Kids behaving badly. Whose fault is it anyway?

This morning my partner was telling me about his journey home from work. There was a child on the train standing on the seats, jumping across the aisle and whistling loudly. My first thought was that the child had ADHD or some other behavioural disorder. I can understand how at the end of a long day the mother may have just given up on trying to get her child to sit quietly. He might have been annoying people, but he wasn’t causing any actual harm to himself or others.

A young girl lying on the floor in a shopping centre having a tantrum

My partner went on to say that the mother seemed to condone the child’s behaviour because she was sitting down having a chat with a friend (full of swear words) and they appeared to be sniggering at everyone elses annoyance. This changed things in my view: instead of compassion for the parent I judged them, thinking they were at least partially to blame.

In a previous career I used to be an anti-social behaviour officer. While a lot of the complaints between neighbours would boil down to people with different lifestyles and expectations living in close proximity there were a handful of cases where people were unfortunate enough to live near really horrible kids. I found myself wondering if a violent 6 year old who swears, breaks the law and refuses to listen to authority is beyond hope? The level of intervention required for the whole family to change a child’s behaviour is high and it isn’t always available. I spoke to children’s parents many times and it didn’t matter how well meaning they were because they had tried everything they could think of. If they stopped the child from going out they would smash up the house and sometimes even harm their family, they were out of ideas.

I have some sympathy with the parents, but I did wonder whether invention at an earlier age would have made a difference. A few years ago I was despairing over the behaviour of my eldest daughter and I didn’t know where to turn to for help. I googled gentle parenting approaches to tantrums, but they largely talk about avoiding triggers. I spoke to the Health Visitor and Nursery Nurse at a drop in clinic, but they both gave essentially meaningless advice and it was only when I thought to ask at my local children’s centre that I found someone that seemed to understand. I was given some initial advice and enrolled in parenting classes.

Parenting classes gave me lots of strategies to use when there were problems, it also helped me understand how other parents feel. As a group we were experiencing a range of issues and the one thing that united us all was a desire to help our children with their behaviour.

My eldest struggles with controlling her emotions, particularly anger. She knows right from wrong, she is polite (normally), compassionate and a lot of fun. At nursery (and now at school) she can get rather emotional at times, but her behaviour isn’t a concern there. Even with relatives she is normally fine, the problems have always been more directed at me (and sometimes her younger sister). It is poor consolation that this is probably because she felt secure in my love.

When the red mist descends my daughter says horrible things, she will throw things and will lash out at me. She gets into a state which she can’t get herself out. We are better at managing it now and I know how not to antagonise her to make it worse. I know that she only gets out of it if she burns herself out or gets hurts (the pain breaks the anger and turn to sad tears, but this is hardly ideal). My eldest now recognises the feelings as anger and she can tell me when she is starting to get angry. She can sometimes stop it taking hold and she will normally go away to her room until she is calm. We manage it better, but it is still there.

Having a child who sometimes behaves in unacceptable ways, a child who has had full on meltdowns in public at an age it’s not expected and a child that at times I am at a total loss what to do with means I have empathy for other parents. I try to give the struggling parents in the shops an understanding smile. I know that they need to pick their battles and sometimes they have no energy left.

I believe that no child is born bad. No child is born naughty. There are behaviours and control issues which emerge in childhood which can cause problems. Combine these with inconsistent or ineffective parenting and poor behaviour to model and you end up with a “problem child” (yes I acknowledge that the fault for my daughter's behaviour is partly mine). We should never give up on children, because there is a point when it becomes too late. We should never write off a life, but there needs to be more support and understanding when parents need help. 

An empty central line tube carriage

Back to that child on the train. I wasn’t there to see the what was happening and even if I had been I wouldn’t have got the full story. I have empathy, but if the parent doesn’t seem bothered, concerned or exhausted then I must admit I judge them. I guess the lesson is to look concerned so people know you recognise the behaviour isn’t acceptable. Then again when my daughter was having a tantrum on the floor I would often leave her to it and play on my phone as nothing I said would have made a difference and it kept me from losing my temper. I wonder how many people judged me? I guess you never do see the full picture.

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