‘Difficult’ children

Everyday, there are reports of crime in newspapers all over the world. Who are the unscrupulous people that commit these crimes? The courts call them criminals; society calls them sociopaths or psychopaths, and mental health professionals label them ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’, meaning people who go against social norms.

An overwhelming majority of the people mentioned in newspaper reports are in their 20’s. How did they get that way in twenty-odd years of being around? What shaped their personalities, or programmed them to behave in this manner?

At the outset, I must state that this is not a mental illness for psychiatrists to treat, but a problem for society and the courts to deal with. The only reason I have chosen to write about it is because parents often consult us about children who show signs of going astray in adolescence, at least a decade before they turn into the troubled youngsters who make headlines for stealing, conning, assaulting and killing.

What do parents say?

Early childhood: Parents of very young children, say from 3-7 years of age, complain about frequent defiance of adults (‘No!’), disobedience of instructions (‘I won’t!’), temper tantrums, aggression towards other children, destructiveness and a tendency to provoke and annoy other people.

Middle childhood: From 8-11 years, apart from the above, the child may start lying about what he has been doing, steal things from other kids, bunk school without parents’ knowledge, and be cruel to animals.

Adolescence: From 12-17 years more serious antisocial behaviours may appear, like vandalism, robbery, breaking into houses, assault, running away from home and abuse of street drugs. The child may operate alone but is more likely to belong to a gang.

In girls, antisocial behaviour with physical aggression is less common. It may present as spitefulness, emotional bullying of other kids, spreading malicious rumours, drug abuse and running away from home.

What are the risk factors? 

The characteristics that make some children ‘difficult’ are often inherited. They are born with temperamental traits such as impulsivity and fearlessness that lead to risk-taking behaviour. They are unable to empathise and see the effect their conduct has on other people. A large number of children with behaviour problems have deficits in language-based verbal skills and use aggression to express their wishes. Other kids avoid them so they have no friends. The deficit in language skills also causes academic difficulties, making school frustrating rather than fun.

Then there is another group of children, normal kids who encounter several risk factors, like parental neglect, inconsistent discipline, severe physical abuse, and punishment instead of rewards. In all this, development of a sensitive conscience is compromised as moral values are not internalised. Later, being at a social disadvantage because of their background, they interact with other similarly disadvantaged children. Their antisocial behaviour then increases in response to praise and respect they receive from their group. In a way, these children are merely trying to adapt to their adverse circumstances.

What can parents do?

Raising a difficult child needs a lot of patience. Very often parents don’t mean to be harsh with their children but do so in despair, when their patience is tried beyond their ability to cope.

It may help to remember that:

  • A child’s difficult behaviour can evoke negativity in a parent, leading to arguments and escalation on both sides — stay calm.
  • A parent may tend to respond to a child’s behaviour according to his/her mood rather than on the basis of what the child has done — check facts, listen carefully.
  • The child may be exposed to domestic violence between adults and learn to treat aggression as a normal way of controlling others—maintain a peaceful atmosphere at home.
  • A parent who openly flouts social norms may inadvertently act as a role model; children do what you do, not what you say — lead by example.
  • Parenting style may be hostile, critical, punitive and coercive, for reasons varying from a parent’s personality to an intention to ‘make the child perform well at school so he has a good future’ — view situation from his point of view.

It is easier for parents to respond in a calm and sensitive manner if they keep their tempers in check. The child gradually becomes more secure and begins to like and obey his parents; nurture can modify nature in this case. This might take years, however.

Parents can encourage a behaviour they want by appreciating it when the child exhibits it; a parent has to be on the lookout for nice things the child does, and say so, without being patronising.

Instructions must be clear so the child knows what is expected of him, leaving no room for angry arguments that put him on the defensive.

Unacceptable behaviour should be dealt with calmly but with firmness, without parents contradicting each other. It is not necessary to respond sternly to every whine, yell or bit of mischief —it is better to be guided by common sense in picking your battles.

What happens when they become adults?

People with this personality disorder have no regard for the rights of others and feel no guilt or remorse. They are unreliable and do not conform to social rules and obligations. They are manipulative and exploit others for personal profit or pleasure, and are unable to form lasting relationships. They are unable to keep jobs and honour financial obligations.  Most of them are glib talkers and can come up with plausible explanations for their antisocial behaviour.

Professional success may motivate some to change; some may benefit from being in a stable relationship. Some improve with age, reforming with experience. In others, depression replaces aggression as they get older.



2 thoughts on “‘Difficult’ children

    1. Also, pediatricians and family physicians. They see kids through the early years, and parents trust them and share their worries about their little ones with them. If they could spot the signs and guide them, that would help the parents and kids.


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