Behavioral Illness

May 17, 2016

So many times I hear a young child who is having trouble learning in elementary school described as lazy. I also hear the words stubborn, or difficult, used to describe young children with certain behavior problems. Whenever a parent uses these or similar words to describe their children, either based on their own observations or what they have been told by teachers, it prompts me to start a conversation about how to interpret children's behavior in light of what is developmentally appropriate for children of elementary school age.

Children in this age group are wired to want to please to adults in their lives, so if they are not doing so, our first thought should be that they can't, not that they won't. If we approach the problem with the premise that, for example, our third grader does not seem like she is trying to learn to read because she cannot pay attention well enough, or cannot grasp the basic skills, we are more likely to offer help rather than express disappointment. Similarly, if we understand that our kindergartener's tantrums in transition are due to anxiety, we are more likely to go out of our way to help prepare him for upcoming change rather than punish him when the difficult behavior surfaces.

In contrast, adolescent development creates behaviors that increase their sense of autonomy, often by creating distance from their parents and other adults, but that is its own topic for another day. When young children's behavior is consistently a problem we need to look for a possible underlying disorder as opposed to dealing with the behavior at face value. In doing so we will help these children be their best selves.