Naughty is as naughty does

What exactly is 'naughty' and how does a parent distinguish real naughtiness from 'age appropriate' behaviour?

When you're having yet another stand off with your wilful, disobedient toddler, you're sure to wonder whether your child's behaviour is normal or whether this is just a natural developmental stage.

This can be confusing for parents desperate to raise well-behaved, respectful and disciplined children without squashing their spirits or being unreasonable.

So how do you know when your child is being naughty or simply doing what's age-appropriate?

Experts say that a naughty child is one who knows the difference between right and wrong, but doesn't control his own behaviour – he may lack the maturity to exert self-control.

Well, let's face it; your baby is far too young to have any "maturity" or self-control, so you need to lower your expectations of good behaviour at this age.

As for your toddler, if left to his own devices, he'll do all the things you wish he wouldn't – simply because they're usually a great deal of fun to do. And he's hardly a model of self-control and maturity either. But if you spell out clearly what you expect of him and what the consequences of his behaviour will be, you'll often be pleasantly surprised at his compliance.

It's an age-old parenting rule, that clearly stating boundaries will help your child understand what you want and enable him to conform. It's often just a case of priming your child beforehand.

Generally, when your child is under 3 it's normal and healthy for him to push boundaries and explore, despite what you say. So, realistically, you can't define unruly behaviour as "naughty" when he's simply being a toddler.

Developmental instinct
Children are often punished for doing what they are developmentally programmed to do – explore.

It's developmentally normal for your 2-year-old to test your boundaries en route to forming his sense of independence. Dubbed the "terrible twos" this period is critical for your child's development. While you may find your patience tested greatly, remember that too much insistence on your child's conforming to your wishes will create developmental problems later on, such as his not having a clear sense of self, or not trusting healthy instincts.

Strike a balance, allowing him to have his way in matters of individual taste such as preferred recreational activities, the clothes he wears or some of the foods he eats.

The more choices you give him the more he is likely to behave on issues of critical importance such as hygiene, or safety.

Letting him play in the mud is better than having him set off for the mountain with his buddy and a toy tent behind your back.

However, aside from normal developmental instincts, there are other hidden reasons or extenuating circumstances that can cause your child to become defiant, act out and ignore your boundaries. Very often, this behaviour can be a cry for help.

Underlying causes
1. Physical

There are clear physical reasons why your young child may exhibit "naughty" behaviour. These need to be ruled out before you analyse his behaviour and jump to conclusions:

  • Fatigue
    If kept up way past his bedtime or afternoon nap, your child will become irrational and moody, unable to manage his behaviour.

  • Dehydration
    If your child is dehydrated, he may get feverish in which case there may be lots of wailing and tantrums.

  • Hunger
    If he is very hungry and denied a snack before meals, your child may become grouchy and rebellious. Bring the meal time forward if you do not want him snacking just before dinner or offer a healthy snack and push his dinner out a bit later. Try not to stick to rigid rules about meal times.

  • Food intolerances or allergies
    Your child may be suffering from a reaction to certain foods, or preservatives, additives and pesticides in your food. Consult a registered dietician to test for the edible cause of disobedient and unruly behaviour.

    2. Psychological: "Acting out"
    There are several psychological reasons why your child may be "acting out", which is a psychological term for unconscious behaviour. If the subconscious is driving his behaviour, your child is not seeking to be naughty and displease you. Something has "triggered" his emotions and caused him to behave compulsively in this way. Some of these triggers are:

  • Sibling rivalry
    Understand that sibling rivalry is a survival instinct, driven by a child's fear that his needs for love are threatened and will not continue to be met. It is not naughtiness, although it may seem so. Parents need to reassure each child that they are just as loved and wanted as the other. If you find your child always acts "naughty" with his sibling's toys or disrupts special times that sibling is enjoying, you need to find ways in which you can reassure that child and give him his fair percentage of your love and time.

  • "Elephants in the living room"
    Psychologists speak of a phenomenon called "triangulation", in which a child is emotionally depended on by one parent, as a substitute for their partner's lack of support. A child cannot cope with these transferred emotions and will act out to release the stress.

    Other causes of acting out can be one parent's depression, alcoholism, retrenchment, or the death of a grandparent. All of the above factors tend to create what psychologists refer to as "the elephant in the living room".

    Everyone walks around denying what is not being dealt with – but a child senses the underlying factor and acts out. The solution is to discuss whatever is troubling your family in a relaxed and united way. Rather than perceiving one person as the problem, the family need to unite against a common problem – whatever the cause.

    Gail Strauss, a family counsellor in Cape Town, says, "I've yet to counsel a family where the child is the real problem. It's always the case that a family problem is being concealed and the young child becomes the 'symptom bearer', behaving like a human alarm bell so that denial can't continue."

  • Separation anxiety
    Aside from the normal anxiety felt by young children who haven't learnt to separate from a mother, a toddler who feels anxious when a parent is away, may be carrying the symptoms of marital strife in the home. If a child has been "triangulated" by a mother who fears her husband will leave her, that child will express the mother's fears and insecurity.

    Similarly, if someone in your family has died, your child may need to be counselled to understand that this is unlikely to occur again. If your child is of an age when they should have learnt to separate without fear, but continue to "act out", consult a family counsellor to unearth the reasons why.

    Parents define real naughtiness
    After asking several parents of toddlers which situations require discipline for infants, it seems there are surprisingly few. Denzel Faber, a dad of two, says, "Swearing, or when actions can cause physical injury."

    Kirsten Filmer has three disciplinary rules. "Situations of danger, like playing with plugs; hitting; and when mischievous behaviour is repeated so many times it could become a habit."

    Vuyo Molatse says, "Dangerous situations like when Kabo played near the swimming pool and fell in after I warned her not to. That's serious."

    Sally Foster says, "If it's something defiant like pushing boundaries and not listening to us, we simply withhold rewards. But if Ben does something dangerous like running into the road we discipline him more severely."

    Investigative strategies
    If you've ruled out the above reasons and still don't know why your child continues to do everything you've taught him to be unacceptable, don't despair.

    Ask other caregivers whether your child only behaves this way with you or with them too. If it's only with you he may have a genuine need for attention. This need is often misunderstood or discounted, but it's a developmental necessity. Discovering that your child needs more special time can save years of worsening problems.

    If your child behaves like this with all caregivers and you can't find out why, consult a child psychologist, family counsellor or alternative therapist. Additionally, there are some clever techniques you can use to determine what's up. One of these is art classes.

    Juli Beattie, who runs The Art Room in the UK says, "Thank goodness children are naughty, because sometimes 'naughtiness' tells us that something is wrong in their life. It's our duty as professionals to find out why they are being naughty.

    "A child with difficulties in their life, who displays naughty behaviour, is a child who has the know-how to alert us to their needs. At the project, the children are allowed to express their difficulties and their needs in a safe environment through art projects that raise self-esteem, self-confidence and independence. Once they begin to feel good about themselves, the 'naughty' behaviour lessens."

    Gareth Lewis, editor of Freedom in Education Magazine, says, "Children aren't capable of behaving badly, they simply respond to the situation they find themselves in."

    In other words, your child is only trying to cope in the only way he knows how, whenever he is troubled physically or emotionally.

    Ultimately, in a world where childhood truancy is on the increase, along with the breakdown of normal family structures, perhaps we need to confront those "elephants in the living room", before we call our children "naughty".

    At the end of the day, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is: "Is my child really being naughty, or is he just expressing himself the only way he can?"

    The Art Room project (011) 888 7655
    Art Therapy Classes – contact Nicky Hards 083 773 3310

    What do you think about "naughty" children? Is it a cry for help, or are they just plain naughty? Tell us in the comment box below.

    - Your Baby magazine


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