- Need to know: Behaviour changes in children and how to manage the situation.
Behaviour changes in children: Behaviour management at home & school
Q1. Every family has a unique and different story. Tell me a little bit about yours?
I met Harry’s father in 2000. We built our first home together in 2003 and birthed our first son in 2007 after a number of miscarriages. We were lucky to have been supported by an amazing obstetrician who supported us to be successful with two beautiful boys. Harry’s pregnancy was difficult and his entry into this world in 2008 was just terrifying.
At two weeks passed his ‘due date’ I was induced and my waters were broken. Harry did not respond well to this and became extremely active and entangled himself in my umbilical cord and ‘became stuck’. On being birthed he was whisked away not breathing. This was our first insight into an often challenging but an absolutely amazing journey of our Harry.
I was a stay at home mum and his father worked full time. We had no family support and I really struggled with parenting. On returning to work I enrolled the boys in day care. After six months we relocated from North Queensland to South East Queensland with the promise of family support. This was not the reality, so we continued to become proficient in juggling parenting, working and life in a new town.
Q2. Many parents say that they knew from very early on that their child was different. What made you question whether your child’s behaviour was typical for their age?
I really don’t know when I knew Harry was different. I feel it was a gradual realisation. Harry was always in and on something. His behaviour was opposite to his older, very chill, brother. My friends, family, other parents and educators told me Harry was a spirited little boy. I very much doubted my ability as a mother. I mean, surely all of these other more experienced mothers and educators know better than me… right?
Harry soon was sucking his thumb for comfort. I noticed in the following months he was sensory sensitive. He would rub soft materials between his fingers to soothe himself and if these comforts were removed he would become extremely distressed. He was quick to roll, shuffle, crawl and walk, nothing was safe, particularly his older brother who he idolised.
By 12 months he was running rings around all of us. He was a cheerful baby, power napped and was just go, go, go. I used a jolly jumper when I needed to shower or toilet. I had walkers and gates on every door. In the outside world the stroller worked for a short period, until he learned to unclip his belt and slide out the leg holes and run! I discovered the baby safe leash. Oh and believe me that was interesting, passers-by were quick to judge my treatment of my son, comparing my use of the baby safe leash to that of a dog. If only they knew.
By age 3 I was attending doctors with Harry for help. I don’t know what I didn’t know, but I knew that my little man was extremely active for his age, I couldn’t maintain his attention for long periods of time, even the TV held little interest for him, he would not sit still. My only comparison was my first-born son and other friends’ children, and Harry was nothing like any of them. I was redirected back to my parenting and the ‘he is an extremely spirited little boy’.
By age 4 Harry was demonstrating other aggressive and defiant behaviours. Harry’s pre-prep educators raised their concerns on noticing behaviour including going against direction, becoming defiant and argumentative with educators and bullying other kids. My first experience of ‘parent teacher meeting’ was Harry attacking the chicken coop with the rake while the chickens were in it. On realising what his actions meant for the chickens he was absolutely devastated and unable to be comforted. This was the most notable event that I recall where things significantly changed for our little family.
The state primary school environment emphasised more of these behaviours. Teachers continued to advise this was ‘normal behaviour for a spirited little boy’ and I needed to ‘discipline’ him. Harry was labelled the ‘school cop’ by his teachers by year 1. He would physically assault children who he believed were not doing the right thing. I recall sitting in a meeting with my son and the deputy principal where he said that the other boy was picking on someone and he believed he needed to sort it out. Another school report for physical misconduct. In another incident, involving 3 children 4 years his senior, he responded ‘nothing, I would do it all again’ to the deputy principal’s question ‘what would you do better next time’. He was frequently in detention and I was being contacted weekly relating to his behaviour by the end of year 1. None of this was congruent with their statements of ‘a typical little boy’.
At this point I started really questioning my parenting skills. I enrolled in a Positive Parenting Program. I would attend the program after work with my two sons in tow. I made the decision to leave half way through a class one evening due to Harry’s poor behaviour towards his brother. This was not an uncommon occurrence. One of the Program’s presenters approached me and we had a life changing conversation about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).
Q3. How did you go about getting your child assessed and what did the diagnosis mean to you and your family?
I made a doctor’s appointment with my new found information and a new attitude. I did not take NO for an answer. I was provided a referral to a doctor who specialised in children’s health.
I attended an appointment with the GP who specialises in children’s health. Supported by jellybeans the doctor was able to engage my son long enough to form her own medical opinion. I left with a Mental Health Care Plan and referral to a Child Psychologist and Paediatrician.
My first appointment with the Child Psychologist restored my confidence in my parenting. She spent one hour chatting with me while watching my 6 year old play in the corner. She educated me on ADHD and ODD and guided me to the Conners 3 Assessment Tool. She advised me the paediatrician provided the official diagnosis however she would support me with the Conners 3 Assessment Tool and on my request would forward this to the paediatrician for diagnosis.
My second appointment with the Child Psychologist was with the Tool completed by myself and two of Harry’s teachers, who worked on this together. The outcome being Harry’s T Score were in the range of inattention above 66, hyperactivity/impulsivity above 70 and defiance/aggression and peer relations above 80. The Child Psychologist informed me the T Scores identified ADHD and ODD, however this was not an official diagnosis. I honestly cried with the outcome. I was confronted with so many mixed emotions. Relief, fear, excitement, what does all of this even mean?
The Child Psychologist provided me information on options including therapy and medication. She explored Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with me. I learned CBT for children under the age of 8 had a high success rate in redesigning the cognitive response between emotion and behaviour. The Child Psychologist explained that successful CBT outcomes included learning and techniques for life long use. These learnings and techniques are proven to change the behavioural response for children living with ADHD and ODD.
We were also clearly advised that CBT may be unsuccessful, in which case, we would then be back where we started and require a referral to a paediatrician for diagnosis and medication.
Q4. What diagnosis has your child received and are you eligible for NDIS or other services?
Harry is not diagnosed. I declined an official diagnosis. The Child Psychologist provided me with the information I requested and told me that for an official diagnosis I was to go to the paediatrician.
I had made enquiries about what an official diagnosis supports and how this can impact my son for the future. I researched online, through professional and personal networks. I made the informed decision that I was not going to apply for Centrelink, NDIS or other government support and funding. I made this decision based on how I believed an official diagnosis may affect my son if he was to pursue a career in specific fields.
Q5. What kinds of things does your child struggle with and what therapy, strategies and accommodations have you used that made a huge difference and which ones didn’t work?
Harry has been challenged by peer relationships since an early age. This in addition to his aggression has proven to be difficult, particularly in the school environment. Harry has a strong moral compass which can at times be incongruent with these behaviours. Unfortunately, throughout primary school he was labelled as the school cop, a term that did not have a positive attachment to his behaviour.
Harry benefited from CBT identifying passive, assertive and aggressive behaviours and the emotion behind this. In addition to these learnings, CBT supported him in identifying fair play, sharing and how to initiate and continue a conversation with a peer. Narrative approaches and positive reinforcement supported this learning with evidence to support his practice. All of these were invaluable to our whole family’s learning and development.
Harry struggled with being attentive and following instructions. These barriers have been supported immensely with changes in our parenting style. Supported by the Positive Parenting Program (PPP) we have learnt to communicate clearly and succinctly with minimal information overload to support Harry’s focus, understanding and direction.
Q6. Is your child medicated? What are they on and how long did it take you to get to the right combination?
Harry is not, and has not been, medicated. We manage his diet limiting, and eliminating, foods including identified preservatives, additives, gluten and sugar. The dietary changes had an obvious and immediate positive affect on his behaviour.
In addition to CBT, sports was a major contributor towards positive change for Harry. In addition to in-school sports, Harry was engaged with outside of school sports, one being a team sport. Harry participated in an Indonesian form of martial arts, Perisai Diri, with an amazing instructor complimenting the CBT learnings and techniques using forms, discipline and instruction. Harry participated in AFL supporting teamwork and peer relationships. Harry trained in a sport daily in addition to weekend games and tournaments. We have identified a connection between Harry’s engagement in sports and his day to day positive behaviour. Harry has proven himself to be a committed and competitive sports-person and role model.
Q7. Our communities, schools and society in general are built for neurotypical people. What have been some of your biggest challenges to date and what has helped you navigate them?
Harry displayed challenging behaviour during his class time that required him to be seated independently to support minimal distraction to the class. I attempted to introduce fidget toys however was met with barriers from his teacher. Once ADHD and ODD was identified I was consistently challenged by the primary school to have a formal diagnosis. I have learned to be assertive in my responses. I most certainly have had to learn a lot about myself throughout this process.
Our social circle is small as a result of historically challenging situations with friends, other families and the community. Harry is labelled as a naughty child, always fighting, misbehaving and not following the rules. I made a point to be active in the school P&C and involve myself with other parents advocating for my son’s right to positive peer relationships. I would extend invites to families for BBQ’s at our home and at parks to show a safe and supportive family environment where they could get to know Harry and experience positive peer interaction.
I have been my sons’ strongest advocate and now introduce myself to teachers, parents and other supporters as this. I get eye rolls and laughter, it’s not long before I get a call or email validating my introduction. I have a lot of time off work for my son, it is definitely less than it was, but it’s still a lot. I make a point of not delaying communication and feedback following an event or contact. My son knows I have his back no matter what. We guide conversation and positive intervention with an understanding, and at times an education, that ADHD and ODD are not excuses for poor behaviour however an explanation.
Q8. What are some of the things that you celebrate and love about your child that help you empathise in the midst of life’s storms.
Harry is an amazing friend to those who give him the opportunity. He is extremely loyal and does not hold a grudge, his forgiving nature can often worry me however I would not change it for the world. Harry is a fierce defender of those he holds dear and is viciously honest. He speaks his mind and I never have to question his feelings or morals. Harry has a supportive and compassionate approach to those who ask for help, and he just loves to help.
Harry is extremely energetic and seeks adrenalin. Sports and athletics come naturally to Harry and he achieves sports orientated goals with ease. Harry loves to be challenged and will strive to achieve personal bests every time.
Q9. Do you have books, podcasts or other resource recommendations?
I have explored, researched and investigated such a diverse range of resources. I follow Facebook groups, have completed Positive Parenting Program and completed tertiary courses in child development, psychology and behaviour. All of these have been valuable in our journey. I don’t believe there is any one resource that was most valuable as they have all enriched my parenting in some form.
On asking Harry what is his most valuable resource; he refers to a scrapbook that he created with his psychologist that has evolved over the past six years.
Q10. When we care for others it’s important to put on our “oxygen mask” first. How do you look after yourself?
I am a reflective person and utilise a journal to process my feelings and challenge my thoughts. I watch movies, listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Where my mind may be too busy; I engage in mind games such as solitaire and sudoku to distract myself from what can often be an exhausting day to day reality. I engage in a lot of reflection on acceptance to support peace in my life and help me wind down.
I am always evolving in what I do to find peace and look after myself. Sometimes, I do absolutely nothing but lay on the grass and stare at the sky. That is okay too. I do what my mind and body need me to do.