My child has been misbehaving for a long time. Is there hope that he can learn to respond to the world in a different way?

Problematic behaviors are generally caused by the intersection of two things: temperament and environment. We are all born with a general temperament, a way in which we react to the world that seems hard-wired. Some babies are fussy and irritable from the beginning, while other babies are placid and good-natured. This inborn temperament dictates how we respond to the world and also how the world responds to us. Over time we learn to interact based upon our feelings and the effect our actions have on the environment. For a child who is temperamentally more reactive the world can feel anxiety provoking and aggressive, as he is constantly receiving negative feedback for his reactions. This history of negativity can create a pattern of defensive habits as a child tries to protect his feelings and his sense of self. This can be complicated by the addition of a mental health disorder such as ADHD, compounding the negative feedback the child receives.
So what can be done about this? Is there truly hope? Yes, there is a great deal of hope, especially if problematic behaviors are remediated early. Our brains are constantly changing in response to the world, especially when we are young. Behaviors are a learned response to the world driven by our internal emotional state and the input received from the environment. Just as a problematic behavior can be learned, a replacement behavior can be learned.

How do we accomplish this task? We can intervene to change problematic behaviors by first understanding what is driving the behavior. For example, anxiety about one’s abilities, or having an unmet need, can lead to behaviors that are not pro-social. After understanding what is driving behaviors and doing our best to address the underlying issues we must then respond to the child in a different way than he has become accustomed to. For instance, if a child who is anxious about work has learned that oppositional behaviors can be effective in avoiding work we must intervene to teach him otherwise. While punitive interventions are the typical response – i.e. taking away privileges, yelling, threatening – they are often not effective as they can cause the child to become more oppositional, especially if the adult engages in a power struggle. To intervene effectively the adult must first present herself as an ally, providing understanding that the work is causing anxiety and offering appropriate help as needed. You might say, “I understand that the work is hard and that you don’t believe that you can do it, but I believe you can do it, and I am here to help if you need me.” Second, the adult must present natural consequences while avoiding engaging in a power struggle. You might say, “It’s okay if you choose not to do your work right now, but it is not going away. You can choose to do it now or you can do it later when the class moves on to recess.” By not responding to the child in a punitive manner and instead offering him some choice and some power, over time you can teach a child to respond differently.