Our son keeps getting into trouble

Dear Jenny Hale

We have two children – a 10-year-old daughter and a son who has just turned seven. Our son, Daniel, has almost total disregard for authority. He won’t make eye contact, or keep still when being told off (behaviour does not differ depending on who is telling him off). Even when he knows the rules at home and at school, he will do what he likes, when it suits him, and doesn’t actually seem to mind being put in time out.

He is getting in trouble at school for mucking around, disrupting the class and distracting others. His teacher has called me in twice this term to say he has had to put him in time out so often that he is concerned he will miss a lot of the basics.

We have tried taking away treasured toys and getting him to ‘earn’ them back with good behaviour. Isolating him works as he doesn’t like being separated from family, but the result is very short term. We just want him to respect the wishes and rights of others – especially adults – and stay more focused at school.

Jenny’s tips

Daniel sounds like he is caught up in a negative spiral – getting into trouble at home and at school. When a child continually gets into trouble and there is lots of growling, nagging, being told off, and lectures about how bad their behaviour is, they come to believe they are simply bad and naughty, and perform to this picture accurately.

Children who consistently behave poorly need help to get out of the groove they are stuck in. Parents find that they get sensitive to every mistake and wrong action made by their child, and their annoyance spills over. One thing that works almost immediately is to change the dialogue. This will mean talking to Daniel about his goodness, not his badness.

He already knows the bad stuff, but locked inside him is a boy with amazing potential. He needs to hear that. Try something along the lines of, “Daniel l like being with you. You are good company and I like how you can ________________. We have had a rough patch. This behaviour is not like you because you are better than this. We need you to show us the real, good and kind Daniel.”

He also needs clearly pointed out what he is doing well, and what he is learning to do well. A homemade book can change a child who is discouraged and despairing, to a child who sees his accomplishments and his ongoing learning. Daniel, like most boys, needs to be inspired to lift himself to a better place. He needs to hear that his mum and dad believe in him.

The outcome

Daniel’s parents changed the way they spoke to him. The very first thing they did was write a message on his whiteboard – ‘Daniel is a good boy and we love him dearly’. This greeted him the morning after yet another telling off for his bad behaviour. It signalled the beginning of some very big changes. Daniel loved seeing these positive words and began to act accordingly.

Daniel’s parents also got busy making him two books. One titled Things Daniel is Good at, and the other, Things Daniel is Learning to Do. They found this tapped into his desire to do well and accomplish things. It wasn’t long before he had pages in his book that said, “Daniel is good at getting ready for school, Daniel is good at being honest and Daniel is good at trying new things”. Daniel was very motivated to move from, ‘Daniel is learning to’ to ‘Daniel is good at’. His teacher was updated with what was happening at home, and transferred the ideas and success to school.

It was a help to Daniel’s mum to know what made children resistant, and less likely to do the right thing. Lectures and nagging were dropped in favour of staying calm and pleasant, offering short explanations and lifting expectations. At last report, Daniel continues to be a new delight in his family.