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Willful? Not So Fast!

A parent presents a struggle he is having with his daughter.  Many times, not always, his daughter refuses to wear her seat belt in the car and she’ll say it with a glint in her eye and a smile on her face. “Nope, dad I am not going to wear it.” She is 8 years old so its safe to assume she knows wearing a seat belt is required and dad has stated that repeatedly. Dad says, “Don’t tell me she isn’t intentionally trying to get me going? She knows how dangerous it is, that it’s the law, and it makes me furious when she won’t put it on. I just blow. She’ll even buckle it right up and then when she catches my eye in the mirror unbuckle it and laugh. What the heck is that?”

Sure, kids can sometimes poke fun or do something to make you mad on purpose. Hiding your cell phone, swearing at you, or throwing something are not always chronic problems and can be a rare, random, intentional event. The question becomes if she does it repeatedly, and you blow up repeatedly, and she is given all sorts of consequences repeatedly – why does it keep happening? At Think:Kids we don’t think that kids get their jollies by repeatedly battling with you, although it may feel that way for the parent.  We believe if they she could do it a better way she would but she doesn’t know that better way.

So in the case of the seat belt situation there was something the child was not able to say or do adaptively so she kept doing something maladaptive which was refusing to buckle in. We of course encouraged the father to start by talking to his daughter away from the car when the seat belt issue was not imminent. In talking to his daughter several times (the first couple didn’t yield much) he learned that his daughter is furious at him because he and his wife are recently divorced and the girl always feels she is being dragged from house to house, and the car has become an unhappy place that represents the split up. So what skills might this girl lack? The skills to identify or articulate her feelings, shift gears with frequent transitions during the week, handle ambiguity and uncertainty, and seek attention in an appropriate way to name a few perhaps! Of course, many young kids might not have the skills to handle a difficult circumstance like this and might as a result act in similar ways, but the lesson here is that no end of consequences would fix this problem or even help identify it.

Sometimes it feels intentional and manipulative when a child’s behavior is annoying, but remember that often buried beneath the behavior is the truth that if the child could behave more adaptively they would…BUT THEY DON’T HAVE THE SKILLS to handle what the world has thrown their way!

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