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Children with behavioral difficulties create great challenges both at home, in kindergarten and at school. The most important thing you can do to help these children is to build their children's self-esteem. 

 Image: Dreamstime (with licence)

This article is based on own considerations, as well as on lectures with Lisbeth Iglum Rønhovde, during a course for the pedagogical-psychological service (Norwegian: PPT) in Hordaland on 25 April 2013. 


What are conduct problems?

All children have some degree of behavioral difficulties. That is to say: they are not fully educated and they constantly challenge the boundaries of adults. 2-year-olds are the most behaviorally difficult people there are:

Here it is in nature that they do more or less exactly as they want, and they are completely dependent on adults who both set boundaries for the children, and who make the children still feel cherished, valuable and recognized as who they are.

Still, there are some children who have much more difficult behaviors than most children. There can be many reasons for this. Much lies in the child's innate personality. Where some children are by nature "easy" to regulate, other children are so complicated that the parents can more than once be completely abandoned. It is important to recognize that children are different in nature!

Children who later receive diagnoses such as autism or ADHD, would like to have been very complicated, restless, or noticeable from about day 1. 

At the same time, behavioral difficulties do not only have to do with the child. A better term than behavioral difficulties may be interaction difficulties. That is, children have a difficult behavior because they have problems interacting with other people. Thus, the child's behavior will always vary based on how well other people (and especially adults) interact with these children, and to what extent the adults are able to meet the child in a way that is good for this child. 

Developmental behavioral difficulties therefore occur in the interaction between heredity (the innate) and the environment (what the child experiences), and the most important thing parents and adults can do is accept that the child is in a basic way as it is (and always will be). 

At the same time parents need to find ways to help the child to improve its function levels.

Many parents and adults have a difficult start in this upbringing, and instead of succeeding in an interaction that is adapted to the child - one enters into a "fighter relationship" - that is: a constant power struggle between the adults and the child.

Have you gotten into a fight with your child? Do not despair. There is also a way out of these eternal battles! Wa as adults have the power to change the interaction. Here you read tips for you who have behaviorally difficult children / adolescents!


What is helpful for behavioral problems?

To help always means to give help to self-help. In other words: Helping will always mean making the person you are helping more independent. Raising children is no exception! Upbringing is the lengthy work of enabling children to function in this world, both in terms of being able to relate to themselves and others in a good way. 

Facilitation is not always easy. Especially because many do not seem to want help! As children grow up, some children with behavioral difficulties may appear in this way. They seem tough, self-reliant, self-willed and uninterested in anyone helping them. Then it is wise to remember that "the toughest among us are often the most vulnerable on the inside". 

If a child / adolescent has behavioral difficulties, it is therefore no doubt that the person himself or herself suffers from this, no matter how much they try to hide it. 

The most important thing in all helping efforts is, as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has pointed out, to "find the person where he / she is, and start there". Then we must be able to look beyond the outside. We must look beyond the behavior of the child or young person. We need to look inside the other! And then we would see that there is often a question of poor self-esteem!

Helping children with behavioral difficulties must therefore always be something more than setting clearer rules or being more authoritarian. It must involve finding ways that also improve the child's or young person's thoughts about themselves, their belief in being able to succeed, and their motivation and desire to cooperate with others.


Good self-esteem provides better learning

There are many good reasons to focus on how to help children with behavioral difficulties to a better self-esteem. It turns out that children / adolescents with little faith in themselves have problems with learning:


  1. They feel that the tasks they are given are something invincible
  2. If they do not immediately find a way into the task, they stop completely
  3. When the "I can't manage" feeling occurs, the child / adolescent has no alternative approach. He / she is sure that what they do will be wrong / bad
  4. If they have started up with a task, they work with the same energy whether the task is easy or difficult

On the other hand, students who believe in themselves will have many advantages when it comes to utilizing their abilities to learn:


  1. They see themselves as the main character in relation to the task
  2. They understand what the task is about; they get an overview, delimit, and clarify
  3. They distinguish between what they can and what they do not know very well
  4. They work calmly and methodically, go quickly through what they manage well to have better time eventually to what they need to look at more closely

Giving children better self-belief is therefore not only the way out of behavioral difficulties, but also the way into better learning!


Creating golden moments

According to the psychologist Jesper Juul (1996), our self-esteem is built in the following way:

Our self-esteem develops by virtue of two main nutrients: When at least one of the important people in our lives "sees" and recognizes us as we are, and when we experience that we are valuable to other people as we are.

Here again we must remember that the toughest among us are often the most vulnerable on the inside. Lisbeth Iglum Rønhovde points out the usual example where the teacher asks the young people with behavioral difficulties to take off their caps in the classroom. What the teacher forgets is that he / she then actually asks the youth to "bring off" their identity, and it is no wonder that the youth will therefore go to battle and refuse to do what he / she is asked!

As adults, we must learn to choose our fights carefully.

Many fights should be left alone! If you are unable to opt out of any fights, you are in reality in a "fighter relationship", and it is as created to make the behavioral difficulties worse. Instead of believing that it is about defeating the child / youth, the adults' focus must be on how we can create golden moments for the child / youth: moments that strengthen self-esteem!

It's about designing moments that can be praised afterwards, says Lisbeth Iglum Rønhovde.

Rønhovde points out the example of an autistic student who was always driven to school by taxi, but instead of going directly inoto school, he ran to a bus that came to school shortly after. The librarian came with this bus, and every day this young student had to help her carry her bag and support her on her way to school.

In other words: the austitic student himself designed a situation where he became valuable! Where he got to "be something" for another, which made him feel important. 

These are the golden moments we as adults must create for the behaviorally difficult children and young people: moments where they experience being something other than a problem!


Choose your fights carefully

The "basket theory" can be used here. It says something about which fights we should choose and which we should not discard:


  1. Basket 1: This one has to do with behaviors that potentially may be cause harm and devastation (Relax! This basket does not get full; this is behavior that is so important to prevent that fights related to these behaviors must be chosen, even where it will lead to massive tantrums)
  2. Basket 2: This one has to to wit top prioritized behaviors that needs correction. These are behaviors that are paramount to gain control over.
  3. Basket 3: These are behaviors that are unwanted, but which are not absolutely necessary to correct (e.g. to clean the room, hang up the jacket). Such fights should be discarded whenever there is a need to stabilize the situation. 

If the child has many outbursts of rage, this is a sufficiently good reason to discard all the fights in basket 3. This basket contains all the requirements or expectations we have for the child or young person, but which should be open to negotiation.

When we negotiate, it is important how we as adults behave, as we are role models for the child / youth. That is, how we react when things escalate gives children an example of dealing with disagreement.

If we ourselves go straight into conflict and show aggression, we should not be surprised that the child will do the same. If we as adults manage to keep calm even when the child does not, this provides important learning for the child or young person, and will be able to pay off in the long run!

In short, it is absolutely necessary to opt out of MANY fights, and at the same time avoid discarding the MOST IMPORTANT fights merely because we want to avoid outbursts of rage.


Catch them doing something good

It is said that one should talk to children in a special way to curb behavioral difficulties: 5 positive messages for every negative one. You probably recognize this with it yourself! If you have received a lot of positive messages from someone, you better tolerate them providing you with some form of negative feedback.

Parents and adults who work with children with behavioral difficulties are the first to agree on this. At the same time, they can tell that it is extremely difficult to implement in practice.

The child rarely does anyting that is worth praise!

If this is the case, the challenge as mentioned lies in designing the moments that make it possible for the child / youth to do something good! And in the next step, you have to "catch the child doing something good"! It does not need to be something major! It may, for example, be when the child only protests orally, but still does what you have asked him to do. Although it may feel strange to praise this, it is wise to keep this in mind. As one mother put it:

It is actually very good that he (the youth) carries out the rubbish. He does not have to do it with pleasure!

There is an incredible help for the adults in this: To lower the requirements for how obedient the child / youth should be before you think it is worth praising, and before you think it is good enough! Try next time your child is obedient (regardless of how) to praise this, and to try being happy with it. We might not always expect our child to be obedient and at the same time be in a good mood!

By having less perfectionist demands on your child, you may feel better together - and it may build the child's / youth's self-esteem!


Use reward systems 

Many children learn poorly from having negative consequences and punishment! They learn much better from doing something correct and experiencing that it pays off. This is the reason why it is wise to use reward systems in dealing with children with behavioral difficulties. This applies not least to children with ADHD or autism.

A reward system can be, for example, that you tick off a form every time the child does a certain type of behavior, and that it is collected up to a certain reward at a certain number of ticks.

In the book "The Incredible Years" by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, there is a separate chapter on how to create reward systems that work. Experience has shown that it is not necessarily so easy to make these systems work in practice, but at the same time that small changes are often needed before they take effect.

So please do not say: I have tried the reward system, but it did not work!

If this is your expericence, it might simply mean that the reward system you used did not work. There is room for improvement in creating effective reward systems.


Preparation / adult management

Preparation is important, and it is in the details that the great impact lies. It is therefore important as an adult to constantly try to be one step ahead. This can be achieved by having a very structured plan for the day in advance, preferably lined up on a day board or similar. For example, it can be as simple as making the morning routine on the wall:

Get up - Go to the bathroom - Wash your hands - Get dressed - Have breakfast - Get in the car

Such a plan is very enlightening also for the adults, who thus become more aware of what is expected of the child / youth, and such a clear plan reduces the chances that the child / youth misunderstands what is expected. If you have such a plan, it can be combined with a reward system!


Distraction, not discussion

How often do you get into discussions with the children with behavioral difficulties?

The answer is simple: Almost all the time.

Almost every message given is the subject of protests or negative input from these children. It is a good idea to keep in mind that many of the children with behavioral problems are very distractable, that is, they are easily distracted, and this is something you as an adult can use for something positive. 

Many conflicts can be diverted by you as a parent or teacher not accepting the child's invitation for a discussion.

Rather repeat the message once (not more!) And quickly find a way to distract the child from protesting. Diverting in this way is not easy. It's an art! And it is very important that you don't implement distractions in ways that only makes the child feel ignored!

It is quite possible to ignore unwanted behavior, without ignoring the child.

As soon as the child / youth "forgets" to protest, you have won the battle without having to go into a "fighter relationship".

As long as the child / youth now actually does SOMETHING of what you expect of it, it's time to praise this! And by all means: Just forget to criticize that the child was not COMPLETELY obedient! Or that the child should be MORE obedient next time.

By combining clear messages, distraction, lowered demands, and praise in this way, you create a breeding ground for a good self-esteem in the child, and which increases the probability that the child / youth will cooperate with you!


Diet, sleep and physical activity

The poorer your diet, the worse you function, and this clearly goes beyond the ability to behave in a sensible way.

With low blood sugar, it is not just children with behavioral problems who become irritable, unconcentrated, and who make many poor choices.

An important measure to help children / adolescents with behavioral difficulties is therefore to provide foods that keep blood sugar as stable as possible. Put bluntly, it can be said that sugar is an important challenge in stabilizing children with behavioral difficulties! It is a general problem that many children (and adults for that matter) get too much fast carbs.

Fast carbohydrates are like lighting a fire with newsprint: the fire burns up quickly, but dies out almost immediately, says Lisbeth Iglum Rønhovde.

In the same way, sleep is important for stability in behavior. If the child has sleep problems, this is also something that should be given the highest priority. If your child does not get enough sleep, you should seek help to get some guidance. 

Physical exercise improves learning, provides protection against depression, and will be important for many troubled children in terms of getting out of physical tension in a good way. There is a lot to be gained from getting the child / young person to be sufficiently physically active and have their body used, and the very best thing is that it happens in the form of activities that also provide social cohesion. 

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