SEPARATE THE KID FROM THE BEHAVIOR†
By Jo Ann Wentzel
Many parents and even a few child workers we have met, seem unable to separate the kid from the behavior. They speak of a bad kid, when they really mean a kid who behaves badly. They see him as a violent child rather than one who exhibits violent behavior occasionally. They believe he is a drug addict, not recognizing he is a child who is addicted to drugs. Separating the child from the behavior does not excuse that child from responsibility for their actions but, it does make it easier to deal with that child.
When a youth starts to rebel, his behavior deteriorates. He hasn't become a bad kid. It is true his behavior is not desirable but, it is the behavior which has changed not the child. He is, in fact, the very same kid you loved before the new behavior came on the scene. For some folks, this is a difficult distinction but, it needs to be made.
Unwanted behavior is an outward sign of an inward problem. It's the driving force he uses to reach a particular goal. These goals will vary from child to child. Usually they amount to a way of being noticed or striking back at a parent. The behavior may be conscious or unconscious but, either way it does not mean your child has turned into some kind of monster.
Treating him like you always treated him in the past will help him begin to act as he once did. This does not imply that you must approve or accept the behavior, just the child. When parents withhold love and attention from a child who is misbehaving, it can only increase that undesired behavior. It can do serious damage to an already strained relationship. This unacceptable behavior may anger you. You must try to do anything you can to correct or change it. In reality, we all know your efforts are not what counts since the child must be responsible for ultimately changing his own behavior. Don't try changing the behavior by neglecting the child. It is not sensible to stop speaking to the child. To stop giving your love and affection at this time is a very bad idea. This is when your child needs it most. He needs support when he is at his worse. The bonding you have experienced with this child becomes very fragile when you decide to withhold attention.
Attack the unacceptable behavior in a systematic way. Concentrate on one or two things, not everything. Use common sense and humor. Be firm, but reasonable. Explain why this behavior is unacceptable. It is vital the child understands. Is his behavior unlawful? Tell him, explaining the law and the possible consequences. Maybe this new rebellious nature is wrong because of safety issues. The child needs to understand the dangers to which he is exposing himself and others. Express your objections on moral grounds or as a matter of principal but, make sure they know why you want them to stop this activity. If your family has a strong faith, knowing this behavior goes against biblical teachings may be important to him. Tell the child this behavior will not be tolerated, even though you love him. Explain the consequences he can expect if he continues in this way.
Reassure him of your unconditional love. Explain to him that term means you will love him no matter what his behavior but, you won't put up with that behavior. Show him that he has support for his problems. Don't let him believe he is bad or stupid.Keep him from feeling that his situation is hopeless. Hopelessness will cause a further deterioration of his behavior. He must know he will always have a home and family waiting for him. This is a good time to explain to him that if his behavior damages the family, these things may be restricted to him. Sometimes when the situation becomes unbearable, parents may need help or a break from his behavior. It could mean a short separation but, it would never mean his parents donít love him anymore. It will never mean they will not take him back into the family since he will always be part of it.† Let him know if that happens, there is a way to work himself back to them.
Sometimes a child feels so abandoned he gives up on himself. Although the behavior has isolated him, he may not try to correct it. This can be dangerous since some kids in this position become suicidal. When the child appears to feel hopeless, watch him carefully. This is the most important time to reach out to him. Even though he is unpleasant to be around, he needs your companionship now. Bypass the ugliness to see the beauty of your child. Get past all the violence and find that loving, kind part that this kid has locked inside. Ignore the vulgarity and look for what is wholesome in that child. Most kids can't be totally rotten; good seeps out every now and then.
This advice is not easy. If you are willing to search hard enough, you will find a frightened, hurting, real human being underneath that rough exterior. He may reveal his vulnerable, inner self, the part you know is there. The part of him you love most. Encourage all good behavior and anytime he shows the inner child that is still vulnerable and angry but, loving-praise him.