Expert Q&A: Discipline, Depression, ADHD, and More

Michele Borba, EdD, the author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids, answers behavioral questions from parents struggling with children ages 6 through 8. The internationally renowned educator and award-winning author is a Parents.com advisory board member.

No Respect for Toys and Clothes

Q. My 8-year-old stepdaughter shows no respect for her toys or her clothes. She leaves them lying everywhere in her room. When we tell her to clean up, which is daily, she just shoves things everywhere...not caring if they will get broken, or damaged, or put where they belong.

She has been shown how to clean her room. She knows what's expected of her. We even got her some clear plastic tubs to help with organization. My thought is to take most of her toys and clothes away (she has lots of clothes -- we could go three weeks without doing her laundry...family keeps buying her clothes). If she only has a few things to play with and a limited amount of clothes, wouldn't she take better care of them?

Because this is my stepdaughter, who came into my life a month before she turned 6, and she has severe behavioral problems, it gets confusing what is normal kid behavior and what are her issues. -- naturechild1

A. I'm reading your note and applaud your perspective. I think you've answered yourself. If she has no respect for things, then you take the military action technique: boot camp. Start removing things. When she shows you she can respect her property, she can earn them back. She needs to know you do mean business. This might be harder for you than her -- but on the other hand if she doesn't have much to pick up, it may be a lot easier. The trick is putting things away so she can't get them.

My girlfriend had a great gimmick. She came to the same conclusion as you. Her son had to choose which things mattered most. Everything else was put away in storage bins in the garage. Second, to keep the things that mattered most, he knew he had to take care of them or they'd be put away as well. She also "rotated toys" -- brought new ones in and put others away. It took a while, but eventually her son got it. Best news -- he grew up and is a respectful young man.

A Swearing Son

Q. I'm having a problem with my 8-year-old son at school. He has been swearing lately and has gotten three citations for this at school. On the latest citation, the teacher mentioned if he got another citation he would be suspended. I think that is rather harsh. I would think they would have a conference with me first, before they just suspended him. He doesn't do this at home, just at school, and I think it might have to do with some of the kids he hangs out with. He told me that he and his friends were looking up bad words in the dictionary. I think he does it for shock value, but I'm at my wits' end. If they suspend him from school, it will be like a reward for him. I told him that if that happens he'll be spending a lot of time in his room (which he hates to do) and that I'll be putting him to work around the house. I plan to have a talk with his teacher. I had him write "I will not swear anymore" 150 times, but I just don't know what else to do. Any help would be appreciated. -- Wendy

A. Your best -- and really only -- approach to turn this behavior around is CONSISTENT FIRM CONSEQUENCES. If he hasn't heard this at home, then he's picking it up at school. Kids copy and try out behaviors (especially if they think it will help them "fit in"). So:

  1. Have a conference immediately with the teacher. Schools do have a clear policy of no swearing. If he's already had three notices, and in their policy, the next notice means suspension, then they will suspend. But you also need to get on board with the teacher. Does the teacher have any other concerns? Is she seeing a change in your child's behavior? Who are these kids your child is hanging around? Is there a way to find other, more appropriate friends?
  2. Then have THE TALK with your child. It must be very serious. You must convince him you mean business. Tell him that swearing is not allowed in the house, at school, anywhere. Tell him what the consequences will be. It might be suspension at school, but there will also be consequences at home. What does he really like? TV, phone, computer, friends over? You must choose something that would cause him a little pain when it's removed.
  3. Sign a contract. He must know what the consequence is -- and there are not ifs, ands, or buts. No backtracking. The contract is signed and then stored so if he says that he didn't know, you can show it to him.
  4. Swearing is a HABIT. If he's doing it often, and it's reinforced by others, and he's hearing others do it, it won't turn around ASAP. You must be clear and consistent. It will fade, if you stick to the plan.

Next: Tantrums

Tantrums

Q. I have a 6-year-old son. He is wonderful and bright and can be very sweet, but has been having several problems.

He seems to have trouble transitioning from one activity to another. I also have a bad problem getting him to eat normal foods. He will not eat fruits/veggies, meat (unless chicken nuggets are a meat).

The biggest problem is his "episodes," consisting of name calling, kicking, hitting, biting, spitting in face, yelling, crying. These can all happen in one episode or two, and can last 5 minutes to an hour. (This is only at home, mind you. I have spoken to his teacher and his behavior is fine at school.)

I am afraid to take him out with me. He seems to feel bad about it afterward but can't seem to stop himself from doing it in the first place. Time-outs and other traditional discipline methods do not work. He simply does not care about them. I am always walking on eggshells waiting for an episode. Any ideas? -- Rorobean

A. Here are some things to consider: First, my red flag is the teacher who said he does not do these things at school. Does he have this problem transitioning ANYWHERE ELSE or WITH ANYONE ELSE? Can you observe him in the classroom? Or at Scouts, a playgroup, or any other location? What you need to be very clear about is whether this is a problem he is having or it's how you are responding. Does he use this behavior with Dad, siblings, or friends? Is it at a particular time?

I understand the eggshell concept perfectly. You nailed it. The key to telling you what to do is figuring out what is causing it. Does any other adult see the same pattern?

I'm trying to get you to think:

  • WHO does he do it with? And NOT do it with?
  • WHEN does he exhibit the behavior? At a certain time that is predictable?
  • WHAT causes or intensifies the problem?
  • WHERE does it occur? In certain places? (ONLY at home?)
  • HOW are you currently responding? Once you know that, stop doing what you're doing. It's not working.
  • WHY is it happening? Knowing that is your goal.

You can create a plan to deal with the behavior after you answer these questions. You're dealing with a difficult situation, so here's what I want you to do:

  1. Read over my advice carefully.
  2. Start charting your child's behavior -- without him knowing. Get a clearer picture of what is really happening.
  3. Talk to a few people who really know and care about your child.

Usually, a PATTERN emerges that you might not recognize. Once you figure out the pattern, take the pattern/clues to a pediatrician and/or school psychologist and share what you've discovered.

You can't solve the problem without knowing the cause.

By the way, the best discipline is always CONSISTENT and CALM.

Next: Depressed Son

Depressed Son

Q. I have a 6-year-old boy. I noticed problems a year ago when he made some comments that sent up huge red flags: "I know you hate me and want me to die;" "maybe I'll just cut my head off;" and several others. Needless to say, I freaked out and took him to a few child psychologists. They both told me that he seemed a little "low." They put him on Adderall, but he's such a picky eater and the Adderall suppressed his appetite even more. I took him off of it and he seemed a little better for a while. He isn't violent and doesn't act out. His social skills are good; he's well liked by his peers and teachers, but seems to lack self-confidence. I'm afraid to continue therapy because I don't want him to feel like there's something wrong with him. He's very sensitive. Lately, he's been saying things like "nobody likes me." Or if someone (his teacher or myself) raises their voice, he starts to cry and says "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" -- even for the most trivial things, i.e., "I've told you twice to hang up your coat." I think he's depressed but most of the information I've found on childhood depression is related to teens and not grade-school children. I don't know how to handle this. --ferndalemom

A. This one is so hard, isn't it? First, depression "used to be" something we only assumed was a teen problem. We now know otherwise. Our younger kids are also susceptible. So you are wise to use your instincts, which are always the best gauge.

Watch your child closely. Continue to tune into those red flags. Friendship -- or having trouble with friends -- is highly correlated to our children's self-esteem and a continuous lack of friends can trigger depression. My advice is to continue going to the therapist for a while (if you feel there is a connection between the psychiatrist and your child). Meanwhile, let's boost friendship skills.

Friendship is made up of scores of skills and they can all be taught. I wrote a book, Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me, which deals with the top 25 friendship problems. Right now, your child needs ONE buddy, just one. That pal can make such a difference. ANY pal at this point is fine. If you can't find one in his classroom, ask the teacher for recommendations. Are any of the kids befriending your child or is there one child who seems to be a good match for similar interests or temperament? If so, befriend the mother and start inviting that child over. You might have to practice friendship skills with a younger child, neighbor, or cousin. And set play dates up for success. They should be shorter rather than longer and you can help your child know how to be a good host. He might even call the child before he comes to your house and ask what he likes to do so you can make sure that activity is available. This way something fun will happen during their time together. It is also best not to have interruptions with other siblings around.

Finally, take care of you, Mom. Find a trusted friend, relative, or teacher who cares about your child and can offer sage advice. Hopefully, the psychiatrist has additional ideas.

Sibling Relations with ADHD Child

Q. How do you handle certain behavior issues in an 8-year-old with ADHD, such as hitting younger siblings, throwing balls against the wall, throwing toys (out of fun, not anger)? Telling him it is wrong doesn't help, because he knows it is wrong. It gets me so frustrated. Any tips on how to cope or help? The younger siblings are 3-year-old twins. --katsmeow1213

A. I spent a number of years teaching ADHD children and I learned more from the mothers than the children! The single greatest piece of advice I can give any parent of a child -- whether they have a disability or not -- is: DO NOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH AN INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR. DO NOT. Any aggressive behavior (hitting) will become a habit. It will destroy your child's reputation with other kids and their parents.

So here's what to do instead:

  1. The hardest: BE CALM. ADHD children need calmness and predictability (so do all kids, but ADHD kids even more so).
  2. Prevent incidents. You can! Keep the number of other peers to a minimum. Instead of three think one. Keep activities shorter. Keep activities less physical. You'll eliminate 50 percent of problems.
  3. Tell your child the consequence ahead of time. IF YOU HIT, THEN.... Yes, he knows it is wrong, but he can not be allowed to get away with hitting.
  4. Discipline him CONSISTENTLY every time. Be calm. Keep his dignity intact. Remove him from the situation. In some cases, take him home.

I know this is hard stuff but it's really important that you do it for your child. Change in behavior does not happen overnight -- don't expect it to. Keep track of how often you have to stop the hitting; step in and reprimand. Target one behavior at a time, and be consistent with your approach. One of my books, No More Misbehavin' has 21-day-makeovers for 38 difficult behaviors (hitting is certainly one of them). The key to a makeover is 21 DAYS. That's usually how long the behavior takes to turn around. Don't expect perfection -- just improvement. And reinforce any and every effort your child makes to be calm or peaceful or stop himself.

Next: Bossy Friends

Bossy Friends

Q. We have friends who we spend quite a bit of time with, who have a daughter in my daughter's grade. When she's at our house for a play date without her parents, she's very bossy and won't back down when my daughter tries to tell her she doesn't want to do something. It's so hard for me to listen to. Any ideas? -- angelan1

A. Bossy kids can make great CEOs (someday!) but during childhood they can make life very difficult. Here are suggestions for you and your child:

  1. Whether it's because of this bossy kid or another, your child needs to learn assertive skills (all kids do!) and there's no time better than the present. Kids can't change their behavior unless they know HOW to change or what to replace their current behavior with. Anytime you want to help your child learn any new behavior, show her EXACTLY what to do instead.
  2. Assertive body language is actually MORE important than what your child says to this kid. She needs to LOOK assertive. You should practice "the look" a while. Her head must be held high (not wimpy) and she should be standing strong. Practice showing her what STRONG looks like. Even go to the mall and look for STRONG POSTURE. Spend time around the house practicing and rehearsing it together.
  3. Her voice must sound STRONG AND FIRM (not wimpy). She can tell her friend something, but unless she sounds like she means it, it won't work. Make sure you practice with her so she hears the difference between firm and wimpy.
  4. Reinforce assertive skills (over and over and over). She's not comfortable right now trying these new skills, so help her reinforce any little gesture.
  5. Now give her lines she can say: "I don't want to." "It's my turn now." "What if it's your turn, then my turn?" It doesn't make any difference what she says, but please give her a few ideas. She can then choose the "best" one (or the one she feels most comfortable with) and then try it out.
  6. PRACTICE IS CRITICAL. You are teaching her a brand-new habit. She's not going to feel comfortable using this habit for quite a while (just like we as adults take a long time to try any new habit). So rehearse and practice and do it over and over and over, like you're doing a play.
  7. Eventually, teach her little tricks like Rock, Paper, Scissors, or pulling straws and tossing a coin so she can be the one to suggest tie-breakers or make things fair. Bossy kids often don't think of the other kids.

If you're looking for more ideas, there are dozens in my book, Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me.

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