Factors Influencing Children's Behaviour
Allison Lee has written this book as a companion to her first book Starting Your Own Childminding Business. She has been minding children herself for over 11 years and is employed part-time by the National Childminding Association as a Support Childminder giving help and advice to other practitioners. Allison has also written childminding courses for ISC Learning Direct and for UK Open-Learning Direct.
Before we can really begin to understand what makes a child behave in the way that they do we must first take a look at the factors which play an important part in their lives and which may actually influence their behaviour. Often, without us even realising it, the things around us and the aspects of our everyday lives, have a great influence on the way we conduct ourselves. Children are no exception. Whilst some appear resilient and take things in their stride, others are very sensitive and may have difficulty adjusting to changes.
One of the main factors which may affect a child's behaviour is their overall development. For example, a child may behave in a certain way because they have emotional difficulties or because their development is delayed. The way a child feels about themselves will also have an affect on their behaviour; it is very important that children are made to feel secure, loved and valued by the adults around them as these three factors create the basis of self-esteem and confidence.
Other factors which may influence the way a child acts and behaves include:
- birth of a new baby;
- moving house;
- starting/moving school;
- race, culture and religion;
- child abuse.
The way a child copes with any of the above situations will depend primarily on the way they have been brought up, their own genetic makeup and their stage of development.
We will now look at these factors in more detail.
SEPARATION AND DIVORCE
Major changes, such as their parents’ separation or divorce, can have a profound affect on a child's behaviour.
In today's society there are many pressures and problems facing parents. The divorce rate is especially high in the United Kingdom and often children of a very young age have to contend with the break up of their family life as they know it. We can never really be sure how divorce affects children but we can do our best to reassure them and prepare them for the changes ahead.
Exactly how much a child suffers may not really be known until much later in their lives when they begin to forge relationships and families of their own. Children may experience many feelings when their parents’ relationship breaks down including:
Over a quarter of the babies born in the UK today are likely to experience parental separation before they reach school leaving age, and divorce is one of the most common adverse life events experienced by children. When parents separate children may blame themselves for their parents’ unhappiness and question where they fit into the new setup. It is important to remember that divorce affects all members of a family and not just the actual marriage partners. How the parents themselves deal with their child's emotions will have a very important influence on the outcome of the whole situation. What is absolutely vital is that the parents:
- Explain the situation honestly to their children in a manner suitable to their child's age and understanding.
- Make sure the child is aware that the break down of the relationship is not their fault.
- Make sure that the child is aware that both parents still love the child deeply.
- Never ask the child to choose between parents.
- Avoid berating each other in front of the child.
- Avoid apportioning blame in front of the child.
- Never expect the child to take sides.
Children will react differently to divorce depending on their age and level of understanding of the situation. However their reactions can be summarised in the following ways:
1. Preschool children
As very young children are unlikely to understand the full implications of divorce they will probably become sad and frightened when their parents separate. It is not uncommon for young children to become very clingy and demanding and to refuse to be left alone even for a few minutes. Problems at bedtimes may occur and they may show aggression towards other children or their siblings.
2. Primary school-aged children
As with very young children this age group will also experience sadness and grief, however they are more likely to also experience anger particularly towards the parent with whom they are living. Blame may be apportioned to this parent whilst the absent parent may appear to be idealised.
3. Pre-adolescent children
Children of this age group are often unable to talk about their feelings as they experience pain and embarrassment acutely. They may appear detached and seek distraction in play and other activities. It is not uncommon for a pre-adolescent child to strongly side with one parent and even refuse to see the other.
Children of this age group are often experiencing many mixed emotions and may withdraw from family life in the event of a divorce or separation. One concern for children of this age group is that they do not seek distraction in ‘friends’ who may have an undesirable influence upon them.
Security for children is paramount and this security comes from consistent love and discipline and from parents who are ‘available’ for their children. Security can be just as effective even if it comes from separate homes and divorced parents. Parents who work together can make dramatic changes easier to accept and manage and it is essential that both parents work together to find a solution which is suitable for everyone.
Below are some helpful tips for parents who are separating or divorcing and for their child's childminder to follow:
- Recognise the child's need to grieve and allow them the space to deal with the situation in their own way.
- Refrain from putting the father or mother down in front of the child. This is particularly important for childminders to remember. Never take sides. If you are speaking with the mother do not allow them to drag you into a negative discussion about their husband and vice versa. There are always two sides to every story and it is not your place to be judgemental or apportion blame.
- Try to stick to usual routines as much as possible to avoid unnerving an already fragile child even more.
- Never ask questions of the child or use them as ‘messengers'.
- With parental permission, notify the child's school in case of any possible distress suffered whilst they are at school so that teachers are aware of the situation.
After parents have separated or divorced there will be a period of grieving for all involved. This period of change involves rebuilding lives and moving ahead. It is an important time in which self esteem and confidence may well need to be repaired and parents may need your reassurance. There are no set rules on how things should develop and you may need to act as a ‘go between’ for a while in order to establish new routines. If you are asked to help with visits between ex-partners do so sensitively and with the child's best interests at heart.
OTHER KINDS OF SEPARATION
Although the word ‘separation’ automatically conjures up the idea of one parent leaving the other as in the case of a relationship break up, this is not always the case. Children may be separated from one or both of their parents for other reasons which can be equally as traumatic for them if not dealt with sensitively. Separation may result from:
- a lengthy stay in hospital either by the child or by one of the parents.
- one or both of the parents working away or perhaps being stationed abroad in the army. Sometimes children are sent to boarding school in these circumstances and may be separated from their parents during school term time;
- a parent may be in prison.
Children will cope with these types of situations differently and much again depends on their age and understanding of the situation, and whether they have been prepared for the separation. Ideally, the adults around them will have made plans whilst the separation is taking place. The adults may also be suffering from stress and anxiety, particularly in the case of a loved one being in hospital with a serious illness; and this can have a knock-on effect if not dealt with appropriately. Children who are separated from their parents or main carers will be affected by:
- their age and level of understanding;
- whether the separation was sudden or planned;
- the length of the separation;
- any previous history of separation in the child's life;
- their gender (studies have shown that boys are more distressed than girls by separation).
If at all possible, discuss separations with children, particularly planned separations, so that they are aware of what is happening and how long the situation is likely to go on for. Talk to them positively and allow them to keep in touch whenever possible by telephone, letter or, in the case of hospital stays, regular visits.
So, the child has survived the separation and divorce of his or her parents and settled back into a happy routine, seeing both parents on a regular basis. How then, would you expect the child to react when one or both parents find new partners and plan to re-marry?
Although the exact number of people forming step-families is unknown, it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands and research studies tell us that, after divorce, 50% of men will have remarried within two years and, after five years, 50% of women will have also remarried.
It is likely that the single most overwhelming feeling a child will experience in this type of situation is the uncertainty of his or her own position within the new family structure. When the parents separated but remained single it would probably have been easy for them to demonstrate the strength of their love and commitment to their child. However, as soon as another person comes onto the scene the child may see them as a potential threat intent on breaking up their happy routine. If recent years have been full of pain and insecurity before the parents divorced, it will take time for all involved to recover, and once a child has recovered from the past and moved on they may be very reluctant to allow someone else to come along and upset things for fear of repeating the pattern. It would be easy to assume that when a parent finds a new partner everything will be fine and the child and new partner will forge a special relationship. There are times when this is the case. However there are also many cases when things are not so easy. For example:
- The child may feel strong resentment towards their parent's new partner.
- The child's other parent may feel resentment towards the ex-partner and thrust their opinions onto the child; this may well be the case if the marriage break down was due solely to one parent's indiscretion.
- The parent's new partner may find it difficult to take on the care of someone else's child as they are unsure of their authority over another person's child.
- The parent's new partner may wish to adopt the role of the absent parent against the child's wishes; try to take mum/dad's place.
- There may be other children involved. A parent's new partner bringing step-children into the equation can have a devastating affect on a child.
Young children have a limited understanding of bereavement and may believe the situation to be short term. The words ‘gone forever’ are hard for most of us to comprehend so to expect a young child to accept them may be asking too much. The child may grieve for a long time and, when you begin to think they have finally accepted the situation, they may revert back and start to ask for the deceased person again. The death of a parent or close member of the family can have a devastating affect on a child and the situation needs to be handled with patience and sensitivity. Encourage the child to talk about the deceased person but do not force them to open up about their feelings until they are ready to do so. Answer their questions as openly and honestly as you can taking into account their age and level of understanding.
THE BIRTH OFANEW BABY
Accepting the birth of a new baby can be very difficult for some children. Feelings of jealousy and insecurity may well surface. Single children who have not had to share their parents may experience feelings of rejection and become unsure of their parents’ love for them. It can be particularly hard if the mother has a difficult birth and needs to stay in hospital or requires time to recuperate. An exhausted mother with a demanding baby may unintentionally appear to neglect the older child whilst she concentrates on her newborn.
Around 50-80% of new mothers suffer from the ‘baby blues’ when they understandably feel tired, stressed, anxious and weepy. This usually lasts for a few days after the birth and needs no special treatment. However, between 10-15% of women may suffer worse depression which can last weeks or even months after the birth of their baby. In these cases it is vital that they receive the support they need and, if you sense that a parent of one of the children you are caring for is going through this kind of experience, try to offer them as much time, support and reassurance as necessary and encourage them to seek medical advice.
It is vital that parents make time to be with their older offspring however tired or overwhelmed they may be feeling after the birth of a new baby. Encouraging older children to help with the care of the newborn will help them to accept the baby more quickly and give them a feeling of self-worth and helpfulness. Even young children can be included in the bathing and changing of a new baby, and by including your older children in these simple tasks you will help them to feel important and needed.
Moving house may not seem a very important or particularly eventful time in a child's life, however you should never underestimate the importance of familiar surroundings to a child. The security of a loving home is vital to a child's well being. Moving house is a stressful time for the adults in the family and this alone can bring anxiety to a child. If moving house does not involve moving a long distance then the disruption should be minimal as the child will not be too far from family, friends and familiar surroundings. However if the move means a change of school and leaving friends and family behind, it can have a devastating affect on a child. Some children may even liken the move to that of bereavement and may feel they will never see their friends again. Long-distance house moves must be dealt with sensitively. Try to explain things to the child and allow them as much time as possible to come to terms with the situation. If possible, make regular visits to their old friends particularly in the first few months when they may be finding it difficult to forge new friendships.
Another important factor which may influence a child's behaviour is starting school. Some children absolutely adore school; from the very first moment they hang their coat up and walk into the classroom they are settled and at ease. Others may take weeks or even months before they are truly happy and settled. Every child is unique and how long it takes for them to settle into their school environment will be different.
Neither of my own two children enjoyed playgroup. Nursery was only slightly better, and when they first began at primary school, if I didn't leave them holding a teacher's hand, they would end up following me all the way back home! However, I must stress that their inability to settle into school quickly has by no means hindered their education and both are now happy, confident and bright young men! The stress I suffered when they started school was, I don't mind admitting, immense. Although I knew they were in safe hands and would come to no harm, my heart was often in my mouth as I left them with tears streaming down their faces in the capable hands of the teacher.
School is a big change for children who have been used to spending their early years at home with mum or dad. Admittedly in today's society, where a large number of parents return to work shortly after giving birth, the separation on a daily level starts when the child is still a baby and therefore both the parent and child have already become used to spending time away from one another before the time to begin school approaches. However, a child who has never been away from their parents until starting school or one who has spent limited time in day care may feel a huge wrench when they begin in full-time education.
You can help to ease children into school life slowly by visiting the school with them regularly in the months prior to them beginning. If you already take and collect older children they will be visiting with you anyway and you can use this time to explain where the various classrooms are and introduce them to some of the teachers so that they won't be quite so intimidated when the time comes for their own big day. Enlist the help of the older children you care for and ask them to look out for the new child who is starting. Encourage them to play together in the first few days whilst they are finding their feet and forging friendships of their own.
Unemployment can have a big impact on the way a child behaves. They may feel resentment if their parents are unemployed and money is tight. They may well see what their friends have to play with, see how they are dressed and listen to their tales of holidays and parties, and this can all make a child feel inadequate if their own parents are not in a position to provide them with the same. Being affluent, however, is not a measure of how loved and cherished a child is and parents who are unemployed and who may be struggling to bring their child up on limited money will still love their child very much. Love is not measured by material objects but children, unfortunately, may not see things this way and they may resort to thieving, bullying and lying in order to try to gain the possessions of their friends.
RACE, CULTURE AND RELIGION
It is important to remember that the way children behave in one culture may be completely unacceptable in other cultures. Every race, culture and religion has its own unique features that influence people. Behaviour is not the only issue which may be affected by cultural traditions and heritage, and we must think carefully about how our own views and values are affected.
Diversity is all about differences and we need to accept and embrace the fact that we are all different physically, socially, culturally, emotionally and sexually. Diversity stands for variety and we should all try to be tolerant of and respect and value the differences in today's society.
Although we are all different we all have the right to:
- equal respect;
- equal opportunity;
- equal justice.
It is important to understand that child abuse does not discriminate and it can happen in any family regardless of the family structure or parenting style. You must never assume that child abuse only happens to children in poor families or in single-parent families. It is just as likely to occur in respectable, affluent families and can result in severe psychological damage to a child which can affect them for the rest of their lives. Although it does not follow that abused children will automatically grow up to be abusers themselves, it is common for adults who have suffered abuse as children to find it difficult to form lasting relationships and they may even have problems when it comes to being parents to their own children.
There are four main types of abuse:
- physical abuse;
- sexual abuse;
- emotional abuse.
In most cases children who are abused suffer at the hands of someone they know and trust rather than a stranger. A child who is being abused may show both physical and behavioural signs. Identifying abuse in children is often very difficult as the child may become withdrawn and refuse to talk about their experiences. Sometimes the child may even lie in order to protect their abuser through misguided loyalty, particularly if the person who is abusing them is a respected member of their family or a close friend.
In addition to all these factors which can affect the way a child behaves we should also look carefully at our own opinions, views and expectations. You will undoubtedly have your own views on what is and is not an acceptable way for children to behave and these may well differ from the views of your friends, colleagues and the parents of the children you care for. What you yourself may be very tolerant of could prove totally unacceptable in someone else's family set-up and it is important, when caring for other people's children, that you accept the differences in the way people bring up their children.
The laws of this country set out what is acceptable to society in general and it is important that we teach children to grow up with the understanding that rules are there for the benefit of everyone and, whether we like it or not, we must abide by these rules to ensure that everyone has the right to a happy, safe existence.
Sometimes we may mistake aspects of a child's behaviour for naughtiness when, in fact they are just normal traits associated with the child's age. For example it is not ‘naughty’ for a young child to soil or wet themselves. A child's control over his or her bladder and bowel movements varies immensely from child to child, but it is fair to say that a child under the age of 18 months will have limited control over their muscles and will invariably experience ‘accidents’ from time to time. This is not being naughty. Likewise a child who cries, shows feelings of resentment or jealousy or who may accidentally inflict pain through curiosity, such as pulling hair, may be simply showing normal behaviour for their age.