Children behaving badly is par for the parenting course, but when it turns extreme questions need to be asked. Brigit Grant speaks to Dr Nikki Teper
Muck Up Day, according to Collins English Dictionary, is: the last day of school before annual examinations, marked by practical jokes and student pranks. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? But the definition was taken to the extreme on 7 May when students at JFS ran riot, deliberately damaging the school building and, as a result, its reputation.
Hurling the traditional flour was just the start of Year 11 pupils’ high jinks as they allegedly moved on to eggs, dead chickens, paint and stink bombs.
The exact details of the pranks vary according to which Jewish grapevine you’re tuned into, but the balaclava-clad ringleaders incited enough of a rebellion for them to be escorted from the campus, only for them to then break through a security fence, which lead to the police being called.
For a community used to reading about the excellence of its schools in the national press, to suddenly see a much-lauded institution splashed across the Daily Mail in a negative light is not easy and, inevitably, there were questions. Lots of them.
Clinical psychologist Dr Nikki Teper may hold some of the answers and, fittingly, she is the leading expert in a new Channel 4 series called Born Naughty.
The show, which started last Thursday, looks at children with behavioural issues, while attempting to improve them, which is what Dr Teper has dedicated her professional life to doing with the five to 18 age group.
Here, she answers our questions…
I personally struggle with the idea that any child is born “naughty”. The fact that a child’s family, relationships, experiences, culture and community don’t play a role in the person they become, seems both unrealistic and unidimensional. Research over the years has shown time and again that both nature and nurture are involved in a child’s development. The other important thing to consider is that children tend to be “naughty” for a reason – whether for attention, habit, or to fulfil a role – and the possibility that they are pre-programmed to be naughty seems short-sighted.
In my experience, children will rarely engage in very bad behaviour out of the blue. More often than not, parents will notice signs along the way, suggestive that the child is engaging in undesirable behaviour. Some parents might notice that their children struggle with managing their anger, whereas others might find their children will not keep to the rules of the house. Often, a child who disrespects rules outside the house is likely to disrespect the rules inside the house… although, of course, this is not always true and some children behave very differently inside, versus outside, the home. The interesting issue for parents who have noticed bad behaviour previously, is whether or not it’s a problem for them. If a child disrespects their parents, and they don’t mind, that child will behave this way outside the house, and even at school.
Any child who is a ringleader will possess the ability to encourage others. While this could be a negative trait, it could also be used in other more positive ways to encourage and inspire others. Unfortunately, behavioural issues in children that are not addressed can often worsen as the child gets older – small children small problems… bigger children, bigger problems. Communication is often the key and yet many parents admit that they are not talking to their teenagers about their behavioural issues. It is important to understand why ringleaders are using their skills of leadership in this way, and to try and encourage them to harness these skills in a better way.
Two of the most common things I’m told by parents, when working with a family is: “We’ve tried everything” and “when we shout, he/she just shouts louder”. The first thing I always suggest is that therein lies the problem – the fact that you’ve tried everything indicates that you have not stuck with anything. And, as a result, your teenager is going to struggle to figure out the rules in the house. Decide what you feel is right, and stick to it. If you are unsure, clinical psychologists can work with you to suggest straightforward techniques to manage behaviour. Second, it is a futile experience to shout at your children. Almost always they will shout back and it will encourage a household of highly-charged shouting in the place of communication.
Punishment rarely works and only creates anger and no learning at all. The goal must be teaching a child how to behave better, not simply giving them attention when they behave badly. Research shows that behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated. Any behaviour that is not rewarded will become extinct. To punish a child with shouting or smacking simply gives attention (and therefore a reward), which does nothing except exacerbate the problem. A better way of dealing with behavioural problems is to try to remove rewards for the bad and increase rewards and attention for the good.
I’m not sure we can categorise all young Jewish parents into one definition of being “liberal” and “relaxed”. In my experience of working within the community, parents vary enormously in their child-rearing techniques. Another issue to consider is that not all liberal or relaxed parents give into their children’s wants or needs. However, there is some validity in this notion that children tend to flourish and behave well when they are given relative freedom within strong, consistent boundaries at home, and where there is good communication between child and parents.
Take time to carefully consider why your child is acting the way they are. What are the benefits? Are they inadvertently receiving some kind of reward for it? How much praise and attention do they receive for good behaviour rather than negative behaviour? Think also about how you manage bad behaviour – is there shouting involved? Shouting rarely leads to any positive change. Another consideration is what consequences there are for a child who behaves badly. Ultimately, I would encourage you to think carefully about what message you send to your children, and how to encourage good behaviour while at the same time discouraging bad behaviour. If you continue to struggle, it might be helpful to contact a psychologist for more individual advice.
• Born Naughty is on Channel 4 – You can catch up with the series online – click here.