Dr. Elaine Heffner: Misreading behavior

Dr. Elaine Heffner More Content Now

In a recent talk on addiction the speaker, a psychiatrist who has treated many such patients expressed the belief that the motivation for such behavior is often misunderstood. His view was that addictive behavior is not an expression of pleasure-seeking and risk-taking but that alcohol and drugs were most often used in an attempt at self-medication and self-regulation by those with emotional difficulties that caused them great pain.

The question raised here, as with many aspects of undesirable behavior is whether the behavior is an indication that the person is “bad” or is “sick” in some way. The idea that a person is “bad” leads to thoughts of punishment while “sick” leads to ideas about treatment.

How does this apply to the behavior of children? The connection is that the way we understand behavior leads to what we decide to do about the behavior. This is relevant since in the course of their development children’s behavior is often socially unacceptable. Do we understand such behavior as an expression of where children are developmentally? Do we call children “spoiled” and blame parents? Or do we think a child has a particular problem requiring treatment or remediation of some kind?

Parents – and teachers – are confronted with these questions regularly. When children “misbehave,” parents often think about discipline, perhaps a more acceptable term for punishment. Children’s behavior can be provocative and elicit the feeling that they should be punished. But sometimes children’s behavior is worrisome and leads parents to wonder if something may be wrong.

Teachers deal with children in the context of a classroom. The individual child and the group can present needs that conflict at times, presenting a different kind of challenge to teachers. If a child’s behavior disrupts the class or the teacher’s agenda, this can lead to a negative judgment about the child with the implication that an absence of compliance with the teacher is willful.

A child I interviewed made the point that sometimes a kid is not “getting it” – meaning what the teacher is trying to teach. When I asked her how a teacher could tell if a kid was not getting it, she said if a kid is fooling around or not paying attention. This comment matched my own observations of children who seem to be presenting behavior difficulties in school. To an experienced observer, it can become clear that a child who keeps talking to his neighbor or otherwise not paying attention, is having difficulty with the material being taught. This is sometimes interpreted as the child having a “bad attitude” in class – deliberately not paying attention and being disruptive. The alternative explanation is that a child has attention difficulties and is unable to focus. This understanding has too often led to thoughts of medication.

Unfortunately, the contemporary education system does not lend itself to individual differences and needs. The current focus on tests and uniform results does not allows for diversity in teaching or the various ways in which different children learn best. Some children have difficulty learning in a group setting and can learn well when taught individually or in small groups. But how can this understanding be applied by the classroom teacher or parent?

Perhaps most useful is to start without a negative interpretation of a child’s behavior. Most of the time children want to please and to succeed. Conveying to a child that we know that something is hard and want to help him or her – coming from a parent and teacher – is the first step to both understanding the problem and finding the solution.

Ask the kids!

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.