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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: The Good News About Bad Behavior

I often look to my friends for parenting advice, and I don’t think I’m unique there. So good thing that several of my friends and colleagues not only teach parenting classes, but write books on the subject. One of the most interesting ones I read lately was The Good News About Bad Behavior by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. It’s a book I was anticipating for a few years, as it stemmed from a Mother Jones article, What if Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids was Wrong? How is that for a provocative title? The premise of the article (and hence, the book) is that bad behavior simply gets worse from the disciplinary techniques that many of us use with our children, including time outs, negative consequences and other punishments. Even positive rewards like gold stars can cause kids to lose their intrinsic motivation, focusing instead on the teacher’s motivation.

What if we paid attention to the reason that kids were not behaving well. Perhaps they’re hungry or bored. Or maybe they have behavioral issues they can’t control, like ADHD. Of course, for each child it’s different, and this can be hard in a school situation when there’s a room full of kids and one or two disruptive kids (or more).

In the book, Lewis shares disciplinary philosophies from various experts. One is psychologist Ross Greene, who believes in finding out why a child has an outburst and working with them to figure out what to do the next time that issue comes up, instead of punishing the child. In other words, solve the problem. Lewis notes that Greene’s philosophy is that disruptive kids don’t lack the motivation to meet behavioral expectations, but lack the skills. Why punish a child for something they can’t do?

One example given was a kid who has difficulty expressing emotions, and strikes out at others. The school learned to let the child use that energy to calm himself down, away from other kids and without allowing him to harm others in the process. The child was then in a position to learn how to cope better and solve his own problems, and recognize when he needed time to himself, when he felt emotional problems coming on.

Part of the issue is that kids have more mental health issues today than in the past. Lewis points to research from a National Institute of Mental Health team that showed that half of today’s children will develop a behavioral or mood disorder, or substance abuse problem by 18. Yes, you read that correctly. And about 40% of kids have more than one diagnosis. That may include ADHD, anxiety, depression plus kids who have experienced trauma or abuse. Add in learning disabilities and the autism spectrum and you can probably start counting all the kids you know (perhaps some of your own) who are affected.

No doubt these kids are difficult to deal with. They may not have the ability to regulate their behavior (based on brain research using fMRI techniques), so giving consequences for their actions may not be solving a problem, but making it worse. Instead? Help kids create new neuronal pathways with repeated learning experiences. You can teach the kids while changing their brain’s physical structure. Changing your relationships with kids to relationships that are respectful and not adversarial, reduced behavior problems in schools, Greene found. In fact, Lewis brings up research that shows that adults screaming at or insulting kids has a similar impact to hitting them. Both the physical and increased emotional outbursts by adults causes a fight-or-flight response in the kids. Adults are no longer the calming influence, but the source of stress.

In reading the book, I recognized some of the techniques we’ve used over the past years that we learned the hard way in our family. That includes allowing a child to calm down before having a discussion with them about what happened and why it happened. The child can explain their reasoning for acting a certain way, which may not be a reason you anticipate hearing. By really listening to the child and understanding their triggers, you can help them with tools to handle the situation better in the future. Lewis uses the phrase “connect before you correct.” Looking at triggering issues in our family, like being overscheduled, make a difference too. One year we cut back almost all extra-curricular activities for one of our kids, because it was clear that the child needed more free time and less running from place to place after school. While it felt odd to have only piano lessons scheduled, dropping scouts, a second instrument, and a few other “fun” activities, our child clearly told us that this is what was needed for mental health (not in those words), and we listened. It made a difference.

Lewis uses stories from real families (her own included) in addition to talking with researchers and diving into published research. By using real examples, told in a narrative story form, the book is easy to read. You can relate to what other families and schools are going through. And I appreciated Lewis’ comment about parents not needing to be perfect in front of their kids, because kids need to know not to strive for perfection, and learn how to apologize, by example.

I like Lewis’ takeaway message “if you take only one insight from this book, I hope it’s this one: childish misbehavior isn’t an emergency situation or a sign of something gone wrong, but simply a natural part of growing up. Pause and respond with intention to your child’s behavior. Getting out of reactive mode will improve your connection to your kid, give you a chance to communicate better, and offer your child the space to build their capacity for whatever the situation is, without you swooping in.”

There were other interesting philosophies and tools shared in her book, but I’ll leave those for you to discover. You can start here, with an portion of the book adapted for another Mother Jones article, which I found fascinating both in the book and reading it again online.

FYI – at the time of this posting, The Good News About Bad Behavior is awaiting a second printing on Amazon (you can get the Kindle version or wait for it to restock – it’s selling well!) or you can buy at your local bookseller or Barnes & Noble.

Next up: a review of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children.

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