Many children develop bad or disturbing patterns of behavior that concern
parents. Some children become hurtful, angry, enraged, aggressive, or defiant.
Others become shy, withdrawn, passive, tearful, or fearful. Children may even
develop habits such as thumb sucking, nail biting, nightmares, failure to
focus attention, or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
parents are not sure what to do when they see these kinds of habits and behaviors.
Some respond by punishing their child. They give “time out” or
take away privileges. Other parents overpower their child. They intimidate,
threaten, yell at, or frighten the child. Many mothers and fathers find themselves
using a combination of these parenting reactions. Later, upon reflection,
they are not satisfied with these techniques or with their effects.
parents do to reduce and eliminate these behaviors—whether
of the angry and aggressive or the passive and fearful type? How can childhood
energy be freed and redirected toward more constructive purposes? How best
can parents prevent and respond to misbehavior? What is a rational, effective,
and humane child-rearing approach that produces well-behaved children?
research on child development and child rearing offers a wealth of valuable
information. Many appropriate and helpful child-rearing guidelines can be
derived from the countless studies on young children. When parents use these
research-based principles for child rearing, a foundation is built for the
development of a well-behaved, emotionally healthy human being. As a result,
these parents also enjoy parenting.
The child-rearing method that best represents
the research on children and parenting uses a diagnostic approach to understand
and manage all types of childhood behavior. Diagnosis is a process by which
information is systematically gathered about the motivation for behavior.
The purpose of gathering the information is to determine the possible underlying
The diagnostic approach regards all childhood behavior as a sign,
signal, or symptom that communicates the current state of the child’s
physical and psychosocial needs and drives. When a young child is behaving
well and in a developmentally appropriate way, one of two things can be inferred.
Either the child’s normal underlying needs and drives are being met,
or the child is enduring the frustration of unmet drives and needs. Disturbing
behavior occurs when one or more normal developmental need is frustrated and
the child cannot tolerate the frustration.
Young children have a number of
powerful and normal needs, the frustration of which causes them distress.
Young children cannot tolerate much frustration. However, children are better
able to learn to tolerate frustration if they learn when they are young that
their needs will be met promptly and reliably by their parents. When a child
can trust that parents will meet his or her needs, the youngster feels secure
enough to risk gradually experiencing feelings of frustration.
When, on the
other hand, a child regularly feels and expresses normal childhood frustrations
that are not met responsively by parents, the child develops fear response
patterns. This child will become anxious, on guard, and preoccupied with his
or her own needs and the immediate and aggressive expression of them. This
child finds the toleration of internal feelings of frustration very difficult
indeed. The anxious, on-guard emotional posture of this child stops him or
her from learning to tolerate frustrations. Instead, at the slightest feeling
of frustration, this defensively alert child will attempt through misbehavior
to call attention to himself or herself. This kind of child also frequently
develops misbehavior and/or self-comforting habits to handle anxiety.
can prevent or stop bad or disturbing behavior by using diagnostic skills.
This means parents will be effective with their child if they evaluate their
child’s physical and psychological needs and drives throughout
the day. By sensitively observing and diagnostically listening to their child,
parents can determine the status of these dynamics. To use the diagnostic
child-rearing approach, parents need to be familiar with the developmental
characteristics and needs of childhood. Once familiar with them, parents can
develop their skills at observing their child to determine which behavior(s)
of the youngster tend to reflect what underlying need(s).
Patterns of behavior
for each child can communicate to an informed and aware parent the relative
well-being of that child’s underlying normal physical
and psychosocial developmental needs. By knowing the child’s way of
reacting to certain types of stress, parents can properly interpret the child’s
behavior, identify the particular frustrated need, and act to relieve the
stress for the child. For example, suppose the parent knows the child’s
uncooperative behavior frequently is caused by the frustration of being hungry.
Then, instead of punishing the child, the parent can diagnose the cause and
feed the child. The food will reduce the frustration felt by the child and
eliminate the uncooperative behavior. Punishment would only add frustration
to the already frustrated child. The child would remain hungry, and therefore
continue to feel distressed. The frustration of being hungry and the many
personal and interpersonal frustrations created by punishment would eventually
make the child’s behavior and parenting even more difficult. By knowing
their child, parents can detect changes in behavior and then diagnose and
treat the causes(s).
A diagnostic approach to parenting has two guiding principles
derived from the research on child development and child-rearing:
- All behavior, good and bad, is caused by the status of a child’s
underlying normal physical and psychosocial needs and drives.
- Rather than focusing
attention on behavior, parents can be far more effective and efficient
if they anticipate the needs of their child. When misbehavior does occur,
parents should find the frustrated needs that caused the behavior. When
the child’s needs are fulfilled, the frustration felt by the child
dissipates. Then the child most likely will behave well.
The following example shows how a mother and father learned to use this
diagnostic approach to help their young daughter.
The parents of a 5-½-year-old
girl contacted me to talk about problems they were having with their child.
In the last three or four months, they said, their daughter had changed dramatically.
They told me that since infancy she had been interested, involved, decisive,
spirited, and willful. She had made friends easily and was popular among her
peers. When asked what she wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon, she would
choose an activity and become involved in it. Now when asked the same question,
she usually said, “I don’t
care.” Her behavior had changed. She did not have her former interest
in life. She no longer demonstrated involvement in the activities that used
to interest her. She had lost her spirit and vitality.
These parents told me
their daughter also had lost the ability to cope with situations she had been
able to handle competently by the time she was 4 year old. She did not have
the peer friendships she once maintained. She had lost her social skills.
She no longer seemed able to take turns with her peers in play activities.
During the last several months, this youngster always needed to be first or
at the head of the line. If she didn’t get her
way, she would cry. If anything happened that upset her, she would break down
in tears rather than talk about the problem as she used to do. This child
had lost her ability to cope effectively with a variety of frustrating situations.
She had psychosocially regressed and no longer could emotionally or socially
extend herself as she used to be able to do.
The parents also reported they
recently had received a telephone call from their daughter’s kindergarten
teacher. The teacher said their child had become overly possessive and controlling
of a classmate. The classmate was a young girl, physically smaller than their
daughter. The two girls were friends. But their friendship was marred by the
fact that their daughter frequently held onto the other girl’s hand
and did not let her go. Their daughter often held her classmate and prevented
the child’s free movement, play
activities, and actions. The other child finally complained about this behavior
to her mother. The mother asked the teacher to intervene and protect her child’s
freedom. The mother’s plea prompted the kindergarten teacher’s
telephone call to these parents.
The parents contacted me and expressed worry,
confusion, and a deep concern for their daughter’s welfare. What could
they do to help their child? Why was she behaving in this lifeless and overly
possessive way with her friend?
Because all behavior is caused by the degree
to which a child’s underlying
physical and/or psychosocial normal needs are met, I began to ask the parent
a series of questions about their daughter and her life. They told me their
daughter, since conception, had physically developed normally. Except for
typical childhood colds, she had been in good health.
The parental concern
expressed by the mother and father, their apparent openness in the quest to
help their daughter, and their tone of voice when talking with me or with
each other indicated both were caring and intelligent people.
I asked questions
to determine how these parents responded to their child’s
normal and important need for a continuous and responsive emotional attachment
to a primary caregiver in the first couple years of life. The mother had cared
for her daughter continuously since birth. This mother and father loved their
child and appropriately nurtured her.
These parents described informed child-rearing
attitudes and practices when their child began to express her normal willfulness
at 1 ½ years of
age. For example, they spoke about giving her choices. They had responded
to her desire to be treated more “grown up” by involving her in
making appropriate decisions around the home.
These parents described their
reactions to their child’s need to be
more independent and involved with peers. When she was 3 years old, for example,
they enrolled her part time in a preschool. And their youngster enjoyed the
All child development and parenting seemed normal, loving, and
constructive. What then could be causing their daughter’s current problem?
Childhood behavior carries messages that provide significant clues about its
cause(s). The daughter’s inordinate possessiveness and control of her
kindergarten friend suggested to me that her behavior might be motivated by
a fear of loss. I therefore asked the parents if one of their child’s
relatives had died in the last several years. The answer was no. In fact,
they knew of no one close to their child who had died.
Because loss and the
fear of it can be motivated by experiences other than death, I asked the parents
if they had moved recently. They told me they had lived in the same location
until their child was 4 ½ years old. Since
then, they had moved twice. The second move was when their daughter was just
over 5 years old. Then the family settled into their current home, where they
planned to stay. Their daughter, they said, seemed to take these moves well.
I wondered if this youngster missed her old house, yard, and room where
she had lived for 4 ½ years. This seemed possible. However, it did
not explain the persistent control of her peer friend.
I went over in my
mind the daughter’s two current unusual behavioral
patterns: the possessive control of her kindergarten friend and her “I
don’t care,” disengaged attitude about life. She was exhibiting
both aggressive tendencies and also a passive and distrustful attitude. The
research on child development makes clear that to risk investing their selfhood
in new play experiences, learning, new friends, and the like, children first
must develop trust that their investment will lead to positive outcomes.
asked the parents if their daughter had any close friends before the first
move, when she was 4½ years old. They remembered she had two childhood
friends. They thought both friendships were important to their daughter.
information gave me an idea about the possible cause of this child’s
problems. I believed I could now make recommendations that—if my hypothesis
were accurate—would solve the child’s behavioral and attitudinal
I told the parents that when a young child loses a friend, the child
experiences the loss very much as an adult does when a close friend dies.
In both cases, there is sadness at the loss of someone to whom the individual
was emotionally close. And in both cases, an accompanying anger develops because
an important relationship has died and the survivor had no control over the
loss. Anger and depression—an “I don’t care” attitude—can
follow the death or loss of someone who has meant a lot to a person over the
years. This can happen to young children if a close relationship has lasted
only a year or two. When she was 4 ½, this girl was taken from her
friends by her parents. She had no say in or control over the move. She could
not prevent the loss of her friendships. This child’s recent controlling
and possessive behavior toward a kindergarten friend might be expressing her
anger-fueled determination to maintain control now. This time she would not
let her friend leave. This might be the message her behavior was communicating
when she physically held onto her friend and directed her activities.
the above as empirically supported hypotheses (solutions to the problems based
on evidence), I suggested this mother and father telephone the parents of
their daughter’s “lost” friends. This mom and dad should
explain the current situation to them and arrange for a variety of contacts
between their daughter and her old friends. The important goal was to renew
and continue the friendships their daughter missed and for which she was longing.
For this child, these friendships had had great meaning. The loss of them
could have caused her to enter an angry depression. The parents agreed to
The mother and father called me several months later to say their
behavior had begun to change for the better and her vitality had returned.
They told me that when they first spoke to their daughter about contacting
her two friends, she mentioned a third young friend she also wanted to see
again. They described how their daughter was at first hesitant, even resistant
to reestablishing her former friendships. This phase passed. Now she enjoyed
speaking to her old friends on the telephone and visiting and playing with
The mother told me that, as a result of the renewed contacts, the
parents of her daughter’s friends reported observing an improvement
in their own children’s behavior. The other children had been missing
the friend who moved away.
I have spoken with these parents several times.
The old child-to-child friendships have been renewed, enlivened, and enriched.
Their daughter is back to her own self again. And she is making new friends.
The “I don’t care” attitude
and possessive control of friends no longer exist.
The child-rearing dilemma
and resolution described here illustrate how important it is for parents to
understand the normal developmental needs of children. When parents can empathize
with their child by seeing life experiences from their child’s point
of view, they can develop effective diagnostic skills. Using these diagnostic
skills, they are able to prevent and resolve behavior problems of all types.