Eyes blazing, expletives dripping from her rosebud lips, Honey hurls herself about the classroom in uncontrolled fury, throwing tables and chairs as she goes. Her own mother, Stella, and two teachers are unable to calm her down as she vents her rage against a perceived slight made by two classmates. Eventually, the police are called to the girl’s Shropshire primary, and only then, with the help of a paramedic, is the youngster restrained.
It is fair to say this nine-year-old schoolgirl is the complete antithesis of her sweet name.
For Stella, who has three other daughters, seeing her little girl physically held down by police officers during this incident last year was deeply upsetting. Even more alarming is the fact that this incident is just the latest in a succession of uncontrollable tantrums by the girl.
“She was violent towards us, her teachers, pupils at school and her own sisters,” says an exasperated Stella. “It was completely out of control. We’d had all the advice and parenting classes, and everything we tried worked for the other three children, but never Honey.”
Her father, Ben, says: “We were always being told that we hadn’t disciplined her enough, or that we had disciplined her too much. It was always nobody’s fault but ours.”
After four times being thwarted in their attempts to gain a mental health assessment for their daughter, the exhausted parents turned, as a last resort, to programme makers at Channel 4 to help them understand Honey. Was it nature or nurture causing the girl to behave so badly? Was is possible that she was just born naughty?
The question goes right to the core of every parents’ fears. Have they, deliberately or inadvertently, caused their child to behave abominably? Or does their child have a medical condition, perhaps hereditary, that causes a child to behave badly. And, if so, what are they to do?
It is these nature verus nurture questions such as these that Born Naughty, a controversial new Channel 4 series, attempts to answer. Over four weeks, the programme – hosted by Dr Dawn Harper, one of the resident experts on Embarrassing Bodies – will follow eight children exhibiting extreme behaviour and attempt to establish their causes – and how to cope with them.
Noel Janis-Norton, the reknowned behaviour specialist and author of Calmer Easier Happier Parenting, whose parenting classes have been favoured by celebrities such as Helena Bonham Carter, dismisses the idea that any child is “born” naughty: “Most behavioural problems in children are a combination of nature and nurture,” she says. “The nature is that the individual genetic inheritance of that child that has given them an extreme temperament which in turn makes life very difficult for the child and any adults they deal with.”
Examples of extreme temperament can include being very active, hyper sensitive, overly intense, impulsive or inflexible – symptoms that, says Janis-Norton, can be further exacerbated by environment. “Especially if the child with the extreme temperament is the first-born in the family, the parents just assume that’s the way things are and it’s easy for them to drift into catering to that child, which only makes things worse.”
The most commonly diagnosed and controversial behavioural condition is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is believed to affect one child in 20. It can be diagnosed by the presence of a number of tell-tale signs, such as short attention span, hyperactivity, sleep problems and impulsive behaviour – but without a blood test or brain scan, neurological conditions such as ADHD are difficult to diagnose and, crucially for parents, to have taken seriously.