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High Structure Produces Good Behavior in Children

Updated on August 13, 2012

Parenting Tips

Everyone needs some predictability in their lives, everyone needs some structure in order to go about their duties. Children as well as adults need structure in their lives. Often, children who have had very difficult histories are in special need of a higher amount of structure in order to correct negative behaviors that they have learned. These children may have had either little structure or inconsistent structure. “Structure” covers many things: daily routine, predictability of events, assigned chores and tasks, accountability for who is in charge, how disagreements are processed, how discipline is carried out, and consistency in all of these areas.

When children do not have enough structure, or the structure is very inconsistent, they begin to develop multiple layers of behavioral difficulties, and become unstable emotionally. Sometimes, they become “wild” in their behaviors. Other times they may become quite “parentified”, meaning that they take on the role of structuring their lives and their younger siblings lives in replacement of adults. Children spontaneously taking up a stabilizing role is a proof that human beings want structure and naturally tend organize their lives.. In any case, children who have had little structure are often dealing with significant levels of stress. Even adults become stressed when their lives become unpredictable for extended periods of time. This stress will be expressed in acting out behaviors of some sort, guaranteed Structure provides predictability, predictability lowers stress, and lower stress produces a more stable child.

Interestingly, children who have lived for some time without age normal structure will often become upset when structure is then placed upon them. These children may resent that the relative freedoms of having little structure are being removed. These children also are often quite sensitive to disruption of structure once it is established. They need to learn to accept age normative structure from us, as well as appropriate flexibility in that structure. We need to help them experience the trade of this “freedom” for age appropriate structure as something that will offer them a payoff. While trying to replace little structure with a higher structure, we need to be sure to offer a great deal of nurturing and security. Eventually, the structure we give them will help begin to heal their old wounds, feed nurturing needs that are unmet, and provide security and comfort to them.

From time to time we all change our structures (for example, as I write this, the seasonal time change has just occurred, requiring adjustments). For children with difficult histories, we need to be especially aware of each child’s unique structural needs. Too much structure, and the child will (rightly) rebel. Too little, and acting out begins. Often, you will know when a child needs more structure, because their behavior will tell you. It might pay off to pay attention to this when your household structure is naturally disrupted, like for a holiday, or having houseguests. Try to compensate for the changed structure by giving more attention and behavioral support prior to upsets.

When children seem to be out of control in your home for more than a few moments (or a day), it is important to review the current structure of the household, and make adjustments if needed. Be sure to look at all areas of the structure (listed in the first paragraph). Sometimes, we are too close to our own lives to recognize structural problem areas. Get some outside observer to help you do this if you get stuck, or what you are trying doesn’t work.

Lastly, be sure to structure into your routine time to be together, and time to have spontaneous, unstructured fun. When we structure unstructured time into our lives, we can help children learn how to deal with lower levels of structure in their lives.


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