Counselling and Parenting from Tots To Teens

The moment children are born they need care and love or they will not survive, but as they grow they learn by trial and error how to manage things by themselves. They become independent and begin to discover what they can do and what they can’t do. However living in the world of what you can do and can’t do can be difficult because they see the world as focused on them, due to all the care and attention they received. But they need to learn that there are others in the world who also have rights and needs.

On TV and the world of reality TV, where nannies or psychologists set out to ‘fix’ these broken children, but all they want is the results to satisfy the audience at home. While often their approach can be new and often well thought out I have a few of difficulties with the approach they take. You may say ‘well they get results’, but does the end justify the means? Or indeed what happens when the credits roll, do these now perfect children remain perfect once the celebrity and cameras are gone?

I don’t believe that the end justifies the means, and once the cameras are gone it is hard to believe after one week no trace of misbehaviours remain.

In a world where children understand that childline is just a call away, TV and internet letting children know that they have rights (and I believe firmly they should have more), punishment should be a thing of the past. So, what is the alternative to punishment?

I have learned from fourteen years in private practice, working with children and teens for almost twenty years and from being a parent, there is not a quick fix solution. Parents and all caregivers must be creative and democratic in the approach in dealing with ‘new’ generation of children as they will not stand for anything less.

I have found that growing children need three essential ingredients:

  1. Encouragement and Praise
  2. Equality
  3. Boundaries

Children need all these to feel ‘good enough’ to belong in a positive way. They need the first encouragement and praise to feel they complete a task, equality to feel the right to have a voice and be included, and boundaries to know that someone cares about them.

I think Johnson and Johnson are on to something with their ‘no more tears formula’ I believe there can be no more tears boundaries, no more tears limit setting, no more tears discipline.

How Do Children Develop? Is It Nature Or Nurture?
I have helped a few students who were studying for their FETAC Childcare Award and one of their assignments is how do children develop? Is it nature or nurture? Could one be more responsible than the other for a child’s development?

Well lets look at that nature, your genetic make up, what you are given, the bones and skin and body that you ended up with. Would you have picked it, probably not, would you change it if you were given a chance of lucky draw, probably not, you could end up with something worse. Nurture: the family and socio economic situation you were born into, what could you have done as a child to have changed it, moved out and gotten a job? Even if you could have changed you family, would life be different? I believe both nurture and nature play an enormous role in the development of children, nurture gives you a blank canvas on which to paint your life’s picture and nature gives a frame to hold the canvas, but we are missing one vital part… the creativity of every child.

Children are great observers but poor interpreters. One of my own memories is making up a reason why there was day and night. Even though my observation was accurate my reason was far form reality. Children observe situations but because of a lack of experience and knowledge draw erroneous conclusions.

For example if you were to imagine a baby in their pampers sitting on the floor of the sitting room and they can see their favourite toy at the other side of the room, but in the room between the child and the ball are mam and dad and visitors an uncle and an aunt. The child now has a problem! (and all problems are social) How will I get the ball?

Children learn by trial and error and there are choices, one choice is to go straight for what you want but someone may want a cuddle on the way, auntie may pick up the baby. What now? Baby’s plans have been upset I can’t get my ball but now something will happen. The baby might cry and somebody will get something to placate her, or better again feed her. Now we have something the baby can work with, find a moral of the story, ‘if I can’t get what I want I’ll cry (and be noticed) and get something… .it may not be what I want but I’ll get something and I’ll feel better’.

This is only one possible outcome, there are millions of others just as there are millions of individuals each with their own way of living their own modus oparandi.

But in order to communicate we must have some common ground as not everyone is so different in the world that we cannot share some common sense. That is why with children there are four attitudes that children often share in getting what they want:

  1. Attention seeking (“look at me, pick me, love me, talk to me, play with me”)
  2. Power seeking (“you are not the boss of me”)
  3. Restitution (“I’ll get you back for that”)
  4. Avoidance (“I don’t care what you do”)

These attitudes in life are very obvious in children but often as adults, parents, care givers we are at a complete loss of what to do with them even when we can identify them. This is where we must be creative and look at the purpose to these behaviours. All behaviours have a purpose, that is why I say the attitudes of children and not ‘types’ of children but rather children use these behaviours to achieve their goals. For example a child might use attention seeking behaviour when they feel left out and want to feel they are loved (there is no such thing as negative or positive attention from a child’s point of view there is just attention).

There are four attitudes that children show in terms of misbehaviour.

  1. Attention seeking (“look at me, pick me, love me, talk to me, play with me”
  2. Power seeking (“you are not the boss of me”)
  3. Restitution (“I’ll get you back for that”)
  4. Avoidance (“I don’t care what you do”)

Some people have told me over the years ‘that just the way he/she is’ and I often say that ‘no that is the way they have found that works best’.

The first step on the road of helping a child with their behaviour is to find the purpose to their behaviour. This is done by checking your own feelings. This can be hard for some as feelings are not always so clear but generally speaking:

Your feelings – Childs attitude/Goal
A feeling of annoyance/irritation – Attention seeking
A feeling of anger or argument – Power seeking
A feeling of being hurt – Restitution
A feeling or helplessness – Avoidance
Once you can identify the purpose to the child’s we must go back to the three key ingredients to helping a child interact and become a better communicator.

  1. Encouragement and praise
  2. Equality/co operation
  3. Boundaries

In order to show what I am speaking about I will give you an example, but I must say that these are not real people but just a fictional example and it does not mean that if you know a child who is like this that they have the same goal.

Jenny, three, is painting with her mother (Sally) on the floor. They are having a great morning. Jenny has a morning nap at twelve and Sally does the weekly shopping on line then makes lunch. Sally cleans up the painting equipment and she reads Jenny a story and they go upstairs to put Jenny to bed. After twenty minutes Jenny is still awake singing in bed and the on line shopping is only half done, mother has to abandon the shopping to go and get Jenny. Not wanting to have TV as the solution to all problems Sally sets up Jenny with a book and some toys. However two minutes later Jenny is beside mother pushing keys on the laptop, mother brings Jenny back to the toys and tries again. Sally is getting a little annoyed, two minutes later Jenny is back by her mothers side asking to go painting, mother says no that she must do the shopping and returns Jenny to the books and toys. Within ten minutes Jenny is again back by her mother’s side pressing buttons and asking for painting. In complete exasperation sally turns off the laptop and goes in ton play with her daughter knowing that she will need to stay up late to get the shopping done on line.

Reading this story it is clear what happened, Jenny is seeking attention, and Sally will ask why? Jenny seems a little uncertain of herself, she wants her mother to be her servant. Sally is exasperated but will find many reasons to explain away this behaviour, Jenny was tired, jealous of time alone, she needs her mother etc.

The more important question is not why but what can be done? There are several tasks in the story, the cleaning up after the painting, the shopping. These tasks should be discussed all the time while mother and daughter are playing together as nap time will eventually disappear. Sally could talk about how they will both clean up after painting, that Sally will be on the computer shopping and Jenny can help with the shopping or play with toys or books. This will give Jenny a feeling of encouragement that she can complete tasks and that Sally has faith in her work and in also faith in Jenny. Getting Jenny to help in these tasks and others around the house will give Jenny a sense of inclusion, equality, and co operation. Finally giving Jenny praise for the jobs she has done (remember to praise the work and not Jenny directly i.e. ‘good job’ rather than ‘good girl’), gives her the boundaries to know what she can do and what she needs help with.

This is a very simple individualised plan that can help mother and daughter work together and because Jenny has been included in a way that is constructive she will get a feeling of co operation rather than attention.

Behaviour And Misbehaviour In Children And Teens
We previously looked at the goal of attention and the strategy was on looking at the positive ways of using the skills of a child to create a feeling of co operation rather than attention seeking.

The next attitude is a movement toward power. The goal of power is best described in children as ‘you are not the boss of me’. I will write an example but again this is a work of fiction, and if you see a child behaving this way it does not mean their goal is power as the action a child takes is only a symptom.

David is eight and his bedtime is nine o clock, he has a routine, he has a bath, changes into his pyjamas, watches TV until eight forty five, brushes his teeth and then says goodnight to everyone and Dad would go and bring him to bed where they would read a story together. This was the way it was, lately David has been getting later and later to the point it is now nine o clock before he is turning off the TV and that has only been with constant reminding! Yesterday David was still watching TV at nine when his Dad came to check on him, Dad felt angry when he saw David watching TV, the situation had finally gotten to him and he picked David up and brought him upstairs and put him into bed. A little while later Dad is sitting in the sitting room when he hears the TV in the play room, thinking he must have forgotten to turn it off he goes in to find David sitting in front of the TV. Really angry now he unplugs the TV, picks up David and very crossly brings him up stairs and locks the playroom door.

Again we could look at why but the more important question is what can be done, this is a tricky situation and we must be very clear about the goal here, if this were attention then we would need to look at it completely differently but because Dad was angry we could make the guess that this has escalated into a power struggle.

I need to one thing very clear; no one can win against a power hungry child. Even if the outcome is in the adults favour the child in their mind can justify the outcome in terms of power i.e. ‘if I was big I would win’, ‘he only won because this is his house, if I had a my own house I’d be the boss’, ‘we will see you wins next time’.

What is needed here is a democratic agreement between David and his parents with choice and equality for both the child and his parents but also included in the agreements are limits. This will give David a sense of his own personal power in a positive way over his own life. This power comes in the form of an agreement and also allows parents to set boundaries and let David know that he is cared about. For example David and his parents could sit down and let David come up with a consequence of what will happen if he stays up beyond a time that everyone agrees is reasonable. Of course this consequence needs to be negotiated and enforced with consistency. The next attitude in escalation is restitution, seeking a balance, for example, you did something to me so I should do something to you. In the words of this metaphor ‘its only fair’, an ‘eye for an eye’, but in the words of Ghandi this will only make the whole world blind. To read an article on restitution visit my website.

Previously I looked at the attitude of attention and power and creating a strategy to help deal with these.

The next attitude in escalation is restitution, seeking a balance, for example, you did something to me so I should do something to you. In the words of this metaphor ‘its only fair’, an ‘eye for an eye’, but in the words of Ghandi this will only make the whole world blind.

When a child seeks restitution it will be for some feeling they had where they were hurt, they will seek to ‘right’ the injustice that has been done to them. However often the biggest obstacle for parents or carers in this situation is we don’t see the injustice or understand how it could have been so hurtful to a child. On the spectrum of behaviours a child who is engaging in this behaviour is a fairly discouraged child.

I can use a fictional story to explain but again the behaviour is only a symptom of the goal and even if a child is engaging in the activity described in the story it does not mean they a seeking restitution.

Bob is seventeen and was always described as a sensitive boy. He has been working for first month of the summer in a hardware shop but lately he has been coming home from his job sullen, and down hearted. Gerrard his Dad has asked him why but has had no luck getting a response. Two weeks later they receive a phone call from the owner of the shop to say that Bob has been stealing money from the till. Both parents travel to the shop and are completely shocked and apologetic. The owner agrees not to bring the Gardai into the situation but wants the money paid back and Bob will be sacked from the job and barred from the shop the owner says he feels hurt by the whole situation as he trusted Bob. When his parents ask Gerrard why he had been stealing he can give them no answer, and he is telling the truth he does not know why either, and now his parents are at a loss but they know he cannot go unpunished. What has happened? Bob has never had a boss before and had never been given instructions before by a strong authority figure who demanded results. During his time working I the shop began to feel criticised by the boss, not good enough and he began to feel hurt. He did not have the courage to speak to his boss or his family and so created another option, he decided to seek some revenge fro his hurt feelings and to hurt a business man the way he felt he could by stealing his money.

If Bob’s parents were to punish him in the traditional way by denying him something or not allowing him to take part in some activity, they will now be acting as an authority inflicting a punishment on him and it will prove his position that everyone is against him and that the world is not fair and he is not good enough. Punishment generally has this effect.

The way to help Bob is let him come up with some ideas around what should happen and agree a consequence between Bob and his parents. This will mean negotiations as sometimes children and adolescents will choose inappropriate consequences for themselves. In Bob’s case he needs a consequence that will give him responsibility and the ability to recognise a good job without someone else telling him that it is a good job. From the parents/carers position this means taking off your caring hat and putting on a training hat to look at what are you training this person to be in the world. We should be asking questions like… How would we like him to be in the future? How can we train him to be that way? How can we put him in a position that will help him develop trust in himself?

The final goal of avoidance is a topic I will be dealing with in my workshops.

About Michael Fitzgerald

As a member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, The Adlerian Society (UK), the Eating Disorder Resource Centre of Ireland, and as a registered psychologist with the British Psychological Society Michael Fitzgerald adheres to their ethics, principles and guidelines.

Contact Information

Dungarvan Counselling Centre,
Michael Fitzgerald,
Dungarvan, Co. Waterford,

Phone: (058)24579

Mobile: (087)6387424


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