Wisdom//

Kids Misbehaving? Sleep and Family Routines May Be to Blame

Look for incremental change as you adopt new habits.

 Sallywatts/Getty Images 

Emily Davies cringes when she remembers how she and her husband berated their son Christopher for being lazy at schoolwork and for not reaching his potential. Although they knew he had ADHD, they didn’t realize he also had a learning disability that made it hard for him to process written material.

“We were in this mode of taking away privileges and taking away technology, saying, ‘You’re going to sit at this table for an hour and work,’” she recalled. “We came to understand that this child is not going to learn the same as we did, as his sister does, as his friends do. I spent too much time trusting what the school was saying.” Now Emily and her husband give Christopher extra support in organization and more time to complete his homework.

Before changing your parenting tactics, consider the health factors that may be impacting your children’s behavior. Are they getting enough sleep, exercise, nutritious foods, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids? Could an overload of electronics use be contributing to unwanted behavior? Could your child have a behavioral or learning disorder that would benefit from a diagnosis and treatment, like Christopher Davies?

Sleep, in particular, may be a culprit. Adults and children alike are remarkably sleep-deprived these days, and busy family schedules and electronics overload often contribute to this problem.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that elementary school–aged children sleep 10 to 11 hours a night, but according to its poll, on average they sleep 8.9 hours on a typical school night. Older children should sleep 8.5 to 9.5 hours a night, but young teens sleep only about 8 hours a night and older teens average 7.1 hours a night. Scientists have connected lack of sleep with mood disorders, especially anxiety and depression. Sleep problems in early childhood often predict the development of depression, anxiety, inattention, and hyperactivity. Experiments that restricted sleep caused problems in emotional regulation, mood, and attention.

Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in the development of the central nervous system, which itself is crucial to healthy brain and emotional functioning. These are the good fats found in fish and many plants, such as kale and flaxseed. You can supplement your child’s diet or simply look for foods heavy in omega-3 when you shop.

Researchers are looking at the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other neurological conditions. Although nobody yet recommends replacing traditional therapy with a dose of salmon, a slew of recent papers suggest enriching your family’s diet with omega-3 fatty acids. After all, these healthy oils also protect against cardiovascular disease. Talk to your children’s doctor for more information, and while you’re there, share any behavioral concerns you have.

After reviewing your family’s health, wipe the slate clean so that everyone gets a fresh start. Apologize to your kids for having the mistaken impression that you were the boss and that they were to do exactly what you said. This will disarm them and make them more open to some of the seemingly less pleasant aspects of my recommended Apprenticeship Model, such as taking responsibility and doing chores.

Assess your lifestyle choices. Can you downshift your work or the family schedule—or team up with neighbors—to leave more time for free play and relaxed family interactions? Try to re-create some of the conditions that set up kids for mental and emotional health in previous generations. You may find that it’s easier to make changes than you think—even tiny shifts and simple tweaks have a way of snowballing.

That’s the path taken by Colin and Camila Cullen. Camila came to my Parent Encouragement Program class struggling with the hot rage she felt whenever her children refused to cooperate. Having been raised in Nicaragua by a single mother who worked all the time, Camila had grown up with few rules. She did her homework if she felt like it, or she goofed around. Though infrequent, discipline was harsh and sometimes physical. She wanted more consistency and warmth for her own kids, but didn’t know how to get there.

In PEP, she and Colin learned skills and strategies for being kind and firm leaders of the family and encouraging Mariana and Alejandro to contribute to the household. PEP’s parenting education curriculum is rooted in the Adlerian theory that people are motivated by the need to belong and be significant. Adler pioneered the concept of “social interest”—an individual’s contribution to the welfare of others—and believed that individuals could solve any problem through cooperation.

Instead of sticker charts, promises of ice cream or toys, praise, time-outs, and punishments, Camila and Colin began to rely on reflective listening, respectful language, routines set by the entire family, and consequences agreed upon in advance. To build stronger relationships, each parent started regularly expressing appreciation for the children’s actions and spending one-on-one “special time” with each child. The Cullen family created a laminated “Listo Para Hoy” (“Ready for Today”) with pictures of each step in the morning routine and hand-drawn clock faces showing the time for breakfast, brushing teeth, hand lotion, and sunscreen. They turned one wall of the kitchen into a chalkboard where they wrote the afternoon routine and the kids’ favorite activities for special time.

Both parents adjusted their work schedules and the family cut way back on the kids’ after-school activities to make room for more relaxed family time together. They also began to create their own community of support, recruiting several parent friends from the kids’ public charter school to take PEP classes and swapping books with people whose ideas about parenting resonated with them. As a volunteer room parent at school, Colin shared PEP ideas via email and in person. Gradually, positive ways of interacting with children were taking root at the school and in the community.

You can benefit from these ideas without changing your life wholesale. Certainly, there’s no need to discard something that’s working for you. Look for incremental change as you adopt new habits.

Under an Apprenticeship model, some of the strategies may look similar to your previous parenting style. For instance, my children may enjoy thirty minutes of screen time after school once their household jobs, homework, and music practice are done. The key is that parents negotiate agreements about responsibilities and privileges ahead of time, in discussion with their children. They don’t dictate limits unilaterally. Whenever possible, the rules apply to everyone, not just the kids. So if a parent’s chores are incomplete, they also must finish up before relaxing in front of a screen. And the agreement is consistently enforced— it applies all week and all month. Screen time after responsibilities are taken care of, for instance, is not a reward the parent pulls out simply to motivate a child to perform one task on a given day.

The psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester first showed how connection, competence, and autonomy motivate people more strongly than a reward-punishment scheme. Indeed, rewards actually undermine an individual’s intrinsic interest or motivation.

For example, in one study, researchers rewarded one group of people for finding the word “Nina” in drawings by the artist Al Hirschfeld, while offering no reward to a control group also tasked with looking for the word. Then they pretended the experiment was over but left the drawings, along with other materials, in the room while study participants were waiting. They found that the group that had received a monetary reward for finding Ninas spent less time looking for Ninas for their own enjoyment than those who had not been rewarded. Performing the task in exchange for the rewards seemed to drain the joy out of an otherwise fun activity, reducing intrinsic motivation.

Rewards have the same impact on children. Whether given for grades, household jobs, or behavior, they erode the child’s interest in the activity and risk turning a potentially fun challenge into a task to be dreaded.

*Please note all names have been changed. 

Adapted from THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT BAD BEHAVIOR: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined than Ever—and What to Do about It, by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. Now available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group.

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