Is It Bad Behavior or Behavior Disorder?

Is It Bad Behavior or Behavior Disorder?

This is the first in a series of six articles that we hope will be helpful in guiding you, the reader, in your decisions about what might be driving a child’s behavior.

This issue is one that is packed with questions both from parents and teachers as well. There are so many different layers involved in the subject that we felt it would be best to begin with a series that would address the more clinical aspects of the question. In this way, you, the reader will have more information with which to make decisions about whether a formal evaluation of your child might be called for.

Shaindy’s son Mendy was sent home again from yeshiva today.  “I didn’t do anything!” he protested.  The melamed’s version was different, however.

“He was insolent.  He was clowning around, disrupting the class again. And then he got into a fight with one of the younger boys over whose turn it was to have the ball – and he hit the kid. The boy’s parents called me; their son came home with bruises. What should I have done with him?”

Mendy, age 7, was in tears when confronted by his father about his teacher’s words that night. “That kid starts with me all the time,” he complained.  “He slaps me on the back, he laughs at me.  He makes faces at me.”   Mendy didn’t deny the talking; he had realized it was a problem and said he’d been trying to stop but just could not seem to control himself. But, he added, “The clowning around is fun – it makes the kids laugh. Besides, sometimes the melamed does really stupid things.”

When the two parents met with the principal and the teacher the next day, they discovered there was more information that the teacher had not shared because he “didn’t want to bother them with small things.”  Mendy could not pay attention to anything for more than a few minutes at a time.  Or he was paying attention to everything, except the task at hand. Neither could he stick with any class work for any length of time.

He had problems with keeping his things organized; his parents knew his school bag was a mess and that he never seemed to know what his homework was, or said he didn’t have any. But they didn’t know that he had lost half his schoolbooks and often sat in class without the necessary materials to participate. So he would stare out the window, teased other kids or raised his hand to respond to a question he really could not answer.  The other kids would laugh, he would clown around and the teacher was left feeling that Mendy had made a fool of him.

He misunderstood his classmates’ actions.  A kid would slap him on the back as a friendly gesture and Mendy would think he was hitting him in anger.  It hurt, after all. A kid would make faces at him, and instead of realizing the boy was including him in a joke, he thought he was the target of the fun.  In fact, Mendy rarely “got the joke.”

But everyone realized he was a good kid.  He had a heart of gold, would lend anyone anything they asked for, would comfort any classmate who cried and would stick up for his friends if they were being bullied by another kid.  He was always sorry when he realized he had done something wrong; the problem was he often did not know that what he had done was indeed wrong.

All four adults were frustrated, unhappy and stumped about what to do about Mendy. The little boy was unhappy too. He knew he was different and hated it.

David, age 9, was similar in some ways, but drastically different in others.  For one thing, no matter how pleasant his teacher or parents tried to be David always made it difficult to ask him to do something.  His first response was always “No!” or “Why doesn’t so-and-so do it?” 

The arguments were endless.

“David, please put your reading book away. It’s time for math.”  No answer and the book remained on David’s desk. It wasn’t that he didn’t hear the teacher’s instructions, or that he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t even that he didn’t like math. He just wouldn’t comply – at least when he was first asked to do so.  After a few minutes, when the teacher or parent gave up, he usually ended up doing what was asked of him anyway.  The few times he didn’t, however, he would get angry and blatantly refuse, sometimes with a good reason and often without. 

Then there was Shalom, and if ever there was a boy whose name belied his nature, it was this 14-year-old teenager.

He was a bully, shaking down the kids in the younger classes for their pocket change and threatening them if they refused to give it up.  He cut classes, periodically robbed the charity boxes – but never when anyone was around, so he could not be caught in the act and charged with the crime, though everyone knew who was behind the thefts.

Shalom smoked. He lied and had no remorse about how his behavior affected other people, whether they were friends, teachers, parents or siblings.  Very little seemed to bother him, in fact; he did whatever he wanted to do, whenever and however he pleased.  He seemed to have no conscience at all.

There was no way to control Shalom and at the end, there was no way to teach him, because he only attended the classes he enjoyed, which weren’t many.  One of the teachers tried to reach out to this budding juvenile delinquent, but to no avail.

Eventually Shalom dropped out of high school.  His family, shamed and broken by his behavior, withdrew from the community.  His parents blamed each other and themselves.  His brothers and sisters were embarrassed to visit their friends’ homes, and very few friends were allowed to visit theirs – the parents were usually worried about the influence Shalom might have on their children, even though he was rarely home. 

Although the entire family was terrorized by his cruelty, they were also traumatized the night he disappeared.  Three days later, his parents got a call from the police, who said Shalom had been caught in a sting operation and was sitting in jail. No bail was set and the teen, now a young man, was officially declared a criminal by the court.  When he was convicted and sent to a corrections facility, his family was privately relieved.

 Mendy, David and Shalom all had behavior disorders, though each is different. Each requires a different type of intervention and it is crucial to know how to tell them apart. Behavior disorders are not always as clear-cut as the examples above.  It is important to consult a trained, experienced professional when you are worried about your child’s behavior.  Better to have “wasted” the hour or two on a consultation that reassures you than to avoid getting help that might help your child and your family and prevent later heartbreak.

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