Parenting: Look, Listen and Learn to Get a Handle on Child Misbehavior

Dr. Lynne Kenney, Psy.D. and author of “The Family Coach Method” shares some advice on how to be a “behavior detective” and improve behavioral issues with your children at home.

The Challenge: In the next 48 hours, consider a moment when your child, tween or teen misbehaved. Do this Detective Activity, notice the who, what, when, where and how of the behavior.  Just observing behavior from a new vantage point will arm you with The Family Coach tools, to examine, understand and intervene with your child in a new way.

Description:  Whenever a parent is seeking to solve a behavioral, developmental, social or learning issue, the best thing to do first is to take an inventory: Step back, watch, listen, observe and learn. Be calm, breathe through it, you’ll see more clearly.

Before you intervene around a behavioral challenge or an issue at home or school, it’s really important to step back, look at it objectively and understand the who, what, where, when, how, and why, of the specific behavior.

While many parents I meet come to talk about discipline, before we talk about about behavioral interventions to increase compliance, we discuss how to be a detective. Being a detective allows you to observe your parenting interactions a little differently. We learn to seek to understand before we intervene.

The problem with intervening too soon is that you might be implementing ready, fire, aim instead of ready, aim, fire. Now of course, if you fire before you aim, chances are you’re going to miss the mark and you’re going to need to re-do the intervention. You may also have to undo your mistakes surrounding the original misfire. Worry-not, for you can. But if you understand what you are doing and why, before you take action, you are more likely to hit the mark.

When you are a behavioral detective you are empowered to better understand the meaning of your child’s behavior by considering the who, what, when, where and how of any specific behavior.

By being a detective you will learn to ask yourself:

• Who was there?
• What did I expect?
• What did I get?
• What did I understand?
• What did I not understand?
• What was my child trying to communicate to me?
• What was happening?
• What was going on in the environment?
• What was my child doing?
• What was I doing?
• What were other people in the setting doing?
• What time of day was it?
• What happened before, during and after the specific behavior?
• What was said?
• What actions took place?
• When did the behavior occur?
• When did I respond? Did I wait to long? Could I have intervened to help sooner?
• Where were we?
• Where were the other family members?
• Where were the other children in the classroom, playing field or setting?
• How did I intervene?
• How could I have said something differently?
• How could I have done something differently?

How To Be A Detective in 4 Easy Steps

STEP 1: Describe the misbehavior in clear simple terms.

The ABCs of Being A Detective

In order to be a behavioral detective, take out a blank piece of paper and divide it into four columns. Observe, take notes and learn how to look at behavior from a new viewpoint.

In Column #1 describe the situation, behavior, experience or circumstance that posed a challenge for the child.

Some examples include:
• Mary would not get out of bed this morning
• Leslie would not stop picking on her younger sister
• James bit a child in preschool
• Allison refused to eat her dinner
• Robert took the car without permission

STEP 2: Note the situation that lead up to the misbehavior. Who was there, what was asked of the child, what was expected? What lead up to the behavior? What were the circumstances surrounding the experience?

Column # 2 is labeled A: What leads up to the behavior, what’s going on at the time, who’s present at the time, and what are the circumstances prior to the behavior. Notes in this column include:

• Has the child eaten well?
• Has the child slept well?
• Does the child know the rules and expectations around the behavior?
• Was the child prepared for the requested behavior or personal experience?
• Did the child sleep enough?
• Did the child have a late-afternoon snack?
• Was a parent impatient, thus contributing to the misbehavior?
• Were there too many children in the classroom this morning, so that the class was loud or unruly?
• Was the child woken up too early?
• Was there an adult present to help the child with a skill deficit?
• Did the child have the necessary skills to manage the experience?

STEP 3: Describe the actual behavior, duration and severity.

Column #3 is labeled B: The actual behavior, its length, duration, severity.
In this column describe the specific behavior.

• What happened?
• What behavior was exhibited?
• How long did it go on for?
• How severe was the behavior?

STEP 4: Describe the outcome. What did you do, what did the child, tween or teen do? How did you intervene? How did the situation end?

Column #4 is labeled C: How did the event end, what happened next, what were the consequences of the behavior, what did the child or other children around the child do, what were the interventions, how did each of those interventions work or not work. What was the resolution?

In this column describe who did what when and what were the resulting actions or consequences.
• Who was there?
• Who was involved?
• What did each person say?
• What did each person do?
• What happened next?
• Were consequences employed?
• Was discipline used?
• What form of discipline?
• How was it administered?
• By whom?
• How did the child respond?
• What seemed to work well?
• What did not work well?
• What improvements might be needed?

The next time your child misbehaves, become a behavioral detective. Sit back and observe. Take notes. Consider what you said and did. Consider what your child said and did. Consider what others said and did. Just being aware will likely alter your behavior as well as the behavior of your child.

You’ll be amazed by what you learn. Just looking, listening and learning changes behavior, watch. When you understand the who, what, when, where and how of your child’s behavior you can make more informed choices regarding how to intervene.