Is Bad Behaviour a Choice?

When parents come to see me, frustrated by their child’s bad behaviour, they are often surprised to learn that their child has not necessarily *chosen* to misbehave.

is bad behaviour a choice

Children are all responsible for their behaviour and we are right to teach responsibility for action. Sometimes when we do this however, we confuse the concepts of responsibility and choice. In teaching children responsibility for behaviour many of us refer to the “choices” the child is making, and ask them to “choose” better behaviour when things are going wrong. This approach is perfectly acceptable and even recommended IF AND ONLY IF THE BEHAVIOUR WE ARE SEEING, IS IN FACT A CHOICE.

Many behaviours are not actually choices, and so we need a different approach when this is the case.

Behaviour is NOT Always a Choice

As adults we love reminding children that their behaviours are all choices, however technically this is not correct.

While it is true that children are responsible for their behaviour, it is not true that they are always “choosing” their behaviour.

In the simplest terms, a choice happens when a person has an equal chance of going with option A or option B. That means that they could choose to go with A or choose to go with B – and that they make a decision to go with one over the other. In order to make a choice we need to have more than one option that:

  • We know about;
  • We can actually do and can do consistently in this environment;
  • We can access when we need to (ie we have the “brain space” to remember and/or make decisions);
  • AND we need the ability to weigh up one against the other and decide to go with one.

If we do not have access to the factors listed above, we are not really making a choice. Instead we are reacting in one well learned and accessible way – often a more “primal” reaction.

What is Brain Space?           

When we refer to Brain Space, we are talking about having the ability to remain reasonably calm and for our brain to methodically problem solve or remember options.

The more agitated we get, the more threatened we feel, the more overwhelmed we get and/or the more emotional we get, the less able we are to use our brains logically and for problem solving – the less Brain Space we have.

There are many situations where a child does not have access to all choice-making factors, and is therefore not choosing behaviour. Common ones include:

  1. The child does not have different sets of skills to deal with a situation:
  • Behaviour skills may not have developed in line with age;
  • May not have developed a range of skills to deal with a situation or emotion;
  • Typically they have one set of skills (eg tantrums, arguing, controlling others with aggression) that achieves an outcome for them;
  • Even if they can recite what other skills they could use when calm, they’ve never displayed a consistent ability to use these skills in real life situations;
  • So they may “know” what to do but not be able to consistently do it.
  1. The environment reduces the child’s ability to make a choice:
  • Child gets overwhelmed by aspects in the environment and loses the brain space to be able to remember and access options;
  • When overwhelmed, the child will go to the easiest and most effective skill set they have;
  • Often these are the skills that don’t involve language/communication and are more primal (eg yelling, getting physical, hurting others, running away, refusal to do something).
  • These environmental factors can include:
    • Noise;
    • Activity in the environment – busyness, lots of movement;
    • Perceived threat – note that this is the child’s perception of threat, not yours – so what it can look like is “fight, flight or freeze” type behaviours without any obvious threat or trigger noticed by the adult. The child may not be able to tell you that they feel threatened either, as threat perception can occur subconsciously in children. It will also be more common in children who tend to misread social situations;
    • Places or situations that act as “cues” for distress – sometimes a child can become used to feeling stressed/angry/uncomfortable in certain environments when they have experienced a lot of trouble in that environment (eg at school, in the playground, at one parent’s home, or around a certain person – such as a peer, teacher, parent or sibling). When they enter one of these environments/situations, their brain picks up on the cues and “remembers” distress, causing distress for them. If this happens, you will not see it, you won’t see any “triggers” and it all happens on a subconscious level for the child, so they won’t be able to tell you what is going on for them.
    • Any other sensory input that causes them distress – this is very common with certain conditions like ASD, sensory processing disorders, anxiety problems/disorders.
  1. The child’s emotional state reduces their ability to make a choice:
  • The child’s emotional state overwhelms them and they do not have the ability to regulate that emotion or manage it in ways that fit in well with society;
  • Often the results are dysregulated emotions that result in primal behaviours (eg outbursts, tantrums, “fight, flight or freeze” reactions);
  • The emotional dysregulation reduces the brain space to problem solve and so they revert to more primal reactions;
  • Many of these primal behavioural reactions serve the function of escaping or avoiding distress.

is bad behaviour a choice your child makes

Overwhelming Emotional States

There are a number of common emotional states that overwhelm children, including:

Anxiety: Arguably the most common presentation.

  • Anxiety often looks like anger as behaviour can be explosive, aggressive;
  • Occurs when the child:
    • expects things will go one way but they go another way
    • feels threatened
    • cannot tolerate their frustration or distress
    • has difficulty understanding the world (eg how it works, social rules, understanding others)
    • finds the world too unpredictable
    • has a traumatised background or has experienced something distressing
    • has experienced an inconsistent environment (eg multiple carers, poor boundary setting, inconsistent parenting practices)
    • has experienced significant changes to their world (eg parental separation, moving schools/cities, death or illness of loved one).

The most important drivers of anxiety are perceived threat and unpredictability.

Frustration: Frustration tolerance is the ability to not get what we want, and be able to handle the discomfort that results.

  • It is natural and normal to feel discomfort when things do not go our way or the way we want;
  • As we mature we learn how to tolerate that feeling of discomfort;
  • Some children do not develop those skills in line with their age.

Frustration is about want or desire.

Anger: We need to be aware that behaviours that look like they are caused by anger, may in fact be due to either anxiety or frustration tolerance problems, so consider these first and rule them out before interpreting a behaviour as “anger-driven”.

  • Anger occurs when a person gets locked into the idea/belief that something SHOULD or SHOULDN’T happen;
  • When we believe that something should happen and it doesn’t, we get angry;
  • When we believe something shouldn’t happen and it does, we get angry;
  • This is different from frustration which is more about want or don’t want (desire);
  • And it is different from anxiety which is more about perceived threat or unpredictability, and our inability to cope with that.

Anger is about should or expectation. The more shoulds we have in our life, the angrier we are.

Excitement: Some children get so excited that they get carried away and end up doing things that are disruptive, silly, and non-compliant.

  • They can then have difficulty in reining themselves back into control;
  • This can lead to conflict with adults who are trying to get the child to comply or follow adult direction;
  • This conflict can then generate more problems if the child gets angry about the conflict, especially if the adult introduces punishments that the child feels shouldn’t happen.

How can you Tell if a Child’s Behaviour is a Choice?

Working out whether a child’s behaviour is a choice can be difficult but is very important to do. Several factors need to be considered including:

  • Whether the behaviour is being driven by emotional states that the child cannot manage;
  • Whether the child has a set of age-appropriate skills for managing these emotions in this environment;
  • Whether they have ever shown an ability to consistently use them in this environment;
  • Whether environmental factors that the child cannot cope with are driving the behaviour;
  • Whether the child has a set of skills for managing these environmental factors;
  • Whether they have ever shown an ability to consistently use them;
  • Whether the child has a different (more appropriate) set of skills for managing these situations;
  • Whether they have different skills that they know how to use for managing this situation;
  • Whether they have ever shown an ability to consistently use these skills.

Once you know whether a problem behaviour is choice-based or not, your approach for dealing with the behaviour becomes clear.

What is my Focus if a Child’s Behaviour IS a Choice?

If after assessing the behaviour we determine that behaviour is actually being chosen by the child, we need to create and follow a system that promotes good choices and discourages unwanted choices.

The system should:

  • Interrupt poor choices (ie make them not work);
  • Promote better choices through instruction and practice if needed;
  • Embed the better choices through reinforcement (dopamine);
  • Discourage poor choices through consequences that the child wants to avoid.

What is my Focus if a Child’s Behaviour is NOT a Choice?

If after assessing the behaviour we work out that the behaviour is actually not a choice for the child (due to one or more of the reasons outlined above), we need a different approach. This approach will need to:

  • Teach the child what is going on for them so that they understand the need for more skills and can better interpret their situation – focus less on the rules and on compliance and more on the process of what is going on – you need them on side;
  • Teach the child more skills so that the child has a choice in behaviour. There are specific methods for explicitly teaching and rehearsing new skills;
  • Modify the environment or the child’s experience of the environment if environmental factors are at play, to enable choices to be made.

Do Not Use Choice Based Approaches until you are certain the child has more skills and can use them consistently in your environment.

Working with an experienced psychologist can be very helpful in these situations. A psychologist can:

  • Help you to analyze the behaviour in its context;
  • Work out whether choices are being made;
  • Design an individually tailored approach to use if choices are not being made;
  • Design an individually tailored approach to use if the behaviour IS a choice;
  • Work individually with the child to help them understand what is happening, and promote new learning.

I have been successfully helping families where children or teenagers continue to use problem behaviours that don’t respond to punishment or incentive, for over 20 years. Since 2002 I have been doing this work with families in their own homes and/or with children and adults in their schools. I have extensive experience working with conditions, contextual factors and disorders that can be at the root of behaviour problems, and am used to working with complex and extreme behaviour presentations as well as more typical presentations.

Feel free to make an appointment with me so that we can work out the best approach for your child or teenager, and help them to function more effectively in their environment.

Author: Adam Bear, B Sc, B Sc (Hons App Psych), MAPS.

Child and adolescent psychologist Adam Bear has over 20 years’ experience working with children and teenagers exhibiting behaviours that cause significant problems, but which the child keeps using despite efforts by adults to help them make better choices. Adam’s warm, non-judgmental and relaxed, approachable style, allows him to form trusting and real therapeutic connections with young and older people alike.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Adam Bear, you can try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.