John and Judy* came in to see me a few months ago now, directly after dropping their daughter Sally (9) off at school. I could tell by their faces that the morning had not gone well. Sure enough, as soon as they sat down they told me about how Sally had "got in trouble" the day before and they'd just spoken to the teacher about it that morning. It wasn't a helpful conversation. John was furious and believed the teacher had made many mistakes over the year, and this was "the last straw" for him. Judy was devastated and in tears, feeling as though she personally was a failure - as well as being worried for her daughter.
We discussed their options, how to manage their emotions and what to say and do with Sally and her teacher. It was a difficult session, but they emailed me later to say the next day had been better for them, and they had made a plan for getting through the next week.
To be honest, John and Judy are not real parents - this is a story I made up just then. But it didn't require great creative genius (took me about 10 seconds :)) because it's inspired by hundreds of parents I've worked with over the years. I see kids every week who struggle with managing their frustration, find it tough to get along with peers, struggle to following instructions, can't "stay on task" nor finish work set for them. Their struggles means they frequently "get in trouble" at school - in other words, everything from getting corrected, reprimanded, punished, losing privileges, suspended, removed from the school, asked to be involved in mediation, reconsider their "choices" and so on.
When this happens repeatedly for children, it breaks their parents hearts. Parents I see with kids always "in trouble" will frequently feel angry, upset, distressed, guilty, extremely worried and confused about what to do.
Unfortunately this distress means these parents sometimes do things which accidentally make things worse - for themselves and for their children.
Here are four mistakes we sometimes make when our child says "I got in trouble today".
Mistake 1. We get angry at the teacher
As parents we have a strong, subconscious biological urge to protect our children.
When another person criticizes, is angry at or corrects our child - sometimes we have an instinctive anger response. This is especially true if we feel someone is acting unfairly towards our kids.
So it makes sense that we feel angry. Unfortunately, it really, REALLY doesn't help to speak aggressively to a teacher, someone at the school or even about a teacher in our child's presence.
Here's why we usually need to reign in our frustration with teachers:
- We usually don't have the full story - child frequently report events incorrectly, or don't tell us the entire picture. Often they are not deliberately lying, they just don't know or see the context.
- Most teachers are trying extremely hard to support our children whilst doing incredibly difficult jobs. They often are the subejct of repeated criticism from other parents (we will not be the only parent upset with them that day) and dealing with high levels of stress and burnout.
- Acting in aggressive ways towards the teacher is going to make the teacher more anxious, frustrated and less co-operative - leading to them being less able to capably provide support and teaching to our children
- Acting in aggressive ways towards a teacher in front of our children may make children less respectful towards the teacher themselves, which might lead to them being "in trouble" more often. It also doesnt help our children learn to resolve conflict and work with a range of people.
- It's not terrible for children to get into trouble occasionally. They can potentially learn a great deal from correction, depending on the situation.
- Finally, acting in aggressive ways towards someone usually makes us feel worse, not better.
Mistake 2. We get angry at our child
Sometimes as parents we go the other way when children do the wrong thing at school - we get mad with our kids.
This is understandable. It IS frustrating when our kids act in negative ways at school. Sometimes it can feel like we have talked with our kids repeatedly about doing the right thing at school - not hitting other kids/putting their hand up/finishing work at school/keeping their head down - and yet they still mess up. After the tenth occasion, it's tempting to get really angry, and pull out some great punishment (that's it, your ipad is going in the bin). But unfortunately getting angry with our children doesn't help much either.
Here's why we need to stay calm with children who've "gotten in trouble":
- We've sometimes forgotten that school can be extremely hard work. Dealing with other kids are is often annoying, hurtful and tiring. Having to listen and follow instructions all day is tiring and hard work.
- Sometimes teachers - being human beings - act in unreasonable, irritable, impatient and unfair ways. Having to deal with that when you have a small brain can be pretty tough.
- It's entirely normal for children to break rules, do the wrong thing, lose their temper and get off task. Children are still learning how to manage their frustration, get along with others, concentrate, finish tasks and be respectful to others.
- Getting angry at our kids doesn't actually help them change - in fact it can mean they are less likely to be able to do so.
Mistake 3. We ignore the situation entirely
Somet imes when our children get in trouble, as parents we just pretend the whole thing hasn't happened. This is not surprising either. Parents in general are often overwhelmed. There is too much to do, no time to do it in and they are dealing with a whole range of challenges.
And for parents who have children who get in trouble frequently, this is especially true. Sometimes it feels like the best thing to do is to just let the school deal with it, not ask too many questions and/or just wait until the child is in a different class/older/something else changes.
I believe this is often a mistake.
Here's why ignoring the situation can be a problem:
- Almost every time children get in trouble it potentially (if we start "digging") provides us with vital information about what our child needs. It's like a little flag to say "here's what my child isn't so good at/needs help with/is struggling with". This information can be extremely helpful - and we don't always get this information elsewhere.
- Teachers don't have the time or resources to help our children learn to behave in different ways on their own. As parents/carers we are have a unique ability to do this in different ways than a teacher can.
- Ignoring the situation might give the message (to schools/teachers and our own children) that the difficult behaviour isn't important. This means it may happen again.
Mistake 4. We blame ourselves
Finally, some parents I see blame themselves when their child gets in trouble. They feel a sense of shame about their parenting, and feel like they haven't done enough. Once again, this doesn't help.
Here's why we need to be compassionate towards ourselves rather than blame ourselves
- It is really painful for parents when their child gets in trouble repeatedly. I have many parents cry many tears in my office about this issue. Having your child in trouble (especially when it is repeated) causes genuine and deep hurt, and we should take care of ourselves.
- If we are kind towards ourselves as parents first, it's easier to be kind to our children (and to teachers).
Perhaps reflect for a moment - which of these mistakes are you more likely to make?
Getting angry at the teacher
Getting angry at your child
Ignoring the situation
If you can, try to avoid these mistakes. Instead try to do the following:
Stay calm and caring when talking with your child about the situation
Do some gentle digging and exploring of what happened and what skills your child might need to work on, Communicate calmly and respectfully to teachers
Be kind to yourself
If we can do this, then the "getting in trouble" problems doesn't lead to more trouble.
Do you have more questions about managing your child's tricky behaviour at school (and at home)?
You can ask UNLIMITED questions of myself and our child psychologists online and we will answer within 48 hours. Your child can also watch videos which are specifically designed to help them calm, manage worries, cope with frustration and feel more confident and co-operative. For more information, go to www.calmkidcentral.com
Are you an Adelaide based parent? You might be interested in the following seminar: Calm and Confident Kids - For parents of 5-12 year olds. Click here for more information.