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Behavior is Communication–Video

The Arc of the Tantrum video has been hugely popular, so I’ve made another one.  This one is on a topic I speak about in various ways all the time: Behavior is Communication.  Click below for 2 minutes and 38 seconds’ worth of coaching on understanding your child’s misbehavior.  (and see directly below for a rudimentary transcript.)

Behavior is Communication, notes from the video:

  • Imagine that your child’s misbehavior is a misguided attempt at fulfilling an unmet need.
  • A few examples of typical unmet needs: power, attention, overwhelm, intense engagement.  (Intense engagement: that extra level of attention children need from us, and they can get it from us in positive or negative ways, ie: “OH! I’m SO proud of you!” versus “WHAT are you DOING!?”)  They want the positive intensity, and of course it’s healthier, but they will settle for the negative because kids desperately need doses of that intensity from their parents.
  • We can learn to translate our kids’ misbehavior—translate what you see them doing, and see if you can identify what the unmet need is that drives that behavior—what’s underneath it, behind it, driving that misbehavior.  This frees you up to respond to the need behind the misbehavior, instead of simply reacting to that behavior.
  • When parents can identify the unmet need, we can (a) help them get their needs met better, and (b) minimize the unwanted behavior without having to resort to control or punishment techniques, which makes the parent-child relationship a little easier, smoother, and better.
  • So that’s that: behavior as communication: learn to translate your child’s behaviors, identify potential unmet needs, and respond to those needs instead of the (symptomatic) behavior.

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.I snapped a picture of this quote on the wall at the Magellan International School the other day, and posted it on Facebook.  A week or so later, it had been shared by 68 people, and viewed by nearly 7000.  Obviously, this quote resonates for many of us.

One of the first things I tell most parents that I work with is that behavior is a communication, and that understanding the message in a child’s behavior is incredibly helpful for changing those behaviors.  To put it another way, something is behind or underneath unwanted behavior; triggering or motivating or strengthening it.  Those hidden drivers are usually unmet needs of some variety.  When parents can identify what those unmet needs are, they typically find that those underlying needs are needs they want to support.  In other words: the behaviors are unwanted, but the needs driving those behaviors are understandable!

Children who are acting in unloving ways are likely to themselves be feeling unloved, unwanted, not valuable, incapable, powerless, or hurt. (*) The response those children need isn’t greater control, or bigger punishments, they need understanding, compassion, and support for their growth.   LOVE.

How should a parent respond to these ‘unloving’ behaviors?  That’s a more complicated topic than this blog post can tackle, but here’s a little basic information.  A sustainable and effective response will include: staying calm and compassionate ourselves, not taking obnoxious (or even mean) behaviors personally, plenty of self-care for the parent/caregiver, working to understand the drivers of unwanted behaviors, identifying patterns and triggers, modifying the environment to prevent problem situations and support positive ones, and using circle-back conversations to provide information/support for learning, growing, and healing.

Can you spot the need for love in a child’s unloving behaviors today?  Stay tuned for next month’s article, which will share more details about how to do this.  (Or contact me!)

(*) And, it’s worth mentioning, physical states are deeply influential: hunger, thirst, tiredness, and overstimulation can all stimulate crummy behavior.

(**)  I googled for the origin of this quote.  I didn’t really find anything definitive, but one source said that it was the words of a teacher quoted by Russell Barkley (ADHD expert.)  Anyway, kudos to that teacher, whoever she may be.  :^)

Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?

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How to deal with a puberty-crazed teen

A reader asks:  “How do you deal with a tween or teen that you know is acting badly because of puberty mood-swings? For that matter, how do you even talk to a puberty-crazed teen? They usually don’t make any sense.”

So how do you deal with a puberty-crazed teen?  Very, very carefully.  ;^)  Well, I’m joking there, but it’s a good serious answer, too.  Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when thinking about or interacting with your teenager or pre-teen:

  1. Teenagers do NOT have a fully developed brain yet!  I’m specifically talking about the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has the best abilities to control impulses, make wise decisions, predict consequences/outcomes, etc.  You are NOT dealing with a little adult.  They may be big and smart, but their brains simply don’t have the abilities that yours do, yet. Try to remember, then, to be more patient and forgiving of their mistakes and missteps.
  2. Do more listening than talking.  It’s pretty common that we as parents talk too much, anyway.  There’s a famous saying about how we have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason…  Teens are sensitive to criticism and control, so saying 10% less than you usually would will likely make a significant difference to them.  You’ll still make your opinions known, of course, but just try to listen more than talk.
  3. When teens get upset, they need a parent who doesn’t get upset right along with them.  The more peaceful you are, the better things are going to turn out.
  4. Is your teen being rude to you?  Consider making your response be less about punishment, and more about how it makes you feel when they are rude.  “Honey, it hurts my feelings a little when you roll your eyes when I talk to you.”  It’s an honest response, and is supportive of the parent-child relationship.
  5. Sometimes taking a time-out allows both parent and child to physiologically calm down.  Just agree to disagree for a while, if you can, and take a break.  Go for a walk, drink a glass of water, call a friend for some empathy and support.  Come back to the discussion later, when both of you are more peaceful and see if that doesn’t help things go more smoothly.
  6. Take care of your body, and try to help your teens take care of theirs.  Sleep, sleep, and more sleep, plus healthy nutrition and daily exercise will all go a very long way towards moderating those crazy teen mood swings (and in helping you to deal with them better yourself.)

Finally, remember that the developmental job of a teenager is to gain independence, and the path they take to that independence is often full of mistakes, and executed in a messy way.  Try not to get distracted by the missteps, and instead focus on the healthy process of becoming more independent.  They won’t be crazy forever.  ;^)

10 ways to help your child develop a positive self-concept

A mom asked me on Facebook the other day for recommendations on how to foster a positive self-concept for her kids.  I thought it was such a great question that I’m sharing my answer here.  I ended up with a long list, but the good thing about that is that you will probably find some strategies that you are already doing, some that surprise you, and some that you’ll be excited to try.  So, in no particular order, here are 10 things parents can do to help their children to develop (or strengthen) a positive self-concept.

  1. The first place that children begin to form their self-concept is within the parent-child relationship.  Within that relationship, we teach children that they matter: their needs, opinions, experiences, feelings, and preferences are an important part of the family culture and decision-making.  Children aren’t the only voice in the family, but they need to know that they do have a voice.
  2. Let them have experiences that include: working really hard, succeeding, and failing.  All three things are a normal part of a healthy adult life, and for children to feel good about themselves, they need age-appropriate experiences of these things, too.
  3. Feel good about yourself, and let your words reflect this.  When you speak about your actions, your habits, your body, your brain, your hair, your clothes, your life—try to speak to and from your best self.  Of course, no one is perfect, which leads to:
  4. Acknowledge that you are not perfect.  We are ALL learning and growing, and we are healthiest when we can acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, and practice self-compassion.  (Self-compassion is critical to health, as mistakes are inevitable and frequent, in both childhood and adulthood.)
  5. Be careful how you word your judgments of others, especially your children.  Try to criticize actions, not the people who take those actions.  In other words, come from the perspective that for the most part, people do the best they can with what they have.  Having compassion for others makes it easier to have compassion for oneself.
  6. Give your children power and control over age-appropriate decisions.  Let them flex their muscles both literally and figuratively.
  7. Make sure your child gets enough good sleep, healthy foods, and exercise.  The mind cannot be healthy when the body is not.  (And make sure you do it for you, too, parents are usually deficient in this.)
  8. Assertiveness.  People feel better about themselves when they feel empowered—assertiveness skills are a key component of feeling empowered.  Teach good communication, and validate that your child has a right to ask for what they want!  (which also then leads to the useful learning opportunities of dealing with it when you don’t get what you wanted.)
  9. Give your children permission to have their feelings.  Even when feelings are uncomfortable, send the message that all feelings are okay.  (The expression of feelings is another matter, and another blog post.)
  10. Cultivate a sense of humor.  A sense of humor is another key component of resiliency—the ability to bounce back from problems, setbacks, frustrations, failures.

So there ya go!  10 ways to help a child’s growing positive self-concept.  What else would you add to this list?

If not punishment, then what?

I don’t spend much time advising parents on how to punish more effectively.  In fact, I tend to tell parents that I am not a big fan of punishment at all.  So, a parent rightfully asked me the other day: “Well then, if not punishment, what DO we do?

What a good question!  Most parents punish because they believe that’s how to get kids to behave appropriately.  (But actually research has proven that more punishments do NOT equal long-term improved behaviors, and can sometimes make things worse.)   So here are 3 things that help achieve the goal of cooperative, positive, appropriate behavior more effectively, while helping to maintain a positive and long-lasting parent-child relationship.

  1. Show kids what you DO want them to do, and support them, encourage them, catch them doing it, praise them.  Give them positive options!
  2. Change the child’s environment so that it supports positive behaviors.  Simple example: don’t keep the jar of cookies where your 3 year old can reach them.  More complex example: figure out how long of a playdate your kid can handle before falling apart.  Keep playdates within that time frame until you’re both ready to experiment with incremental increases.
  3. Figure out what’s behind the unwanted/negative behaviors.  Behavior is a communication, I like to say… what is your child’s behavior saying to you?  Hint: it’s usually something along the lines of: “I’m tired and over stimulated” or “I can’t handle this much freedom,” or “I really need more time with you/attention from you,” or “Something’s not right with me,” or  “I am not getting enough opportunities to feel powerful and in charge of my life.”  When parents understand what the child’s behavior is communicating, they can better meet the underlying need… which generally has a positive effect on the unwanted behavior!

There are many, many more ways of shaping behavior, but these are some favorites, especially the last one.  A little understanding goes a long way.   :^)

Q: Should my child be allowed to have a TV/computer in their room?

Question:  Should my child be allowed to have a TV/computer in their room?

Answer:
I advise against it.  Three thoughts regarding why: 

  1. It limits or reduces personal communication and interaction with family members.  Sometimes quality time is plain-ole quantity time!
  2. P*rnography on the internet.  Yes, you’ve got parental controls installed.  Yes, you don’t think your child knows about it/is interested in it yet.  And, I promise you that those things aren’t as secure of a safety net as you think they are.  Really.  I promise.  I’ve heard this story go wrong more times than you would think.  And it’s so unfortunate when it happens, because the internet really isn’t how you want your child to be educated about sex. 
  3. Missed teachable moments.  If your child sees, say, a “Wardrobe Malfunction” on TV in front of you and everyone else at your Superbowl party, you can talk to them about it later.  You can have a good conversation about nudity, privacy, and the like.  BUT.  If they see the same body part exposed while they are watching TV alone in their room, they won’t get the parenting, the guidance, the support, the understanding, or the values lesson they need to balance that experience. 

Follow up question:  But don’t we tell our child that we trust her?  Doesn’t it send a mixed message to say, “Yes we trust you but you have to use the laptop where we can see you?”

A:  There are many ways in which we trust our kids but still provide structure/limits/backup. Children absolutely live their lives in a ‘smaller’ world than the real world.  That way, when they make the inevitable mistakes, they don’t suffer big consequences.  You’re not sending a message that says you don’t trust your child, you’re sending a message that says you are her parent, and you will protect, guide, and support her as best you can, until she’s 18/21/30 years old and finally ready to leave the nest and take on the wide unfiltered world out there. 

3 Parenting Tips Worth Repeating

 

Who has time to read an entire parenting book these days?  It’s amazing how much time & energy it takes to chew through a 350 page epic on how you “should” parent.  Even the really good books are tough to get through.  It’s made me particularly appreciative of brevity, so to that end here are just 3 thoughts/comments that I frequently say in my role as a parent coach & therapist.  It’s a little like a 15 minute parent coaching session, or a super, super condensed parenting book.  ;^)

  1. It’s our job as parents to help prepare our kids for the real world.  We parents typically want to protect our kids from the evils and heartbreaks that exist out there.  That’s normal and healthy and generally encouraged.  But.  Our other very important job is to help our children acquire the skills, habits, resources, and strength to be able to handle the problems of the world on their own.  We can’t protect them forever, so we’d better equip them.  Start now. 
  2. Kids intuitively know that they are half-mom and half-dad.   When kids hear/see/perceive criticism from one parent to another, they internalize it and file it away under “things about MYSELF that
    aren’t good.”  While I say this one more to parents who are divorcing, it’s also true for married parents.  Every couple has conflict (it’s healthy, actually) but the way we handle that conflict is
    so important.
  3.  The single best way to get your kid to change is to let them see you changing.  I say this one so often that I joke I’m going to embroider it on a pillow one day.  But it speaks to the power of
    role modeling, the power of acknowledging that-even though we’re the parent-we’re still not perfect, and it also sends the message that in your family’s home-everyone is committed to growing.  Such a powerful and positive message!

“Raising Cain”, the prefrontal cortex, and pretend violence…

I was recently watching a wonderful PBS documentary based on the book “Raising Cain,” and was struck by a particular comment.  The narrator quotes current brain research that finds that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls impulse control, isn’t fully developed at age 18.  (More on the pre-frontal cortex here.)

This is such a good message for us to remember.  Since most parents DO have the skills & abilities for planning/social appropriateness/impulse control –we tend to forget that we haven’t always had those abilities.  Our kids–even our older teens–really aren’t quite adults yet, despite what they’d probably prefer us to believe.  All the more reason to support them with safe learning environments. 

Another one of his messages, repeated multiple times, is that “Play-acting violence is not the same as real violence, and when we treat them the same, we lose credibility with our kids.”  Such good food for thought.  By the way… the documentary is a little less than 2 hours long, and highly recommended.