.  This debate of who did what when, and who was right or who was wrong, can go on fruitlessly for decades.

Generally, it is best to resolve only current (not past) grievances and this can be done throughout the year (instead of Christmas Day) by talking through issues of conflict as they arise.

Of course, it goes without saying that talks should always be kind and friendly and although they can become intense, they should always be highly disciplined. 

In these discussions, people should never be personally attacked (like ‘you’re an idiot’), but any specific problem-behaviours (like sulking or harshness) can be talked through and alternative behaviours (like speaking up more or exhibiting more softness) can be suggested in order to achieve better relations.

Interestingly, in solving the current grievances, the past ones are usually also resolved.  This occurs simply because problem-behaviours from the past are generally carried forward into the present.  Debating them in the present allows them to be clearly identified and described, making it more likely they can be resolved and eliminated.