- Lora Lee
Relationships: put yourself in your child's shoes to understand bad behaviour
One step at a time for unruly stepson
My stepson is coming to live with us this summer. I have been married to his mother for five years and we have a six-year-old daughter. He has always been defiant, and at the age of 12 was expelled from school. We have got him a school placement for September, but how can we discipline him and get him to observe our house rules? The family indulges him beyond belief because my wife feels guilty for having left him with his father. He has stayed with us for two months every year during his school holiday, but it has been challenging. He is very impulsive and defiant. Is it too early to medicate him? I think he has ADHD and problems with anger management.
I am not going to tell you there is a quick fix, and I am not asking you to coddle him. But before I offer advice about your stepson, and before resorting to medication, try to put yourself in his shoes for five minutes.
What do you think it would be like to grow up thinking you have been abandoned by your mother for a new family? You live a comfortable life, but you know that your mother is cuddling and loving your half-sister and step-siblings.
Children compare and compete with their siblings, and when it comes to attention, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Have you considered that his acting out may be a cry for attention?
Your daughter and your biological children become who they are through countless hours of interaction, discipline, parenting (from you, the mother of your children and your wife) and they feel cared for and loved. Children learn table manners, respect for others and self-control from their parents and caregivers in an environment where they know they are wanted. Good manners, respect for others and self-control are all learned behaviours that take time to establish, they don't magically happen. Similarly, undesirable behaviours are learned and can be unlearned.
There is no one-size-fits-all technique when it comes to parenting. I often tell parents to try to find the underlying cause of undesired behaviour first. Once you know the real issues your stepson is struggling with, parenting and disciplining him will be relatively straightforward, efficient and rewarding.
What is the most important thing you want him to learn or change? Take it one step at a time. Think of a company restructuring - once you know what is not working, try one strategy at a time to find something more productive and efficient. Imagine you are not only restructuring your company, you are relocating it at the same time, so give it time and take it slowly. When you are the CEO of a company, you should have clear, consistent and relatively easy-to-follow guidelines for your employees. Let your stepson know what boundaries he needs to comply with and your expectations of him in three, six and 12 months.
Regarding your thoughts that he may have ADHD, Dr Bruce Perry, an American psychiatrist and researcher in children's mental health, recently suggested that ADHD is best thought of as a description of a broad set of physiological problems. In an interview with The Guardian, he argued that "treating children's hyperactivity with drugs was similar to giving a heart attack patient painkillers - it ignores the cause of the problem, which could be as simple as an iron deficiency".
To be diagnosed with ADHD, your stepson would need to have at least six of the criteria that interfere with his functioning or development for more than six months. It seems unfair to judge someone who has just moved away from home to a new place and new family.
Increasingly, research is linking unstructured play time and physical activity to levels of ADHD exhibited by individuals. Questions I often ask during intake are: what is the level of physical activity a child or adolescent has? What is their diet like?
I work with a psychiatrist when the need is urgent and the person needs medication before any intervention can take place, but at this point, before taking your stepson to see a psychiatrist, why not take him to see a nutritionist and rule out the possibilities that allergies and food sensitivities are responsible for some of his behaviour?
Try to put yourself in his position. How would you like your stepfather treat you? Show him your acceptance and let your relationship build before trying to change his behaviour. It is much easier to modify his behaviour and build a strong bond now than when the stormy teenage years arrive.
Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor who works in private practice as an adjunct to her non-profit work at St John's Counselling Service