The Kid is Running with the Wrong Crowd

Running-with-wrong-crowd-1It seems that more and more parents are asking the question, “Why am I having so many problems with my teenage son or daughter? She won’t listen to me when I speak to her. She talks back or ignores me completely and she’s hanging around with the wrong crowd and starting to get into trouble.” Many times these parents look to the school for answers and will even blame the school when their child falls in with “the wrong crowd.”

The truth is that Travis and Sara were on a course to have behavioral issues in the middle school and high school years long before they became teenagers.

Despite what most parents believe, children do not magically start having attitude problems when they reach their middle school or high school years. Social, emotional and behavior patterns are developed in the years prior to a child entering school. Now, I know most of us parents are thinking this is a crock! My child didn’t have any serious behavior problems before he entered school. In fact I had no problem handling Travis’s behavior when he was three, four and five years old.

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Although most of us parents believe this to be true, disciplining a toddler and shaping his or her behavior patterns are not the same thing. We have all been in situations where we’ve seen a young child acting out in public and thought to ourselves, “Geez, I wish that mom would learn how to handle that kid. He’s throwing a tantrum right in the middle of the aisle and she’s not doing anything to stop it!” But do we really think that mother would allow the same behavior if they were at home and the child started throwing a similar tantrum? Or what if this was the fourth tantrum Travis had thrown today and mom was tired of dealing with the behavior and now it’s just easier on her to let him wail? Maybe instead of letting him wail, mom grabs a candy bar off the shelf and hands it to Travis, who immediately shuts up and starts chewing on his prize. Maybe she leans over and quietly threatens to spank him as soon as they’re outside. Maybe she does take him out of sight and spank him.

Which discipline strategy is correct? Which will be most effective? Which will have the greatest long-term impact?

The reality is that different children respond differently to various forms of discipline. There is no one discipline strategy that will work for all children, but research has shown that there are factors that predict the level of discipline problems a child will have when he/she reaches the teenage years. Loeber and Dishion (1983) found that “the most powerful predictors of later delinquency were parenting variables–specifically, those related to harsh, inconsistent discipline and poor supervision.”
Most of us have heard the saying, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Unfortunately, as parents we sometime lose our cool and over punish because we are tired, frustrated, angry, or hurried, and we end up taking our frustrations out on our children; but another time we don’t punish at all. Today the tantrum is ignored. Tomorrow the child is spanked for her tantrum. Next week the child is given a cookie to keep her quiet. All of these discipline strategies may have worked at the time, but what are we teaching our children? The inconsistency of our behavior will foster inconsistency in our child’s behavior.

Dishion, Patterson, and Kavanagh (1991), Patterson and Bank (1989), Patterson et al. (1989), Patterson et al. (1991), Patterson et al. (1992) have shown that “parental mismanagement (i.e., harsh and inconsistent discipline) of early oppositional behavior shapes further aggressive behavior through a process involving increasingly coercive parent-child interactions. Patterson and colleagues also noted in their study that this type of inconsistent parenting and discipline accounts for delinquent and antisocial behavior in adolescents through proximal peer influence, but suggest that poor family management practices (especially coercive interactions and poor monitoring) account for the engagement with deviant peers.”

I’ll speak more on this topic on my next blog post.