Rosemary Oshiomah Ogedengbe, PhD.
Parenting is no doubt one of the most challenging but rewarding roles. A crucial aspect of parenting is paying attention to children ‘s behaviours, and taking steps to strengthen adaptive behaviours and correct maladaptive behaviours. It is a normal part of development for children to learn and exhibit maladaptive behaviours as they learn to understand and adapt to the society. There is hardly any child who is so prim and proper as to be able to transit from childhood to adulthood without the involvement of adults in the process of fine tuning their character. All children exhibit maladptive behaviours though they may differ from one another with regards to the nature and severity of the maladaptive behaviours they exhibit. While some of these behaviours could be mild, others may be extremely embarrassing not only to parents and caregivers but to the entire family. When a child’s behaviour becomes a source of embarrassment to parents, the tendency to label the child negatively is usually high. Hence, it is common to hear parents address their children by negative labels that reflect their maladaptive behaviours, such as “ thief , liar, cheat, lazy.
Negative labelling is drawing conclusions about a child’s identity too early. Making mistakes and picking up negative behaviours are a normal part of development. Most children usually unlearn many of these behaviours with the necessary assistance . The fact that a child took what does not belong to him does not mean that they will end up as a thief. Hence, giving a nagative label to a child amounts to drawing negative conclusions about their identity too early in life.
A child’s self- esteem could be deflated by negative labelling. A negative label could make a child to form a poor self – concept and consequently low self-esteeem because it suggests to them that they are indeed their maladaptive behaviours, and consequently makes it difficult for them to separate themselves from such behaviours. I have had several touching experiences in my work with children and adolescents as a psychotherapist. Some of the most touching experiences were those instances when I asked for self-description while assessing self-esteem. I once asked a 7 year old child, “ How would you describe yourself?” , and he said to me, “ I am a bad boy, I am always doing only the wrong things”. When I asked how he arrived at that conclusion, he said his mother always called him a bad boy who does only the wrong things. This can’t be a fair deal to a child. How is it possible that from waking up to bed time, 365 days in a year, this child never does anything that is good.? The fact that a child has a problem does not mean that the child is all about the problem.
Negative labelling could make positive change more difficult for a child. The more a child is addressed by a negative label, the more difficult it becomes for the child to change as they may internalise the negative label – accept the identity the negative label ascribes to them instead of viewing the behaviour as a problem that they should make efforts to deal with. It is important to note that one of the reasons children strive to behave well is the desire to impress their significant others, so as to earn their approval. Hence, a child may feel that there’s no reason to “try” when parents or other significant others have already given up on them or written them off.
Negative labelling can worsen a child’s behaviour. When a child or an adolescent is made to feel unaccepted, unloved and written off by their parents or family, by labelling them negatively as a result of one or two behavioural problems, they could become completely disoriented and pick up worse behaviours. For instance, a young person who feels they are not accepted at home is more likely to spend more time outside the home and consequently become more vulnerable to other vices.
Negative labelling can inhibit a child’s development of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of doing something well. When adults adopt a child’s inadequacy as a means of identifying the child or label the child negatively, once the child internalises this negative label – believes that he is all and only about the negative label, it may be difficult for the child to recognize that they have potentials and that they are capable of anything good or doing anything well. Hence, it is common to find children and adolescents with negative labels failing in many areas of their lives. The fact that a child is having a specific behavioural problem or an inadequacy in a particular aspect does not mean that there is nothing good about the child.
Negative labelling can cause serious mental health problems for young people. Negative labelling can lead to rejection and social isolation which can cause severe mental health problems for the child including depression, substance abuse and suicide. One of the effects of negative labelling of children is that it makes others to want to avoid them. For instance, if you call your child a thief, you don’t expect your neighbours or extended family members to gladly open their doors to the child. Rejection, loneliness and social isolation have been identified as some of the reasons for substance abuse, depression and suicide among young people.
Children are not their maladaptive behaviours. It is important to separate children from their maladaptive behaviours or inadequacies so that we would be able to help them. The problem is not the child but the unacceptable behaviour. Therefore, it is the behaviour that should be condemned and not the child. For instance, instead of saying to a child, “You are a bad boy”, it is healthier to say, ” What you did is bad”. It is possible to disapprove of a child’s bahaviour without making them to feel disapproved of.
Maladaptive behaviours are learnt and can be unlearnt. Children are not born with maladaptive behaviours. They learn such behaviours in the course of their interaction with their environment. Hence, they can also unlearn the behaviours if they are given the right support. Some maladaptive behaviours may require professional assistance to unlearn. It is okay for parents to seek professional help for children who need such help to unlearn their maladaptive behaviours. The process of helping children to modify their maladaptive behaviour usually includes helping their parents or caregivers to gain insight into the problem and understand their role in the treatment process. It also involves equipping them with skills needed to play these roles effectively. All these reduce the frustration that parents or caregivers as well as the child may experience while trying to resolve such difficult problems without professional assistance.