Naughty child
Is your child unable to take no for an answer, ignoring what you are asking them to do, and continuing to do whatever they want to? Image Credit: (Picture for illustrative purposes)

Dubai: Have you ever felt embarrassed by something your child did in a social setting? I have, more than once. One of the regular talks I have with my nine year old is how he needs to stop himself from saying things aloud thoughtlessly, or acting out defiantly in a group setting.

Some might argue that he is just a child, and is being playful. But, ignoring it might mean setting the wrong standard in his formative years.

Don’t get me wrong, he is not a mean or difficult child. In fact, I enjoy spending time with him and he is quite loved by his teachers and friends. However, there are times when I see streaks of bratty behaviour, and I find myself looking for parenting tips to ensure he does not grow up to be an ill-mannered teenager, who is unpleasant to deal with.

Like any other parent would, I want my child to grow up to be a responsible teenager — one who lends a hand with household chores without being asked, manages his or her own tasks independently, keeps his or her room tidy, and is obedient.

So, I asked two UAE-based mental health experts to find out what the red flags are, where I could go wrong as a parent, and tips to help my child during his pre-teens, so that he becomes a well-behaved teenager.

Why do children act out during their pre-teens?

Speaking to Gulf News, Dr Gopika Govindan, Clinical Director and Clinical Psychologist at a pediatric rehabilitation centre in Dubai, explained: “During a child’s pre-adolescence phase, many physical, cognitive, social and environmental changes can have an impact on their behaviour. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is developing. However, the centres in the brain responsible for impulse control, judgment, decision making and executive functions of the brain such as planning, organisation, time management, ability to foresee consequences of their actions are not fully developed.”

Hence, it is common to have emotional dysregulation during pre-adolescence and adolescence stage. Many children may experience it as a turbulent and emotional roller coaster.

Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi added: “With the nucleus accumbens or the reward or pleasure seeking area of the brain well developed, in the absence of a good decision making circuitry, your unsuspecting teenager is bound to think what the fuss was all about when adults complain. Nevertheless, there is no need to feel helpless and stare at a fatalistic future living with a seemingly broody, emotionally dysregulated, superficially rude and somewhat funky smelling adolescent.

“There are some steps you can take as a parent, when your child is growing, to minimise the potentially (but not always!) bumpy ride ahead.”

13 Behaviours to watch out for, in your pre-teen child
Dr Gopika Govindan, who is also a UK-certified expert, listed out a few typical behaviours that you might notice in your child during their pre-teen years.
1. Your child may demand special things to be done since they see themselves as the most important.
2. They might display impulsive and reckless behaviours.
3. They are unable to take no for an answer, ignoring it and following through with whatever they want to do.
4. They lack remorse or guilt.
5. They are unable to understand or empathise with others.
6. They refuse to help others in need, or when asked to.
7. Not taking responsibility for mistakes or misbehaviour.
8. Being on edge or easily annoyed by others.
9. Being angry and resentful often.
10. Intimidating or bullying others.
11. Aggression towards people or animals on purpose.
12. Engaging in destructive unlawful behaviours that are not socially acceptable.
13. Refusing to obey rules, constantly challenging authority, being deliberately annoying to others and/or blaming others for mistakes or bad behaviour.

Early intervention

If these behaviours are not curbed in time, can it cause a child to grow up to be indisciplined and disrespectful?

Early intervention is paramount for the development of children into healthy, happy adults.

- Dr Gopika Govindan, Clinical Director and Clinical Psychologist at a pediatric rehabilitation centre in Dubai

“Yes,” said Dr Govindan. “Early intervention is paramount for the development of children into healthy, happy adults. Early intervention is early identification of a problem behaviour and seeking treatment for the same at an early stage. Studies suggest that around 30 per cent of children with conduct or oppositional defiant disorder (a type of behavior disorder, in which children are uncooperative, defiant, and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures, and are more troubling to others than they are to themselves), who have not undergone treatment, have displayed anti-social personality traits (ASPD) in adulthood. ASPD is a mental health condition in which a person may not understand how to behave toward others. Their behavior is often disrespectful, manipulative or reckless.

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Early intervention is early identification of a problem behaviour, says Dr. Govindan. Image Credit: (Photo for illustrative purposes)

"Approximately 12 to 13 per cent children with impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity have found to have difficulties in adulthood if not treated at an early stage.”

Is such behaviour a result of poor parenting?

Dr Govindan said: “Dysfunctional maladaptive behaviours are not solely linked to upbringing or parenting. There are biological, psychological, social and environmental factors that contributes to your child’s behaviour in different settings, such as home, school and community.

“Some children may also have a strong genetic predisposition, while some may have a neglectful, dysfunctional family environment that leads to problematic behaviours.

“Parents have to investigate the reasons of why their child is bratty. They may also need to consult a child psychologist to understand effective parenting strategies and behaviour management.”

What parents need to do

Dr Waleed Ahmed added: “Raising a teenager is a somewhat uphill task to begin with! So, you will be forgiven for tempering your expectations. You may wonder whether you preferred the sleepless nights and never-ending demands of a new-born, than the little ‘monster’ your child has become as a teenager. But, it may be hard for your teen to take full control when his brain is undergoing development in a way that makes him impulsive, emotional, tired every morning, and perpetually seeking pleasure in activities like gaming.”

1. Aim to draw out secure attachments in your child

“A securely attached child is likely to be empathic, have a strong sense of self and independence, comfortable around people, develop good social skills, and trust their caregiver even when being disciplined when required. So, from early on, parents can endeavour to be attuned to their child’s needs, show consistency in their responses, focus on the whole child in all aspects rather than only what they have achieved. A key ingredient in a secure attachment relationship is trust. A child needs to trust their parent to provide them with comfort, to respond to them kindly in a consistent manner and if they come to you distressed, ensure that they know that your will put their needs first when required. They need to know that you have their back,” said Dr Ahmed.

2. Establish clear healthy boundaries early on

“It is important to guide your child around expected and unacceptable behaviours as they explore the world and experiments. There are obvious universal values that any society would espouse. It may also be helpful for parents to clarify for themselves what their family stands for, and believes in, that they would like their children to inculcate within themselves. But, this needs to come from a place of kindness avoiding unduly harsh consequences.

“Children who are provided with clear rules, boundaries, and expectations are likely to grow up responsible, making good choices and are more likely to be content and make friends. As soon as you see behavioural problems, manage them with understanding and firmness.”

3. Love them but don’t reward them too much

“This may sound paradoxical, but, it’s a child’s right to be loved and you need to love them for everything about them, even the peskier things. Love them for their imperfections, their uniqueness, their efforts, and their failures. Love them for trying, in the knowledge that one day they will become responsible adults. And, tell them often that they are loved.

...resist rewarding your child too often for the things that they are expected to do.

- Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi

“On the other hand, resist rewarding your child too often for the things that they are expected to do. Your child should be given the opportunity to recognise the inherent pleasure of doing a good deed like helping others without encouraging them to seek an external reward. That is not to say a parent cannot give their child an occasional special treat.”

4. Nurture empathy and self-confidence

“This will be easier if the attachment advice above is followed. However, it is never too late for parents to nurture positive regard for others in their children. To begin with, it is important to model good behaviour. If your child observes you being harsh to them, punishing them at the first chance you get, and behaving rudely with others, as a teen they are likely to mimic this and attempt to pay you back! So, if things did start badly and your child doesn’t trust you or you have used punishment as a strategy too many times that it is affecting your relationship, seek help from a therapist sooner rather than later.”

5. Give them responsibilities

“Studies have shown that children who do age-appropriate chores have an increased likelihood of becoming successful as adults. Children gain a sense of responsibility and accomplishment when they complete these tasks and feel like they are contributing to the wider good of the family – they are likely to feel committed to what the family stands for. They are likely to feel happier and this would bode well preparing them for teenage years!

“That being said, not all teens have it tough. For that matter not all parents have it tough too. Your child is unique and what you do will be clearly in tune with what your child needs. Most teenagers are fun, witty, and creative. These tips hopefully will help parents pave an uncomplicated path to that future.”

What is the right way for a parent to stop their child from being disrespectful and ill mannered?

Parent scolds child
"Set well-defined and consistent consequence for their actions and follow through with them consistently," said Dr Gopika Govindan.

“A warm and accepting yet demanding parenting style is the most effective in raising children to become well-rounded adults,” said Dr Gopika Govindan. She shared the following tips for parents.

  • Establish rules and set limits that need to be consistently followed by every family member at home.
  • Set well-defined and consistent consequence for their actions and follow through with them consistently.
  • Nurture a warm and empathic bond with your child by allowing them to express their emotions freely.
  • Listen to them and reassure them that they are allowed to make mistakes as long as they take accountability for it and makes a conscious decision to not do it again.
  • Provide a trusting environment is vital. Between three to five years of age is when a child develops the concept of trust.
  • Be available for your child, keeping promises that you made, modelling good behaviour and values will foster trust in them.
  • Assure them that you are not going to judge them no matter what.
  • Create an environment for your child to foster autonomy and independence by allowing them to make choices such as picking up their favourite item within a budget that is set, enabling them to make decisions that allows them to use their rational logical mind.
  • Listen to what your child has to say. This will make them feel listened to and fosters confidence in them, to express their emotions effectively.
  • Setting clear boundaries is paramount to their emotional and cognitive development. Your children need to acknowledge and accept your authority and wisdom.
  • Encourage your child to be assertive and not aggressive.
  • Say no and stick to no when they want something that is not good for them and when they are trying to push limits.
  • Instil core values, principles and beliefs that define their identity and self.
  • Reinforce the idea of thinking about others and helping someone.

Other tips for parents to keep in mind

Dr Ahmed also added the following points for parents to keep in mind, when parenting pre-teen and adolescent children.

1. Studies have shown that children who have meals with their parents often are likely to have good nutritional, mental and social wellbeing in the future.

2. Harsh parenting is associated with anti-social behaviours in children, apart from other mental health problems associated with trauma.

3. Children with mental health problems or neuro-developmental disorders may require additional specialist support including parenting.

Steer clear of harsh parenting as it can result in anti-social behaviours in children, apart from other mental health problems associated with trauma, said the UAE expert. Image Credit: (picture for illustrative purposes)

Specialist support

If parents see the following signs or red flags during pre-teens, they can seek additional specialist support:

  1. Extreme mood swings that lasts for over two weeks.
  2. Getting into frequent arguments with parents, teachers and friends.
  3. Excessive fear of being judged that the child does not want to go outside.
  4. Difficulty to follow daily routine.
  5. Excessive focus on body image and appearance
  6. Feeling inadequate, less confident, feeling worthless and hopeless leading to low self-esteem.
  7. Constant complaints of bullying or being bullied.
  8. Defiant and non-compliant behaviours such as breaking rules.
  9. Self-harm behaviours.
  10. Dramatic decline in academic performance.
  11. Complaints of excessive fatigue and psychomotor retardation, like difficulty to move for example or waking up from bed.
  12. Avoiding activities that they used to enjoy doing.
  13. Social withdrawal from friends and family.
  14. Excessive sleep or disturbed sleep.
  15. Emotional outbursts such as snapping at someone without a reason, crying or difficulty with managing emotions that lasts for over two weeks.
  16. Disturbance in appetite.
  17. Impulse control difficulties, difficulty with judgment, decision making, planning and time management that comes in the way of day-to-day normal functioning.