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How to change kids’ self-defeating behavior

The problems exhibited by 9-year-old Zach were not particularly unusual. He fought with his twin brother, made lots of errors on his homework, and didn’t get along with kids on his baseball team.

These issues were fairly easy to resolve. The parents were advised to use a time-out procedure and reward cooperative behavior with his brother. A daily school-home report card system was set up, with daily consequences for Zach depending upon his school performance. A similar program was arranged with his coach.

This behavioral approach worked quite well. However, my evaluation of Zach revealed a more disturbing concern, an underlying cognitive thought disorder.  Zach blamed others whenever something bad happened.

This helpless-hopeless mentality can persist throughout one’s life. These kids act like victims, blaming others for their misdeeds and acting clueless about how to change their lives.

Here is the four-step process I use with these youngsters.

1. Name it. I help kids come up with a simple name for these self-defeating belief systems. Depending on the age of the child, I may call these ideas negative, unhealthy, or simply wrong.

2. Correct it. Believing something doesn’t make it true. I respect kids’ feelings but challenge their misperceptions.

If kids can think differently about a situation, they are more apt to make better decisions about how to respond.

I asked Zach to recall at least one incident in which he was responsible for fights with his brother, which he was able to do with a great deal of coaching. We came up with lots of examples about how wrong ideas can lead to bad decisions.

Zach loved video games. He told me that using one strategy would always result in his character getting killed, but some of his friends still used that strategy. What a great example of how a “wrong idea,” even if believed by others, can have bad consequences.

3. Choices and consequences. Our lives are the sum of a myriad of choices we make every day. We made lots of charts with the words “choice” and “result.”  We initially talked about baseball and video games, but eventually discussed how every action was a choice decided by Zach, not by others.

4. Plan and revise. Zach left each of our sessions with homework to make a different choice about school, baseball, and his brother.  Zach learned how to make better decisions that would result in more positive outcomes. Most importantly, Zach eventually realized that he wasn’t a victim, but could influence most things that happened to him.
Improving Zach’s behavior was important, but changing his underlying victim mentality was the real accomplishment of therapy.

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