The Child Terrorist

It's a strong term -- child terrorist -- but to those who've encountered them, it's an accurate description.

They're children who 've learned no boundaries and become disrespectful, disobedient and physically aggressive. Their parents don't teach them limits, and the kids come to believe that they're invincible, in charge of the world.

They're usually the children of overprotective and undercontrolling parents. The children are protected from every possible harm while, at the same time, their parents teach them few limits, for fear of "traumatizing" the children or exposing them to expectations they might not be able to meet.

Kids can overcome this type of behavior. But before they can change, their parents have to change. They have to teach their children about responsibility and not look to the endless list of explanations that can be used to excuse bad behavior.

Parents of child terrorists would do well to consider the life of Helen Keller. By her own account, Helen was a child terrorist at 7 years old. She obeyed no one, knew nothing of manners and reacted violently to any frustration.

Few have had better excuses than Helen Keller. Deaf and unable to speak, Helen was shut off from the world and had no opportunity to learn the type of behavior expected from her. But that changed through the efforts of a teacher named Annie Sullivan. She refused to accept excuses and created a set of expectations that, after a time, Helen accepted willingly. Helen graduated from Radcliffe College with honors, became a renowned author and lived a life that inspired millions, disabled or not.

The lesson for parents from Helen Keller's story is that child terrorists can change. Just as Helen overcame physical disabilities to lead an exemplary, productive life, children can overcome the excuses that parents, professionals and the media have created to explain their bad behavior.

Some of the excuses start out as legitimate explanations. Good parents are protective of children who have medical problems early in life. But many continue to give them special attention long after it's necessary.

Many excuses are just excuses. Parents blame their children's behavior on anything from television to Attention Deficit Disorder, peer pressure, divorce, or moving to a different town. There's no end to the excuses, but they don't include the real cause of child terrorism: Parents, who don't teach their children self-control and self-reliance.

Parents can learn techniques that instill these values in their children. If too little control and too much protection is the cause of child terrorism then parents must provide more control and less protection.

The first and most effective step in avoiding child terrorism or eliminating it once it has begun is "parenting by questions." Parents need to ask children how they're doing and find out what's wrong when they see signs of upset or misbehavior. The questioning is a kind of protective device; parents can use it to show a sense of caring that's hard for their children to miss.

The following conversation is a dialogue a parent might have with a child that would go a long way to preventing or stopping child-terrorist reactions.

Parent: (noticing a sullen face on her child): Are you OK, John?

John (curtly): I'm fine.

Parent: You don't look fine.

John: Well I am!

Parent: You're snapping at me.

John: Maybe.

Parent: Would you tell me why?

John: I don't feel like it.

Parent: I'd like to help you. Can we talk later?

John: OK.

Parent: In the meantime, how about not taking your bad mood out on everyone else?

John: All right.

Parenting by questions isn't just an open-ended interview. It's a way of bringing a problem to a head by trying to understand the child and to make clear that there are rules of life. In this case, John can choose to talk about his problem or solve it on his own, but he can't bother the rest of the family.

It's best to question children and lay down the rules gently. But, sometimes, terrorist behavior has become such a habit that children refuse to respond to a gentle approach. They need more control, in the form of consequences that develop from their behavior.

Establishing consequences is a more formal way of teaching the rules of life. Children must learn that everyone, young and old, has responsibilities and that there is a price to be paid for not meeting those responsibilities.

Adults have a responsibility to work, and if they don't go to work, they lose something, usually their paycheck. Children need to learn that they, too, have responsibilities, such as going to school, telling the truth and treating others with respect. If they don't meet them, they'll lose something, usually privileges, established by their parents.

Balanced parenting means clearly establishing what's expected of children and holding them to the rules. When children refuse to brush their teeth, do their homework, tell the truth and behave respectfully, their behavior should result in a loss of privileges.

The idea of withdrawing privileges isn't a radical one for most parents. In the early stages of child terrorism, parents often see results when they withdraw television privileges or keep kids in the house, in response to bad behavior. The use of a time-out -- that is, putting kids in their room or a special chair for a period of time -- is another common and effective technique.

When these methods don't work, parents need to find other ways to correct their children. Many parents are timid about trying anything more stringent. But if they don't, their children won't learn that there are consequences for behaving badly.

Among the most effective of the more stringent techniques is time-on-the-bed. It's something like a time-out: Children are required not just to go to their room, but to lie on their beds, flat, on their back, sides or stomach, for a designated period of time.

The rules for this type of punishment are "no toys, no noise." Children can do homework on their bed, but they can't talk. Parents should keep the door to the room open so they can be sure their children are obeying the rules. If the children's room is too far away, the time out place can be the floor, or a mat closer to the parent. At first, parents should try short time periods -- as little as 15 minutes -- and longer ones if the punishment isn't effective.

Children usually respond quickly to this method, but it's important the parents enforce the rules. If children talk, the time period starts over. If they get up, parents should restrain the children until they're willing to complete the penalty and add more time as a punishment for their resistance.

The parent or parents should do the restraining on the floor. There is a specific way to do it so as to not hurt the child or endanger the parent. The parent should lay the child on his or her back and sit over the child or lay legs over the child to enforce a flat position with the child looking up. The parent should hold the child's hands. The child may attempt to spit, kick, bite, cry , scream, threaten, or do any of several dozen maneuvers to get up and out of the restraint. The parent may put his or her hands gently over the child's mouth to block spitting. The only statement by the parent should be, "are you ready to go to your bed now?" The child will eventually give up quickly or after some period of time (or fall asleep). In either case, the child should then go to bed. Sleeping can count toward fulfillment of the time-out. When the child "does his time," there should be no parental grudge. The child should return to normal privileges until his or her next offense.

The methods of establishing rules and enforcing consequences change as kids grow older. If the kids are too big to stay on the bed, or parents are unwilling or unable to keep them there, the parents can begin to take their possessions, one every five minutes until children are willing to pay the original penalty. Parents should keep the possessions for at least a week and return them only after the children have paid the original penalty, plus any additional penalty for further misbehavior.

For teenagers, the penalty may change from time-on-the-bed to the loss of prized privileges. If they misbehave, they should lose access to the car or the phone, or the privilege of going out.

If, at any age, children are threatening or violent, they should be restrained. If the children are too big to restrain parents should be willing to call the police.

The idea is to establish a firm set of consequences for bad behavior. Parents should start with the minimum penalty necessary to get kids to comply, and increase the punishment if they don't.

A look at the case of Jake, a teenager who refused to go to school, is a good one to conclude this section. When Jake wouldn't go to school, I recommended that his parents bring him there forcibly, or, if they were physically or emotionally unable, that they call the police.

Jake did refuse to budge. His parents wouldn't call the police to take him to school, but they did call the school itself. School officials came to the home. Jake went without a fuss, and the officials repeated the process for several days.

Meanwhile, Jake's parents emptied his room when he refused to clean it. When Jake saw what happened, he spent about 15 minutes in the empty room and finally said, "I give up. I want to rejoin the family." The next day, he took the bus to school and did so for the rest of the school year.

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804