Parenting is tricky business. It almost always feels like it’s our fault when our child’s behavior is disappointing. We almost always feel guilty when we’re unable to change everything that we view as inappropriate, as though parents should “just know what to do”.
But here’s the thing: while parenting helps shape children’s behavior, there are many other factors that affect how children behave.
In other words, we cannot control everything when it comes to our kids’ behavior. That said, being more aware of the factors outside our control that affect their behavior can make it easier to deal with it or to know whether to seek professional help.
Four factors outside parents’ control that affect children’s behavior
1) Developmental factors
Developmental issues can impact children’s behavior in different ways. A child with ADHD can find it harder to focus and practice self-control, and this can lead them to display disruptive behavior both in school and at home.
A child struggling with anxiety issues can find it hard to make friends, or they can display inappropriate behavior in an attempt to mask their anxiety. If your child has autism, they may struggle with social interactions and with communication.
In other words, learning difficulties or other developmental issues impact children’s behavior.
2) Environmental factors
We all know that children are influenced by the world around them, and social media has made it even easier for kids around the world to influence each other.
Children are influenced by their classmates, by the games that they play, by the TV shows that they watch, and by the adults with whom they interact on a regular basis.
In other words, your child is more likely to act aggressive or to use curse words if this behavior is common in their school or in their immediate environment.
Kids are also influenced by their family context: for instance, science says that a child raised in a violent setting is more likely to act violently or to accept violent acts against them (for example bullying) because they have learned to view these acts as normal.
Similarly, other studies suggest that children raised by anxious parents are more likely to become anxious themselves.
There are many ways in which the environment affects children’s behavior and many changes in behavior can often be traced to your child’s environment.
3) Genetic factors
Genes influence children’s behavior and can impact their behavioral and psychological characteristics. Professor Laura Baker suggests that genetic factors can influence children’s intellectual ability, personality, and risk for mental illness.
Genes influence children’s personality and therefore have an impact on how your child interacts with others and with their environment. They influence how they react to different situations.
Trauma has a major impact on children’s behavior. A child who has experienced traumatic experiences such as neglect or abuse, or witnessed domestic violence, may be more prone to behavior such as anxiety or aggression.
While there may be things in your child’s behavior that you cannot control, there are several things that you can do to deal with difficult situations more confidently.
Here are six things that can help you get started.
Six ways to manage behavior out of your control
1) Create a supportive environment
Several studies have found that children raised in a positive and supportive environment have fewer problem behaviors. They suggest that when we create strong bonds with our kids, they subconsciously avoid behaving in ways that can jeopardize those bonds.
Spending time with your child is one of the easiest ways to create a strong parent/child bond. Spending even 15 to 20 minutes a day with them every day, doing simple things such as reading together, listening to music, playing games, watching a cartoon together, etc. goes a long way in strengthening your bonds and in helping your child develop a positive sense of self.
Here is a free 30-day challenge with simple and short activities to help you get started.
Remember that showing your child that you are available to help them through the obstacles that they encounter can make it easier to find a solution to their behavior.
2) Set clear limits and rules
Every child needs rules and limits to guide their behavior. They need to know what is acceptable and what is not. But rules for rules sake rarely work.
In other words, effective rules and limits are those that consider what your child is actually able to do (their developmental ability) and their personality.
For example, expecting a child with attention issues to stay concentrated on a task for long periods of time will only lead to frustration, for you and for them. A more effective strategy would be to break down tasks and expect them to remain focused on a given activity for shorter periods of time (which you can then increase with time).
3) Set reasonable consequences and enforce them
Setting limits and rules is not sufficient in itself. These have to be consistently enforced whenever inappropriate behavior is displayed.
For instance, if violent behavior is unacceptable, you need to enforce the consequences of that behavior each and every time that it is displayed. Failure to do sends mixed messages to your child and prevents them from understanding exactly what is expected of them.
4) Help your child develop effective coping strategies
Problem behavior is often a reflection of children’s inability to deal with difficult situations in socially appropriate ways. But it is possible to help your child develop a “toolbox” that they can use in different contexts.
This could include walking away from anxiety-provoking situations, talking to an adult when feeling stressed, creating a “calm-down kit”, taking frequent breaks, and so on.
Helping your child to focus on the future “what will you do the next time something like this happens” is an easy way to help them reflect about different ways of reacting to difficult situations.
5) Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement, in my opinion, is the easiest and most effective discipline strategy for children displaying problem behavior.
Positive reinforcement works because it makes children see themselves as capable of success, and because it focuses on increasing positive behavior rather than remaining fixated on children’s negative traits.
That said, to use positive reinforcement effectively, it is important to follow a specific strategy to avoid common pitfalls such as “bribing your child”. The Positive Behavior Kit is a step-by-step guide to help you use this discipline strategy in a way that actually works.
6) Accept that you cannot control everything
As parents, we always feel like our children’s inappropriate behavior has something to do with us. Like it is tied to our “parental inefficiency”.
But the truth is that we do not always have the skills to help our kids when they are faced with problems beyond our control. It is therefore important to accept that we cannot always control everything and to ask for help when we need it.
If you are worried about your child’s behavior at home or in school, talk to your family doctor who will help point you in the right direction. The right professional can help to address your child’s underlying issues and give you tips to manage their behavior more effectively.
When dealing with problem behavior, it is important to remember that children’s behavior is complex and multifaceted. In other words, many factors can influence their behavior and understanding the factors that drive their behavior is a big step toward addressing behavioral issues.