Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

My 7-year-old, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, has been having outbursts at home since starting school. What should I do?

Pointers for managing her behavior and building self-esteem

Matthew H. Rouse, PhD, MSW
Matthew H. Rouse, PhD, MSW

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My 7-year-old daughter has been having serious outbursts at home since starting school. She seems very belligerent and loses control of her temper. She does have a mild form of cerebral palsy and is starting to really notice that she is different than the other kids in her class. Do I need professional help, like therapy? I need some parenting skills to help her. I feel like discipline like time out seems to make it worse. Help!!

First, it’s great that you’re recognizing that you may need some help with additional parenting skills—it sounds like you’re already on the right track.

While time-outs can be effective tools in curbing children’s misbehavior, they’re not effective by themselves. Time-outs need to be used within a system that includes lots of praise and reward for all the times when your daughter is behaving in a desirable way. It’s important that the ratio of praise to punishment be right, with the praise and reward strongly outweighing the use of time-outs. For more information about how to implement a behavioral system at home, here’s a link to the basics about managing difficult behavior. There are also good books out there that are geared for parents, like The Explosive Child and Your Defiant Child: 8 Steps to Better Behavior.

In terms of your daughter’s cerebral palsy, it is a normal part of her development that she will come to realize the ways in which she is different. However, it’s important not to automatically assume that she views her difference as a bad thing — it may be that she takes her CP in stride and views her differences as only a small part of her identity.

Even so, if you are worried about self-esteem issues, you want to make sure that she has lots of opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment and autonomy. The behavioral system described above will definitely help. Creating a system where she is rewarded for positive behaviors will help her feel in control of herself and less like the “bad kid.” In addition, you can seek out extracurriculars or informal activities that play to her strengths.

Finally, it also might be helpful for her to connect with peers who may also have differences or disabilities. A community of other kids who understand how she feels could be a great source of support — sometimes it is important to feel not alone in these things. Plus, connecting with their parents might be an added source of support and information for you!