One of the most frustrating experience as a parent is not being able to understand why your child is cranky for some of the times. Some parents end up punishing their children because they do not know how else to deal with this overtly unreasonable and challenging behaviour. Here are some of the most common reasons I’ve come across in my work as a therapist and from research with children, adolescents and families who have struggled with managing aggressive behaviour.
Unbeknownst to many parents, a child’s increased irritability and agitation may be an early sign of depression. I call it one of the ‘hidden symptoms’ of depression because people commonly identify depression by the low mood, “slowing down in action”, loss of appetite, sleep or motivation, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. However, adolescence research has shown that teenagers are more likely to experience a mixture of these presentations with a underlying tone of “angst” or crankiness causing issues in multiple areas of life especially at home, with their friends or at school.
When early detection of depression slipping under the radar, parents tend to think their teenagers are just going through a phase of “puberty”, or even tend to misinterpret this behaviour as outright defiance, and end up ignoring or becoming distant towards their children. This makes it a lot harder for parents to empathize with their children and to intervene before the depression gets out of hand. Take the time to understand the context behind their agitation by actively listening into their thoughts without jumping in with suggestions or solutions. This could be a good start to reconnecting the emotional state between feeling anger and opening up channels of communications to “what’s wrong, you seem really upset?”
Along the same lines, anxiety disorders has also been known to be expressed as aggression or naughty behaviour. Imagine your children has some anxieties around school, friendships, or social environments, they might refuse to participate in school or social activities and get upset and angry very quickly. The idea here is that the child thinks that they much rather get into trouble than face their fears. It is a very tricky task for parents to be able to distinguish between anxious behaviour or naughty behaviour, since they look so similar, but anxious behaviours do not deserve to be punished. Parents without this awareness might consider these behaviours as temper tantrums, and indirectly reinforce anxiety and naughty behaviour by giving negative attention to it.
Two principles that can help guide how you respond to them is firstly, having a predictable consequences to naughty behaviour ie. time-out, privilege removal or any other appropriate consequence as any form of aggression either verbally or physically is not acceptable. Secondly, stand back and observe the situation for any reasons that they might be avoiding the task ie refusing to go sleep or delaying sleep time because they are trying to avoid staying in the bedroom alone, may indicate they have a fear of the dark or that someone might try to break in.
What has changed most drastically in the last decade, is the introduction of seemingly harmless digital gadgets into the hands of young ones in most modern households in Australia and around the world. Children as young as three now know how to demand for smartphones and iPads from their parents as a condition for them to comply with eating or any other tasks.
There is growing number of research that have suggested these glowing screens to produce aversive effects on children and their socio-emotional development. Some have even called it the ‘digital heroin’ or ‘electronic cocaine’ of our time, where similar aggressive and irrational behaviour of addicts are demonstrated when devices are removed from our children (see reference link below). In fact, these children are at risk of underdeveloped attentional ability, impaired social and communicative skills as well as hyperarousal of the nervous system which can lead to development of more severe mental illnesses.
Bottom line is, there is no substitute for face-to-face family playtime. Precious hours spent on these devices, internet and other electronic games have replaced opportunities for families to bond and build deeper connections with one another that are essential to learning key skills such as emotional regulation and frustration tolerance from parents or older siblings. So, limit internet and screen time by suggesting healthy replacements such as tech-free night, or scheduled screen time and plug-in into family fun time.