Knowing about young people's mistakes, challenges and problems - does it matter? How to find out?

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All children and teens act in unhelpful and challenging ways at times. They are unkind, frustrated, forgetful, rude and mean to their peers.  They act defiantly, fail to tell the truth and act angrily to adults.  This kind of challenging and unhelpful behaviour in children and young people is entirely normal as they slowly learn to manage life, their emotions and relationships. 

Most children, over time become wiser, smarter, more skilled and more mature - and therefore do less of this challenging behaviour (with bumps in middle childhood and adolescence).

There are many ways parents can help children and teens through this process.

For example, one consistent research finding is that parents who are aware of the details of their children and teen's lives have young people who are less likely to act in persistently challenging ways.  And in particular, aware of the challenges and problems their children face.  For example:

- The ongoing social challenges or conflict they are having with others
- The challenges they are having with study or learning behaviour
- The things that disappoint them or frustrate them - and the times they don't handle this well
- The areas they need support and help in - with learning, behaviour and relationships

This is called "parental knowledge" and many decades of research have found a strong relationship between high parental knowledge and lower rates of challenging behaviour (Crouter and Head 2002; Dishion and McMahon 1998; Sampson and Laub 1994; Weintraub and Gold 1991).  

It seems we need to know about the tough times our children have, the mistakes they make and the things they are not doing well.

More recently however researchers have been digging further into this issue and asking this question:  how exactly do parents find out about what is going on for their child - and does how they get this knowledge this affect their child's well being and their relationship with the child?

One important study in 2000 by Stattin and Kerr found that a high level of parental knowledge was most closely tied to challenging behaviour in young people when this parental knowledge was gained by child and teen self-disclosure.  In other words, children with the least challenging behaviour as time passed were those who independently told their parents about what was happening for them.

Not only that, some research has suggested that a higher level of parents "soliciting" information from children is associated with a higher level of behaviour problems.  In other words, some studies found that the more questions a parent asked at one point in time was negatively associated with how much children/teens told them two years later. In these studies asking questions actually seemed to decrease how much children told parents!

I must admit those studies disturbed me as I've long been an advocate of asking questions of children and teens.  So I went back and had a looked at the literature more carefully.   Sure enough when you look at the papers more carefully, some other factors emerge.  For example, a follow up study on this research found that this "ask more questions- get more shut down kids" effect depended on how warm and caring parents were towards their children (Fletcher, et al 2004).  In other words, when parents showed warmth towards their children, they knew more about their children and those children had less problems with challenging behaviour over time.

I also read about a few other factors which research has linked to how much children and teens spontaneously self disclose information:  namely - how much quality time parents spent with young people and how well parents responded to previously self disclosed information.  These studies suggested that when parents have good relationship with children and teens generally, and when they don't "freak out" or get angry when they tell us about their challenges, then not only was asking questions not associated with more child secrecy, but kids and teens also spontaneously told them more information.

What do we take away from this research as parents?

First, we need to keep working on making sure we have a warm and positive relationship with our kids.  Before we do anything else, and most importantly, we need to keep taking small, regular steps to do make sure children and teens feel loved, appreciated and cared about.  You know how to do this right?  We positively comment on something we admire about our child.  We organise to spend a few minutes with them doing something they enjoy.  We tell them we love them.  Give them a hug.  Be sympathetic about a challenge they have.  Ask them how you can support them.  Spend time doing something positive together.  Apologise when you get it wrong as a parent.  Spend time trying to reduce sources of conflict before they occur.  This is not easy of course, but we just need to take small steps towards this as much as we can.

Second, provided we are doing this positive relationship work with our kids, we should also be asking children and teens questions about their potential challenges.  Not just hope they will tell us about them.  Not just expect teachers will let us know anything that is important.  Instead, we should specifically and regularly check in about areas of concern, potential problems and tricky situations which we think might be an issue.

I've listed some sample questions below which might be helpful in our attempts to do this.   However, before I list them - please remember - that just asking questions without the warm relationship in the background will make things worse!  Please don't use this list as an interrogation script and just ask them all at once while having your child under a bright spotlight at the kitchen table :)

Ask one or two of these, every now and then, while also providing warmth and care.

Questions to Uncover "Tricky Behaviour" and challenges for children and teens

  • When was the last time you think a teacher felt a little frustrated with you/needed to remind you of a rule?
  • Is there any other students who might have been frustrated or angry at you recently? What happened?
  • Is there something you forget to do/finish/get done at school recently?
  • If you could go back and do today over, is there something you would have NOT have done? or NOT Said? 
  • Are there any videos have you seen online which made you feel a little worried? Guilty? Sad?
  • Is there anyone in your class who doesn’t like you? Why do you think that is?  
  • Is there anyone at school who you particularly don’t like? Do they know you don’t like them? How?
  • If you could go back and “unsend” a message or “unpost” a status update/story/photo - would you do so?
  • Have you got mad at anyone at school recently? Could they tell?
  • Is there anyone who felt you were unfair to them at school recently? 
  • Are there any schools rules which you find particularly hard to follow?
  • Do you feel jealous of anyone at school? Can anyone tell?
  • Are there students in your class who are particularly great at following certain class or school rules?  Are you different to them in some way?
  • (Regarding that difficult situation we had at home with your brother/sister/neighbour) - has something like that also happened at school recently
  • If you were a super amazingly patient person - how might you act differently at school?
  • Who is the kindest person you know at school? How do they act differently from other kids ?  Do they do things differently from you?

Third, if we do hear a challenge, mistake or area of tricky behaviour from our child or teen - we need to respond very carefully.  Remember research suggests how we respond may determine how and whether children and teens are prepared to talk to us.  Here are some points which might help:

  • Stay calm and try hard to avoid getting angry, inducing shame or being harsh or critical.
  • Thank the child/teen for their honesty.
  • Sometimes more questions can help- "would you like to tell me more about that?", "can I help?", "what was hard about that?"
  • Sometimes "backing off" can help:  "Sounds like that was tough.  Perhaps we can talk about it another time if you'd like to"
  • Either way, take your time in thinking about how to respond.  Responding to challenging behaviour in young people is beyond the scope of this particular article, but I will say that it's important to try to see challenging behaviour as a learning need, way of communicating or coping and/or a natural response to the environment - rather than a deliberate or manipulative way of behaving.

Finally, I want to make the very important point that it is easier for some parents than others to do this work.  Research shows that children who show higher than average amounts of challenging behaviour in their younger years, have parents who subsequently show less warmth and ask less questions as years go by than the parents of children who show less challenging behaviour when they are younger.  In other words, it's not simply parent behaviour leading to child behaviour - but the opposite of this is also true - child behaviour changes parenting.   

This makes sense of course.  When parents are worried, hurt and frustrated by their children's challenging behaviour they understandably find it harder to ask questions, be positive and encouraging and get to know what is happening for a child.  If a child struggles with managing frustration with their peers, eventually you don't want to ask any more because hearing about it makes you exhausted and more worried, and you are more likely to get increasingly angry and upset with this child.  

But unfortunately this lower level of warmth and positivity, and less question asking -  can then lead to more secrecy and more challenging behaviour in young people - and the spiral continues.

So it's not easy.   If you feel like you have an open and honest relationship with your child, and low levels of challenging behaviour - please don't take 100% of the credit for this and believe it is all a result of your excellent parenting!  This is unhelpful for our community.  On the other hand, If you feel like your child or teen doesn't tell you anything, and there is a higher level of challenge for them in some areas - please don't descend into a spiral of shame - you are not imagining it, it IS harder for you than some others. 

But it's important for all of us not to give up. 

Our job is to continue to showing warmth, love, enjoyment of, and care for our children and then - continue to keep working on knowing what their challenges, potential problems and areas of difficulty are, so that we are in a better place to coach, help and support them to manage life as well as they can.  

For an overview of the research in this article, start by reading:  Racz, S. J., & Mcmahon, R. J. (2011). The relationship between parental knowledge and monitoring and child and adolescent conduct problems: A 10-year update.Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(4), 377-98. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10567-011-0099-y 

P.S. If you have a primary aged child who seems to struggle more than average with challenging, angry or defiant behaviout, then it might be helpful for you to watch some of our new videos on Calm Kid Central ("An overview of challenging behaviour for parents" and "Understanding the causes of challenging behaviour in children with big feelings").  I've only just finished these training videos and I'm really pleased with them - I think they provide a good summary of the research and how to think about challenging behaviour in childhood.