Is there such a thing as a bad kid? Our children are different, and siblings with the same parents and upbringing can be dissimilar. Some kids seem to breeze through life calm and settled, while others struggle, misbehave, disobey, and refuse to listen. What causes this difference? Are they “bad” kids, or is something happening?
A typical worry that parents have—along with whether their child is “bad”—is if it’s their fault. When their child misbehaves, parents may question themselves and their ability. For many parents, nothing they have done causes a child’s challenging behaviors, but does it mean there IS such a thing as a “bad” child?
Everyone Has Unique Character Traits
First, it’s essential to explore character traits. Everyone is born with traits that make them unique. While we may also develop abilities and strengths, a substantial amount of who we are comes down to our genes. These genes or inherent traits are not something we can change with exceptional or poor parenting. This includes things like empathy and reactivity.
We all have individual levels of empathy and differences in how strong or intense our emotional response is to things.1 This falls under the concept of emotional intelligence and results in challenges when a child tries to understand how others feel or their behavior influences others. The consequence might be that these people with low empathy or high reactivity seemingly don’t care how others feel, or they may be unkind or aggressive. But does this mean they are bad?
It’s More Complex Than Saying They’re a “Bad Child”
Behavior is complicated, and many things impact a child’s development, including things like:2
- Genes (nature)
- Nurture or parenting style
- Family, both immediate and extended
- Community, including education settings, peers, organizations, and supports
With all these elements, it’s hard to pinpoint the main contributor to “bad” behavior, and it’s unlikely that it is a single thing. We also cannot discount mental health conditions and learning disabilities. These can influence behaviors and the capacity to regulate emotions. They can also impact how an individual responds to consequences, including diagnoses such as oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism.
Tips If Your Child’s Behavior is a Concern
Bring in Some Supports
If you are concerned about your child’s behavior, get them engaged with an appropriate and trusted health professional to check in and assess your child’s behavior. Once you have additional ideas about what might influence their behavior, you can implement strategies and bring in relevant support.
Identify Your Child’s Strengths
Despite potential challenges, your child will have abilities you can harness and focus on. If your child feels like they can cope, they are less likely to give in or become overwhelmed and have challenging or problematic behavior.
Find the Positives
When you see your child engaged in appropriate behavior or behaviors you would like them to repeat, shout it from the rooftops. Tell them, and be explicit about the skills, behaviors, or attitudes you appreciate instead of saying “good boy” or “good girl.”
Providing your child with consistent limits and rules will help them feel secure. When kids feel safe, they are less likely to get overwhelmed, and their behaviors tend to be more settled and calmer.
Focus on Connection, Not Teaching
It can be exhausting for you and your child when you constantly put rules or limits in place and mop up the consequences of challenging behaviors. Make sure you focus on the strength of your relationship and find moments for connection. When your child feels connected to you, they are more likely to feel validated and supported.
Try to Reframe Your Thoughts
Yes, things might be challenging, but ensure you catch any negative thoughts about your child, yourself, and your capacity to be a parent and reframe them. Instead of “things are tough,” focus on what you are trying to do or how hard you are both working. Instead of “it’s taking so long to change things,” consider your and your child’s progress.
Given the information about nature versus nurture, some children might be more challenging to parent than others, and we might consider their behavior “bad” rather than the child. This changes the idea that blame sits with the parent or child and instead focuses on addressing the behavior. This allows us to protect our children’s self-esteem and self-worth and reduce the emotional damage from being labeled a “bad kid,” which can set them up to live up to the label.3