Teaching Your Unruly Child to Think Straight

Children who violate the fourth commandment — honor thy father and mother — think differently than those who are well-behaved. Recalcitrant children believe that the fulfillment of their needs should always come first, even though their demands are not only unfair but involve stepping on the toes of their peers and those in authority. The errant thinking, unruly child is self-absorbed, believing he is always “right.” Those who refuse to comply with his demands, on the other hand, are always “wrong.” Given this mind set, unruly children are likely to be in constant conflict with those around him.

While self-centered thinking is quite normal for very young children, by the time they enter school, it is expected that they should behave cooperatively and follow simple rules. Unfortunately, some children fail to mature accordingly. Like toddlers and preschool youngsters, they demand constant attention. Their “all about me” thinking and behavior causes them to be disliked by their peers and in constant trouble for failing to behave as expected. These poor souls often seem bewildered and confused by their own inability to control themselves. When asked why they misbehave, they often answer, “I don’t know.” Believe it or not, this is often the truth. They feel powerless and virtually incapable of doing better. As a result, the same self-defeating pattern continues from one day to the next. How discouraging this can be, especially if the child views himself as being stuck in a revolving door from which there is no escape.

In order to teach our unruly youth to alter their misperceptions, two critical questions must be answered. First, what is at the root of the errant child’s thinking? Second, how do we identify errant thoughts and correct them?

Let’s begin with question number one. We have been taught that mankind has inherited a fallen human nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve. As a result, we are naturally inclined or attracted to that which is evil. This natural attraction to sin makes us vulnerable to engage in what I call “twisted thinking.” Twisted thinking is irrational. It consists of thoughts that are distorted, errant, and misinterpretations of reality. Because such thinking is natural to our fallen condition — part of our tainted predisposition we might say — it occurs automatically. When faced with temptation, twisted thoughts encouraging and justifying wrongdoing quickly appear and rapidly multiply. If left unchecked, these thoughts increase our arousal, dominate our thinking, and make it more likely that we will behave sinfully. To add to this problem, we live in a society which promotes “twisted thinking.” Thinking irrationally and distorting reality, “making it {interpreting reality} what we want it to be,” rather than truthfulness, is encouraged. Our natural inclination to sin and the “twisted thinking” environment in which we reside are stacked against us. No wonder our children have so much difficulty learning and engaging in what I call “straight thinking ”— thoughts which are accurate interpretations of reality and lay the foundation for living a happy, productive life as Our Lord intended.

The answer to the second question is as follows. Unruly children need to be taught to think differently. Keep in mind that emotions and thoughts are linked together. Hence, alterations in the perception of ourselves, other people, and the surrounding environment can have a marked impact on how we feel. Our emotions wax and wane, depending on these perceptions. “Straight thinking” children experience positive feelings and a general sense of confidence and well-being. “Twisted thinking” youth, on the other hand, are dominated by negative feelings such as dissatisfaction, anxiety, a lack of confidence, and mistrust of others. A good disciplinary plan, therefore, is one in which the child learns to identify and discard twisted thoughts and to replace “twisted thinking” with “straight thinking.”

Unfortunately, teaching our children to engage in right thinking has been left to chance over the past half century. If both parents are employed, their schedule can be a heavy one. Taking the time to teach their children to “think straight” can be easily placed on the back burner. This task is then inadvertently passed on to child-care workers and educational institutions outside the family. However, they too lack the time, inclination, and resources to properly fulfill this most important responsibility. As a result, the absence of proper instruction creates a void — a deep hole we might say — just waiting to be filled. And filled it is with negative thinking peer groups, the immoral media, and the commercial world, the latter of which is more than willing to instruct our children in their version of “straight thinking.” And what is their version? It encourages narcissistic pleasure seeking and other forms of mind mumbling recreational pursuits. One has only to observe a young child glued to a video-game to see the latter in action.

Lastly, keep in mind that innocent young people are easily seduced by those temptations, which promote immediate pleasure and encourage the free reign of their undisciplined passions. The media relies on “twisted” cleverly worded messages to lead vulnerable children astray. Huge profits are made for doing so. The continuous repetition of perverse thinking and misbehavior reinforces the formation of bad habits, which worsen if left unchallenged. Breaking the media’s strangle hold on the unruly child is a “tough nut to crack.”

Most parents have the ability to undo the “twisted thinking” and emotional rot being fed to our young people. In order to achieve this goal, the first step is to identify twisted thoughts and then formulate straight thoughts to replace them. Keep in mind that specific words and sentences serve as mediators between thinking and feeling. It is imperative, therefore, that we try to be precise for two reasons. First, the actual words and phrases that we utter to ourselves have the power to alter our emotional state. Second, precise words and sentences not only help us to define problems, but they enable us to examine alternatives and the consequences that follow. As you can see, the proper use of language can have far reaching benefits in helping our young people to think constructively.

The purpose of this paper is to focus on the unruly child’s errant views and how we can alter them. It is the child’s distorted thinking that sets the foundation for emotional overreactions, disrespectful behavior, and defying authority. As noted previously, rebellious, self-centered children engage in what I’ve called “twisted thinking.” “Twisted thinking” is a form of mental trickery used to justify wrongdoing. When caught with his hand in the cookie jar, the unruly child blames someone or something other than himself for the problem. “Twisted thinking” can take away feelings of guilt, anxiety, frustration, and inadequacy. It helps the young rebel to feel better for the moment. Unfortunately, “twisted thinking,” as stressed previously, if left unchecked, can become habitual. This then leads to further errant thinking. Overreliance on distortions and misinterpretations of reality leaves little cognitive energy for more adaptive functions, which require real problem solving skills. Hence, the habitual reliance on twisted thinking needs to be eliminated as soon as possible.

Again, children who become twisted in their thinking often misinterpret and make errors in judging themselves, other people, and the events that impact on their lives. As noted previously, twisted thinking can quickly and easily lead into sinful thoughts and misbehavior. The following are examples of twisted thoughts and those sins that could become attached to them, if they remain unchallenged and are not replaced with “straight thinking.”

1. Other people, circumstances, and luck are responsible for the way I think and act. I can do little or nothing to control my life. (DESPAIR, ANGER)

2. Criticism is bad. When someone criticizes me, they are trying to insult me and make me appear to be a fool in front of my friends. (ANGER, REVENGE)

3. People who are successful are just lucky. They happen to be in the right place at the right time. (ANGER, ENVY)

4. God and my parents owe me. I didn’t ask to be born. They should give me what I want when I want it. (ANGER, DISHONORING PARENTS)

5. It is important to be better than other people. Being first and winning is what life is all about. (PRIDE, PRESUMPTION)

6. Being popular is critical to happiness. Fitting in with the popular crowd makes me “cool.” Being rejected makes me a “nerd” or “weird.” (DESPAIR, PRIDE).

7. If I make a mistake, I shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences. Everybody deserves a second chance. (PRESUMPTION, ANGER)

8. Life should be what I want to be. If I get frustrated, venting my frustration by taking it out on others is the best way to “get it out of my system.” (ANGER, REVENGE)

9. Failure is frightening and should be avoided whenever possible. It is better to give up when the odds are against you. The easy road is the best way to travel. (DESPAIR, SLOTH)

10. If people treat me unfairly, I should get even with them. This will earn me the respect that I deserve. (REVENGE, ANGER)

11. I am invincible. Nothing will happen to me if I take foolish risks or use poor judgment. Bad things only happen to other people. (PRIDE, PRESUMPTION)

12. Learning should be easy and fun. If the work is difficult or “boring,” I should avoid doing it. (SLOTH)

13. Teachers are responsible for my learning. If I have trouble learning, it is their fault for not motivating me. (SLOTH)

In order to undo “twisted thoughts,” they need to be challenged and replaced with “straight thinking.” Straight thinking means thinking thoughts that are sensible and realistic. Children who think straight, view themselves, other people, and events accurately. They take responsibility for their behavior, rather than blame luck, other people, or circumstances if they fail. Straight thinking children learn from their mistakes. They think the following kind of thoughts:

1. I am responsible for the way I think and behave. People, luck, and circumstances do not control my thoughts and actions.

2. Criticism is good. It can provide me with information that I can use to improve my performance.

3. People who are successful work hard. If I am willing to work hard, I, too, can be successful. Doing nothing will get me nowhere.

4. God gave me parents in order to guide and teach me to do what is right. It is my responsibility to honor them and to take advantage of the opportunities given to me.

5. Whether I succeed or fail is largely determined by my effort. I should focus upon doing my best, not being the best in comparison to others.

6. I don’t have to be overly influenced by my peers or other people. I am not a string puppet who is controlled by a puppeteer. I have my own brain and can make my own decisions.

7. Accepting the consequences for my actions is a normal part of living. If I behave responsibly, I will most likely be rewarded. If I behave badly, I can expect to be punished. Our Lord, who is most compassionate, promised that He will judge us and treat us according to our works.

8. Life is not fair. When I am treated unfairly, I can try to correct it. If correction is not possible, it is better to accept this and move on. Sulking or losing my temper will only worsen the problem and make me look foolish. Putting the problem in God’s hands and trusting Him makes more sense.

9. If I work hard, I increase the likelihood of being successful. However, despite my best effort, I could fail. This is a normal part of living, not something to fear or avoid. I can learn from my mistakes and do better the next time. If I quit, then I have little or no chance for success. This is a guarantee.

10. If someone treats me badly, I should seek justice, not revenge. If I cannot obtain justice, it is better to go on with my life rather than let bitterness defeat me. “Vengeance is mine” saith the Lord. I must trust in Him by placing the problem in His hands.

11. Arrogance can lead me into showing off and taking foolish risks. This increases the likelihood I could get into serious trouble. I might get away with behaving foolishly for awhile. However, just one mistake could cost me dearly — maybe the loss of life or limbs. This would undo all the attention that I received for being “cool” and behaving so stupidly.

12. Some school subjects are difficult, uninteresting, and even “boring,” I still have a responsibility to do my best in trying to learn them. I might need to show that I have successfully completed them later on.

13. I must make the effort to learn. Teachers can explain the material, but it is up to me to work and master it.

An example of putting the preceding into practice is as follows. Joey often loses his homework assignments because he carelessly stuffs them into his backpack. Joey’s disorganization is an ongoing problem. When the teacher suggests the assignments be put together and attached to his notebook, Joey talks back. He insists that the loss of his assignments is not his fault. Joey is a very sensitive young man. He fails to recognize that the teacher is trying to help him. Joey believes that “Criticism is bad.” He thinks that the teacher is purposely insulting him. Joey’s twisted thinking causes him to quickly become angry. Because Joey is so defensive, he fails to hear and process the information that the teacher is conveying to him. As a result, Joey continues to be disorganized. Moreover, he loses credit for assignments that were completed but never turned in on time. In order to change Joey’s errant thinking, the teacher should pick a time when Joey is in a calm state. The following can then be offered: “Joey, when I criticize your organization, I am not trying to insult you. I know you think that I’m being unfair because you do not receive credit for work, which is not turned in on time. This makes you angry. Arguing with me then follows. As a result, your disorganization continues to be a problem. I am suggesting that you attach your assignments to the notebook so the problem can be solved. My criticism is meant to be a good thing. Its purpose is to help you to be organized. Your work will then be turned in on time and you will get the credit that you deserve. What do you think about what I am saying?”

It should be noted that the preceding explanation, while not using the exact words of the number 2 “twisted” and “straight” thoughts, identify Joey’s errant view and its productive counterpart. The latter is offered to replace the former. Moreover, the question “What do you think about what I am saying?” is added. This question offers Joey the opportunity to share his thoughts with the teacher. His answer will then enable the teacher to assess whether further dialogue with Joey is needed. Again, catching the child when he is in a calm state increases the likelihood that he will listen and process the new information, which the teacher provides. Keep in mind that if the parents and teachers have a good relationship with the child, he will likely be more receptive to what they have to say. In Joey’s case, this will enable him to be better organized and prevent him from losing credit for completed work, which is not turned in on time. The preceding can serve as a model for altering other errant thoughts that lead to emotional overreactions and the disruptive behavior of unruly children.

Lastly, our youth need to understand that Our Lord expects them to develop and use the abilities, which He has given to them. Making good use of those talents in serving Our Lord as He intends, is what pleases Him. The failure to use these gifts in Our Lord’s service, however, will incur His wrath. Our Lord is the perfect example of “straight thinking” in this regard. It is important our young people understand that He means business. Our Lord is not “the soft touch” that many make Him out to be. Rather, He promised that He would hold us accountable by rewarding and punishing us according to our deeds. Hence, a healthy fear of His great power makes good sense. The Gospel of Saint Matthew (c.25, vss14-30) drives this point home. Our Lord presented the following parable to His disciples, the purpose of which was to teach them this lesson.

“A man going abroad called his servants and handed over his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his ability, and then he went on his journey. And he who received the five talents went out and traded them and gained five more. In like manner, he who received two gained two more. But he who received the one went away and dug in the earth and hid his master’s money. Then after a long time the master of these servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who received the five talents came and brought other five talents saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; behold, I have gained five others in addition.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, because you have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who received the two talents came and said, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents ; behold, I have gained two more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many; enter into the joy of your master.’

“But he that received the one talent, came and said, ‘Lord, I know that you are a hard man; you reap where you have not sown; and you gather where you have not strewed; and being afraid I went and hid your talent in the earth; behold, thou has that which is yours.’ And his lord answering said to him; wicked and slothful servant, you know that I reap where I sow not; and gather where I have not strewed; you ought therefore to have committed my money to the bankers; and at my coming I should have my own with usury. Take away therefore the talent given to him; and give it to him that has ten talents. For every one that has shall be given; and he shall abound; but from him that has not, that also which he seems to have will be taken away. And the unprofitable servant cast you into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “

Note that the master gave each servant a differing number of talents according to his particular ability. He expected each servant to use these talents for the master’s benefit. The servants who doubled their investment pleased the master and were rewarded for their effort. The servant who made no use of the talent given to him displeased the master. The master’s wrath and punishment were then heaped upon him. This parable tells us that Our Lord expects us to make good use of the abilities given to us. The failure to do so will result in punishment. The capital sin of sloth and the “twisted thinking” bringing this about are food for thought in this Gospel of Saint Matthew.

  • M.

    Thank you, Dr. Lavin, for this excellent post. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen this type of “advice” in parenting books. This is solidly Catholic and most practical. God bless you!