Whose Problem Is It?: Parents, kids and motivation to change

When a family comes to me saying their child has a behavior problem, my first thought is always this question: Whose problem is this?  As someone who identifies as a child therapist, families often bring their child to me with the expectation that I will “fix the problems” they present with by changing their child’s behaviors.  But is the problem their child’s problem?  If a kid is throwing a tantrum something awful or hitting his mother or fighting with his siblings, arguing with peers every day, is the child motivated to change his behaviors?  Maybe, maybe not. 

Some kids know what they are doing isn’t OK and don’t like doing it.  If Ryan comes into my office and says “I hate that I get so mad," Ryan want to change.  He likely feels guilty, sad and depressed about his behavior problems.  Ryan will need skills to overcome anger and a boost to his self-esteem with cheerleading and support.  He want to change- he just needs help to do it. 

Some kids may not care about what they are doing and don’t have any motivation to stop.  If Sarah throws tantrums, hits her brother and constantly argues with her friends and nothing her anyone has said has changed anything, she might be feeling apathetic about the change people want her to make.  To her, making the effort to change just isn’t worth it.  Kids like Sarah need skills, support and caring from me and their parents but they also need motivation to change.  Motivation might be a meaningful consequence from their parents or school, such as loss of recess if they fight with peers or lost computer time with they have a tantrum. Maybe motivation is a reward. They need help with skills BUT as much as that, they need the motivation to use the skills.

The last category of kids like doing whatever their behavior is because it ACTIVELY GETS RESULTS.  It is functional for them. Maybe every time Larry throws a tantrum, his parents give him candy to make it stop.  Larry likes candy.  Why not throw a tantrum and get some?  This can be subtle as well.  Maybe Jenny doesn't like going to recess- it is too noisy, cold/hot, she doesn’t have anyone to play with- whatever the reason, she doesn't want to go. So before recess, she hits a peer and her teacher says "No recess for you!" Do you think that kids’ teacher will get results from withholding recess?  No way.  She gets more hitting because Jenny wants to avoid recess. Many teachers-and parents-set consequences assuming that kids like certain things and dislike others.  That is not always the case and if a consequence isn't working, it pays to investigate.  

The solution for a Jenny is consequences that are meaningful.  Maybe she values lunch time with her friends. She might not stop hitting if she loses recess-but maybe if lunch was what was being taken away.....

The fact is, unless your child wants to change, they won’t.  The good news for parents of kids under 18 is that you have a lot of leverage and usually have the ability to make the behavior problem your child’s problem as much as it is yours. If you need help leveraging that power, I can help you find the way. 

It isn’t easy. But nothing that is worth it is.