More and more parents are seeking expert help to deal with their children’s difficult behaviour. But, asks Kirsten Matthew, is it nature, nurture or something else that’s making Kiwi kids too hard to handle?

Remember The Bad Seed? Little Rhoda Penmark who was so evil she drowned a classmate on a school picnic and set a caretaker on fire. Or Damien, the mid-70s child devil from The Omen? He killed a priest, for goodness sake.

Those big-screen stories of out-of-control youngsters were extreme but, increasingly, so is the behaviour of children throughout the Western world. In Born Naughty?, a British television show yet to screen in New Zealand, kids smash things (including other children), refuse to eat anything, get expelled from primary school and put their own lives at risk with their enraged actions. Their parents, like many New Zealand caregivers, are at their wits' end.

So, are they just naughty or is something else causing kids to act out so much these days?

"We don't like the word 'naughty'," says Anita Johansen, Hawkes Bay psychologist and owner of Little Ninjas, a company that helps parents, teachers and other professionals understand and manage children's behaviour with one-on-one sessions, parenting support, seminars and workshops.

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She is not the only one who won't use "naughty" to describe bad behaviour. Every teacher and expert interviewed for this piece was quick to say that naughty is not appropriate in 2015.

"Before we got into politically correct, diagnostic terms, 'naughty' covered a great deal. I believe the current term is ODD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder," says Diane Levy, renowned family therapist and author of Of Course I Love You ... Now Go To Your Room!.

Levy says increasing numbers of parents are visiting her Auckland practice for help in dealing with their offspring: "My problem isn't lack of clients, put it that way. But my work's getting much harder. It used to be strategies for working with non-compliant kids. Now, the problems are much more multi-faceted. And I think it's getting much harder for parents, too."

"Normal, everyday parents are saying 'Help, I don't know what to do!'," says Johansen.

"There's aggression; children who will not listen. Bedtime's always a huge problem. A huge amount are coming because they see their kids as explosive."

One Auckland mother Canvas spoke to knows all about explosive. A parent of three, she found her first two children a breeze; her third, a daughter, is not so easy.

"She is an extremely challenging child," she says of the 4-year-old. "She's high energy, always needs to be the centre of attention. She's manipulative, very demanding, and the more you give her, the more she expects. She has a real problem with authority in the home. There's a huge amount of anger. We've struggled to parent her and, while I love my daughter, there are times I really don't like her."

When the naughty corner (time out in a corner of the house) and banishment to her bedroom failed as punishment options - the little girl would just refuse to stay put - her parents resorted to locking the pre-schooler in her room, a piece of advice they got from a Diane Levy seminar. And they're working with The Parenting Place, a charity in Auckland that helps parents to come up with strategies to deal with their daughter's aggression.

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So does her mum believe it's nature or nurture that's to blame?

"Nature. Even labour with her was difficult and, from the moment she was born, she was stroppy. It was a real struggle for me. I wasn't sure at first if it was having three children or if it was her. I was exhausted by the time she was 18 months."

"I don't believe that any children are born 'naughty'," says Levy, when asked if children like Rhoda, the Bad Seed, really exist.

"For each family, it will be a unique combination of factors that has led them to the desperation of making an appointment."

Johansen agrees that temperament, stressors and environment usually combine to create an unruly child. There are other factors too, including anxiety.

"Anxiety is a hot topic at the moment," explains the psychologist, who recently hosted a seminar on managing anxiety in children and had about 60 concerned parents attend.

"Everyone experiences anxiety and fears but often 'inappropriate' behaviour is masking it. We talk to teachers often about how, when you are in an anxious state, and someone yells at you, that's enough to have you throwing a chair in the classroom. Anxiety goes hand-in-hand with avoidance."

Life is much more complicated for parents today, says Parenting guru Diane Levy. Photo / NZME.
Life is much more complicated for parents today, says Parenting guru Diane Levy. Photo / NZME.

Avoidance and anxiety were the reasons one Auckland tween's behaviour escalated out of control. After a minor incident at school, the normally placid boy refused to return. When his parents tried to force him, his mother says: "he would scream and yell and cry and kick. I couldn't get him out the door. Or, we'd get him to school but he wouldn't stay."

Two psychologists, several doctors and a school counsellor were consulted but to no avail. Three years of recalcitrant behaviour ensued.

"I couldn't understand how he could be so angry and bad and naughty," the mother says.

"I thought he was never going to get out of it. I look back now and I think about what an awful time it was. It caused so much friction between my husband and me. You feel like you fail as a parent."

She puts the extreme behaviour solely down to angst: "He's a really sensitive kid and I think he felt a bit lonely. There's too much expected of kids these days. Kids aren't able to be kids and parents aren't able to be parents."

"We assume children are born with the ability to manage their emotions but it is something that has to be taught," says Johansen.

"Lack of development of emotional literacy early on creates problems for children as they get older. Some referrals describe 4-year-olds with no empathy. If you can't recognise your own feelings such as anger in yourself or the way it feels and looks, how can you understand how someone else is feeling?"

Diagnoses of ADHD, Autism or ODD (which is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as angry and irritable moods, argumentative and defiant behaviour, or vindictiveness lasting more than six months) can be helpful. But the idea of it also muddies the waters for parents.

"We're all trying to sort out our kids' behaviour at whatever age and we're all trying to ascribe meaning," explains Levy.

"If we can ascribe meaning, then that helps us to go towards a solution. So parents can go to Dr Google and look up the symptoms of ADHD. It's easy to make the symptoms of 'naughty' behaviour match ADHD symptoms. It's a wonderful thing that we can all use Dr Google, but it may not be giving us a useful diagnosis."

Johansen agrees. Diagnoses, she says, can help with understanding but can hinder looking for ways to intervene or problem solve. "There are a lot of kids coming through that have experienced neglect and trauma and the school system doesn't cater to them because of their high needs and teachers that are under immense pressures."

Families are too, says Levy. "Certainly, life is very much more complex for all of us than it was. We are all leading incredibly busy lives. The hardest thing of all is the time tension.

"Once, Mum was home all day, often very ready to see the children when they came home. The kids didn't have much else to do but play. Now, school is much more complicated; it is increasingly rare for a mother to be at home all day. If we just consider the number of times electronics interrupt any task, or the number of times a child gets in and out of the car each day or the number of times in any one day we change activities, the pressure on parents and children is enormous."

The basics - food, sleep, attention, love - have been complicated and commercialised and that's also problematic, the experts say. Parents feel they should come home from work and prepare a family dinner that everyone eats together, but by the time it's served, the kids are overtired and falling apart. Children can also exert their control by refusing to eat, adding to the pressure on parents.

Come bedtime, everybody's exhausted and stressed and that becomes a big problem too.

"Children are getting less and less sleep," says Levy. "When a child has underslept, they don't necessarily get sleepy, they get bad tempered and hideous. Are they 'naughty' because they have underslept or have they underslept because you can't get them to bed?"

One Hawkes Bay mother of two went to Little Ninjas after being defeated by her 2-year-old at bedtime.

"There were problems with throwing toys and bedtime and running away from me; things that other parents were having issues with, too," she explains. "But then things went off the rails with bedtime and he started repeatedly getting out of bed."

The behaviour escalated until, one night, the little boy got out of bed 72 times. Each time, his parents took him back to his room. But by the end of the night, his mum says: "we felt out of control and completely at the end of our tether."

Is it nature or nurture that's to blame? Photo / Thinkstock
Is it nature or nurture that's to blame? Photo / Thinkstock

Sessions with Little Ninjas gave the parents a more realistic perspective on 2-year-old behaviour, as well as more appropriate and positive ways to talk to him, she says. Amazingly, within a week, the battle over bedtime had been won.

"Just having someone to say to you, when you're exhausted and you've been at home with a toddler all day, 'Here's one thing to try and a couple of things to say in the heat of the moment' helped," she says.

It's not surprising that modern parents question their instincts when it comes to discipline, Levy says.

"In the good old days, when a parent said to a child, 'Put your shoes and socks on', they had the backing of an entire village. The teacher agreed, the principal agreed, the neighbours agreed, the policeman agreed and the vicar agreed," she explains. "Nowadays, when a parent makes a simple request, there is no one backing them. There is always somebody - real or online - saying, 'Couldn't you ask more positively?' or 'Maybe you should give them more time to absorb the information?' or some other criticism of a perfectly reasonable parental request. It's actually very undermining for the adults."

So, what's the answer? How do New Zealand parents stem the flow of tantrums, tirades and dangerous disobedience?

Being realistic about what your children are capable of helps, the experts say. As does stepping back, slowing down and letting your kids be kids.

"In this day and age, we over-parent and we are busy trying to protect them from the world but we're not giving them the skills to manage," says Johansen.

"Children have to be presented with choice but not too much. By seeing behaviour as a form of communication and trying to understand what they are communicating, it is possible to see some changes overnight. Kids really want to do well, because being on the opposite end of it is not that much fun. So we've got to give them the skills to manage in a better way."

Levy recommends arranging children's lives so they make "safe mistakes".

It's something Bruce McLachlan, the principal of Swanson Primary School in Auckland, endeavoured to do three years ago, when he got rid of rules in the playground. Part of an AUT and Otago University study into free play, the trial led not to anarchy but to a vast improvement in the children's behaviour.

They started working better in the classroom, there were less fights and bullying in the playground - all because they were free to climb trees and run around without too much adult supervision.

"What they saw was the development of social skills through this free play. And those skills will help build resiliency and therefore help them function as adults," says Johansen. She recommends parents learn from the free play study and relax a bit too, if they can.

"Parenting is very hard," she admits. "I've got a lot of qualifications and I still get stressed out."

- Canvas