All children will act up. They will yell, scream, throw tantrums, back chat, whinge, whine, fight with their siblings, lie, not listen…. the list can go on and on. As a parent, managing challenging child behaviour can be hard at the best of times, let alone when we’re frustrated, stressed and feel like we’re reaching the end of our sanity.
When life is stressful with our kids, we as mums aren’t happy. When we are not happy, we don’t enjoy our life. When we aren’t happy and don’t enjoy our life, we aren’t the best mum that we can be. Ultimately we suffer, our kids suffer and the whole family suffers.
When we are at a high level of stress because of our child’s behaviour then it is important to do whatever we can do to improve it for the benefit of everyone. This doesn’t mean punishing the negative behaviour, instead it means solving the cause. It’s looking at the ‘why’ behind how our child is acting and addressing that first. Otherwise just responding to their actions is like putting a bandaid on a broken leg. It won’t reduce your stress levels and get you the calmer family environment you want and need.
All behaviour problems are emotional problems.
Whatever the behaviour we are struggling with with our child, it is always a reflection upon how our child is feeling at that moment in time.
When we help our child become aware of their feelings and manage them in a healthy and socially acceptable way (aka not throwing a massive tantrum, storming off and slamming the door), this then teaches the essential skill of emotional regulation. It supports healthy social and emotional development and wellbeing. It also helps to reduces the chance of the negative behaviour happening again in the future because our child will know how to manage their emotions in response to a situation.
There are 6 basic emotional categories that we can fit our child’s behaviour into.
The Angry Child
Anger is a secondary emotion. In order for our child to feel angry they have to be feeling negatively about something that has happened (e.g. a toy has been taken off them), or they are worried about something that is going to be happening in the future.
Anger is often a mask when our child feels uncomfortable showing the underlying feeling. They could be feeling scared, hurt, vulnerable, sad, lonely or ashamed. If they aren’t comfortable or able to manage these emotions then they can act out with aggressive behaviours e.g yelling, hitting, biting, slamming doors, stomping feet etc…
The Stressed or Worried Child
Many kids experience stress, worry and anxiety because they are unable to understand what is happening around them or will be happening in the future. Children are rarely able to look at a situation objectively. Without a caregiver present to help them talk through the situation and explore possible and realistic outcomes, then stress and anxiety can impact emotional wellbeing and growth and development.
The stressed or worried child may either become withdrawn and freeze or act out with anger behaviours including verbal or physical aggression.
The Excessively “Good” Child
A child that is perfect is often struggling. The challenging behaviour that we face from our kids, while very frustrating, is also a normal part of their development. When a child never acts out, it is a sign that something deeper is going on.
The excessively good child often is overly compliant in order to manage their anxiety, fears and emotions. They have a need to be “perfect” either to receive praise and live up to expectations or to feel like they are safe.
The Sad Child
Sadness is a normal and healthy emotional response to an upsetting event. We all feel sad, including our child. However when sadness becomes prolonged it is often a reflection of the inability of our child to talk about their emotions and to feel accepted for having them. They do not feel like they are in a safe place or with safe care givers to be emotionally vulnerable.
The Fearful or Clingy Child
Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. Our children hold us as a place of safety and understanding the concept of “mummy always comes back” is something that comes with time and maturity.
Being clingy or fearful of a parent leaving can become problematic when is ongoing despite consistency in routine and reassurance. Separation anxiety that happens as a regressive behaviour can be frustrating for parents to manage, especially if prior to this our child has previously not had any trouble with us leaving.
The Hyperactive Child
When we look at the seemingly hyperactive child we must look at the difference between hypervigilance vs hyperactivity. Hyperactivity related to ADD or ADHD is a chronic behavioural condition which is related to brain structure and function and genetic conditions.
Hyperactivity that is actually reflective of a state of being hypervigilant however, is related to high levels of stress. The hypervigilant child can’t focus or sit still because they are on a high alert for danger. They need to reach a state of internal calm and feel externally safe in order for their behaviour to settle.
Always assess your child’s behaviour within the context of their developmental stage.
Whenever we are considering why our child is acting in a particular manner we must always consider their developmental stage. What we can expect from a toddler is very different to an 8 year old or a teenager.
There are 5 questions we can ask ourselves in relation to our child’s behaviour and developmental stage:
- Can my child understand what is happening to him?
- Does my child understand emotions and can label how they’re feeling?
- Is my child able to talk about how they feel?
- Does my child need my help to regulate their emotions?
- Does my child feel safe in this moment to talk about their emotions?
When we respond to our child’s behaviour problem by first considering their feelings and developmental context, we support their social and emotional wellbeing. Combined with a caring, nurturing, responsive, stable and supportive relationship with their parent, our child will thrive.
When they have a secure base with their parents and social and emotional wellbeing, they are able to explore, grow and learn. They form healthy friendships and engage in the community and family unit. They have positive mental health and develop the essential life skill of emotional regulation.
We all want this for our children, but the ultimate question is how do we do this? This is when the parenting detective process comes in.
The Parenting Detective Process
When we are trying to work out what our child is feeling then we have to put our detective hats on. As parents (particularly mothers who are primary caregivers), we are the expert on our child. We know them better than they know themselves. By using this knowledge and our wisdom we can help guide our child to work out what they are feeling, improve their behaviour and emotional regulation skills
1. Consider The Emotion & Their Understanding
Put yourself in your child’s place. Can they understand what is happening to them and how they are feeling? Are they capable of managing this situation or do they need my support? Ask yourself the 5 behaviour and development questions from above.
2. Hold Space
Emotions are healthy, it is the behaviour that we are hoping to address. Holding space for our children means that we are willing to walk alongside them in their emotional state. We park our judgements and how we think they should feel about the situation and instead listen with compassion and empathy.
Our children need to be reassured that you are there to offer unconditional support regardless of how they are feeling.
3. Be Sensitive
Expressing emotions can be hard for adults let alone for our children. Avoid telling your child they he or she shouldn’t be feeling in a particular way. This will only reduce the chance that they will be open and vulnerable with you in the future.
Talk about what has happened. Suggest and name emotions that you can guess or know that they are experiencing. Listen and talk with them about why we feel emotions.
4. Be a Safe Place
It is critical that when we want to encourage our children to express their emotions that we remain calm. Taking a few deep breaths before responding to our child can make all the difference between staying calm or reacting with anger or frustration. After all a child who is met with anger, yelling or being dismissive from a parent is not going to learn to have calm behaviour.
What About Discipline?
Whenever we talk about behaviour the subject of discipline always comes up. It is essential to remember that the root of the word discipline is “to teach”. It does not punish a child.
Discipline helps our child learn from what has happened so that it doesn’t happen again in the future.
Discipline is not a one-time only event. Our children need to be taught the same lesson multiple times in order for them to really understand and take on board the learnings. The beneficial part of regular challenging behaviour from our kids is that it provides us with the opportunity to teach a lesson frequently. When we find ourselves facing challenging behaviour from our child, if we can remind ourselves that this is an opportunity to teach we can remain positive and supportive.
Whenever we discuss with our children their behaviour it is essential that we are clear and consistent. If children get mixed messages about what is expected or required of them then the learning process takes much longer and frustrating for all. Being consistent is very important between the two parents of the child either in a two-parent household or a co-parenting relationship.
How Do We Fix The Problem?
Solving behaviour problems is extremely effective when we use Child-Led Play. It is a practical and effective based strategy that strengthens the relationship between parent and child while giving the child an open and supportive place to discuss what has happened.
I have written about how Child-Led Play can be used to address behaviour problems and provided a process you can follow in this article: Solving Behaviour Problems With Play.
It is important to remember that we cannot fix a behaviour in the moment when everyone (be it parent or child) is stressed. When we or our child is stressed the body is in a state of fight or flight (the physiological stress response). In this state our child cannot learn what we are trying to teach them about emotions, responding to difficult situations and how not to and how to act. In order to take this information on, they must be calm first.
Responding to behaviour must always happen after the event. Only when everyone is calm should any teaching and discussion take place.
Aiming to improve our child’s behaviour is not a bad thing. It is not something that we as parents should feel guilty about doing. Every child will have “bad” behaviour, but that’s all it is – behaviour!
A child having a tantrum is not a “bad” child. They are just having a severe emotional reaction to a situation that they are unable to control. They are having a hard time.
A child fighting with their sibling isn’t trying to be mean or aggressive, they are having difficulty working out how to play or be together cooperatively and are having an emotional reaction in response to how they are feeling.
The child who hits their mum because he got told he couldn’t have ice-cream for breakfast, isn’t trying to hurt her. He is feeling angry and frustrated and needs help and guidance to manage those emotions.
Our children will not learn emotional regulation and improve their behaviour if we do not help them understand what they are feeling. We must first work out the cause and the emotion behind the behaviour and then afterwards, only when everyone is calm, address the problematic behaviour.
If you would like to discuss your child’s behaviour with me and what the possible feelings are behind it then book in for a 1:1 phone session by clicking here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is possible to get to the bottom of your child’s behaviour. Use your insider knowledge and wisdom as your child’s mum combined with a little parenting detective work and get things running more smoothly in your family.