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My son did something horrible at school: What do I do now?

Experts explain how to deal with bad behavior — and how to prevent it from happening again

SHARE My son did something horrible at school: What do I do now?

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Not long ago, I was appalled when I opened my son’s agenda — the notebook in which parents and teachers communicate. Most of the time, I open it to a stamp that reads either “Excellent” or “Well done!” But on this day, there was an ominous note — which means something has gone so wrong it’s worth the teacher taking time to write it all down. 

“Unfortunately, when Yassi was in PE today, he made an obscene gesture to a friend. I have spoken with him and he said ‘Sorry’ to his friend. He said it won’t happen again.” 

When I confronted my son, he hung his head. I sent him to his room for five minutes — in part so I could collect myself — and then, when I brought him out, I informed him that there would be no screen time today. He was upset but didn’t protest; I could tell he was ashamed of his behavior.

But his shame was nothing compared to mine. Where had I gone wrong? How to make sure it doesn’t happen again? 

I remembered from my undergraduate degree in psychology that the best way to deal with a behavior is to address it in the moment. But the moment had taken place six hours ago. What should I do now? 

Fact-finding mission

The first step, I realized, was staying calm. I remembered, too, what a therapist told me years ago about taking a journalistic curiosity to even the most upsetting situations — backing away from my hottest feelings and simply observing and trying to find out more. I decided to start with a fact-finding mission. I got down on my knees so I would be on my son’s level, physically, and I asked him what had been going on when he was so rude to his friend.

“Well, he was ignoring me.” 

“And how did you feel?” I asked. 

“Mad,” he said, his brow furrowed.

“That hurt your feelings,” I said, using that mirroring technique I remembered from some random psychology article I read a couple of decades ago. “I get it. What could you have done instead?” 

“Talked to him,” Yassi said. Together, we brainstormed some things he could say the next time he feels like a friend is ignoring him. 

But still, I was left with the lingering sense that I could have — should have — done more. And I wondered what the moment meant. Does my son have an anger issue? I couldn’t stop my imagination from racing into the future and there he was: my son, a juvenile delinquent, getting kicked out of school, going to jail — the culmination of a downward spiral that had started with this incident in gym class.

In the following days, I consulted a number of experts who offered practical advice and tips for teaching our children how to better manage their feelings. They also shared some insights that can help parents understand problematic behaviors and cultivate patience for such challenges. 

Smell the flower

One of the keys to preventing something like this from happening again is to get the child to identify the feelings that came before the anger, said Laurie Singer, a marriage and family therapist and behavior analyst based in Camarillo, California. “Typically our emotions build. So we might be frustrated and confused which leads us to being worried and then to (getting) angry.”

We can give our kids the tools they need for situations like this when we notice them getting frustrated at home, Singer explained, by telling them what we see. For example, if a child repeats the same question over and over again or their voice is getting higher, we can say something like, “I notice that you’re getting frustrated,” and then describe the outward physical manifestations of their inner emotional state.

Ideally, a parent does this at the moment it happens. But of course it’s not always possible to be there with your child to help them through their feelings. Singer said I did the right thing by asking questions about the context in which my son got angry. But I hadn’t gone deep enough. I should have delved into the experience using open-ended questions, said Singer, who modeled such a conversation for me:

Where were you? I was on the playground. Well, what was happening on the playground? Jimmy and Johnny were on the swings. And what were you doing? I was waiting in line, but they wouldn’t give me a turn.

After concluding the fact-finding mission, I needed to give my son tools — replacement behaviors — so he doesn’t move past the frustration to anger and then resort to things like obscene gestures. Using words is a good technique, but I shouldn’t have stopped there. We could have discussed deep breathing, Singer said, adding that she tells young children to, “Smell the flower, blow out the candle” — a common technique for teaching children to pause and take a deep breath — among other strategies such as walking away and finding other friends to play with.  

Here’s yet another place where I was on the right track, but I needed to go a step further: it’s not enough to talk about the strategies with children. We need to practice implementing them. Singer suggested role playing.  

“You can role play anytime, any situation,” Singer said, explaining that my son and I should also take turns playing the role of him and his friend. “If you don’t practice something, it will not come naturally when the moment arises … You can’t expect to just talk to your son and the next time that happens, three days later, he’s going to remember.” 

In other words, discussing strategies without practicing them is sort of like expecting my children to hop on a bike and ride it without ever having mastered a tricycle. 

Take five minutes

But therein lies that perennial parenting dilemma: Parents are often told to praise the behaviors we want to see more of while simply ignoring those we want to get rid of, but it’s not always that simple. Oftentimes we have to address problematic behaviors, otherwise children will get the message that there are no consequences for their actions. And that’s the catch-22, the trap: we don’t want to over-attend to behaviors we want to extinguish because doing so could accidentally reinforce the very behaviors we’re trying to get rid of. 

A reward or token system offers one way out of this conundrum, according to Singer. “Find out how his day went, and for having a good day at school he can earn points at home,” she said. “A reward system works really well when you’re trying to teach a new behavior but once they’ve gotten a hang of it, you can use it for other behaviors like chore charts.” 

Sometimes discipline problems can be prevented by focusing a bit more on our relationship with the child; another positive approach comes from parent-child interaction therapy, said Elisabeth Conradt, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah, who recommended a five-minute exercise that she says “works wonders.”

“The active ingredient is paying a lot of positive attention to your child for just five minutes,” Conradt said, explaining that parents should play with the child one-on-one and let the child pick the activity. There should be no distractions — including cellphones or other siblings. And then parents just play with the child without asking questions or giving any commands or corrections — offering instead lots of specific praise. 

Conradt also suggested that parents check out the Parent Child Interaction Therapy website for more ideas. 

Trial and error

Another part of dealing with challenging behaviors is understanding where they come from. Conradt said she doesn’t know a parent who hasn’t found themselves in a mortifyingly embarrassing situation that stems from their child’s impulsive behaviors. This is because the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us control impulsive behaviors, continues to develop until our mid-20s or perhaps even later. (Researchers call into question the oft-repeated factoid that our brains are growing until we’re 25; in fact, studies show structural changes occur throughout our lifespan). 

“The thing that we forget as parents is that play is hard,” said Trisha Weeks, a developmental psychologist at the University of Utah. “Social interactions are really hard … when you think about what a kid actually has to do to pull that off — all of the emotional regulation and reading other people’s emotions and reading other people’s behaviors.”

These are skills that many adults still struggle with, Weeks added, offering negotiating a raise as an example. An adult has to go into a conversation with a sense of how hard they’re going to push and they have to be ready to continuously gauge the other side’s reactions throughout the conversation. Childhood play marks “the beginning of figuring out those kinds of negotiations and regulating your emotions and interactions with people and it’s big,” Weeks said. “The fact that we still find it challenging as adults means it’s complex and it’s layered.” 

Seen this way, what adults see as bad behavior is a child making a mistake, which is ultimately just part of the trial-and-error process through which children learn. And addressing the issue six hours later isn’t necessarily a bad thing because by then the child has calmed down and is able to learn. (Research has shown that too much stress impedes learning). 

No matter when or how we deal with an issue that arises at school, Singer said, we should make sure to end the day on a positive note. “One other thing I suggest to parents with younger kids is, when you tuck them in at night, I want you to name one positive thing that you like that he did that day.” That way, the child goes to bed knowing what behaviors we want to see more of, and they go to bed knowing that they’re loved. 

Got a parenting question, dilemma or tip? Reach out to @myaguarnieri on Twitter or email her at mjaradat@deseretnews.com.