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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.

Feel, Felt, Found

A mom recently shared with me a handy mnemonic that reminds you what to do when your child is having a strong emotional reaction. The process comes from the same philosophies that I follow and teach, but improves upon them by being simple and easy to remember!

We know the most important thing to do when our child is upset is to keep or regain our own peacefulness, but once you’ve done that, how best to respond to your child? The easy-to-remember hint: Feel, felt, found.

Feel” reminds us to begin by reflecting: say out loud what you see, with empathy and warm, non-verbal body language that tells your child that you see and understand what they are feeling. It might sound like:

• “I can tell that you are feeling upset.”
• “Oh, gosh, I can really see that you are feeling angry about this.”
• “Whew, that really scared you, didn’t it!”

Felt” represents your opportunity to relate to your child in this emotional and sensitive moment, and to let them know you relate to them and what they are experiencing. The sensation of being ‘felt’ and heard and understood is one of the best feelings there is, so be sure to really be present and connected in this. It might sound like:

• “I have felt the same way.”
• “I feel upset when I can’t have my way sometimes, too!”
• “Once, I had to do that too, and I remember it felt really scary.”

Found” finally brings the moment that parents so often yearn for–the opportunity to share your experience and wisdom with your child–your chance to teach, to guide, to educate! It might sound like:

• “Can I share what I’ve found that helps me deal with this?” (I love for parents to ask for permission to give advice.)
• “I’ve found that xyz really makes me feel better.”
• “I’ve found that xyz makes the problems seem smaller/happen less frequently.”

An important part of healthy relationships is the sense that the other person respects your subjective experience–responding with ‘feel’ and ‘felt’ in those difficult moments is an effective way to assure that you are doing that for your child. Thanks, smart Mama who shared—this handy, simple, way to remember this is a help for us all!

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.  :^)

Wallow with them!

It's a Tough Life for a Pig
I love the word wallow.  It’s fun to say, plus it reminds me of two totally separate things: self-pity, and pigs in mud.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase used without one of those two things attached!

Except, I often use the phrase at work in a way that is counter to its usual definition and negative connotation.

Something that we parents don’t generally do often or well is to connect with our children when they are having upset or uncomfortable emotions.  Instead, we try to distract or minimize or rationalize or joke or extinguish those emotions.  We do it for many different reasons, perhaps because the expression is ill-timed or inappropriate in size, or because their upset is about us and we feel defensive, or because it’s about something we can’t control and we feel helpless.  But for whatever reason, we often entirely skip the step where we reflect and validate our children’s emotions.  Emotionally healthy parenting requires that we give our children permission to feel their feelings, even tough feelings.  Furthermore, our children need to feel connected to us even when they are feeling angry or resentful or worried or freaked out.  (*)

So I use the word wallow.  I don’t actually want parents to wallow in their children’s emotional states, but because we tend to err on the side of minimizing those emotions, I use a word that guides us towards the other side of the continuum.

When your child is upset or angry or worried, take a deep breath.  Mentally remind yourself that you want them to know that they have your permission to feel those feelings.  (This will help them internalize, for life, the important lesson that they have a right to their feelings.)  Reflect to your child that you see how they are feeling.  That can be done simply by saying something like: “wow, I can tell you are really feeling ___ .”   Take it a step further (and borrow a page from Imago couples therapists) and validate their feelings: “It makes sense to me that you would feel upset about that.  If I were in your position, I’d probably feel the same way.”

And then maybe take another deep breath.  Let a little space come in to the room and in to your interaction.  This is where the ‘wallowing’ happens.  Just stay in that space for a moment: stay in the space of having given your child permission to feel those feelings.  Let your child soak that in.  Don’t rush too quickly to distract or redirect.  Offering a hug, caring eye contact, or a loving touch might feel good to them right now.  This all serves to help them feel less agitated, less out of control, less overwhelmed by those feelings, and often has the very appealing effect of reducing the upset.  When your child has felt “heard” and even validated, it will be much easier to get them to ‘hear’ you and your perspective.

Important note: saying “I can tell that you feel mad that I am making you unload the dishwasher, and it makes perfect sense to me that you would really rather play than do chores” does NOT mean that my daughter can go back to playing and skip the chore.  The limits/requests/expectations remain the same.  All that’s different is that I am giving her permission to feel whatever she feels about those expectations.  But, it’s an amazing, healthy, effective, loving difference.  And, by the way, one of the long term payoffs is a much higher-quality relationship when your child is an adult.

Experiment with it if you are so inclined: see if you can find a place this week to give your child permission to feel their upset, angry, jealous, agitated, or anxious feelings.  See what happens and how it feels to both you and your child.  Good things can happen!

(*) I can’t find a citation for it, but I was taught once that the Talaris Institute studied this and found that responding in an emotionally responsive/healthy way just 30% of the time is enough to get the benefit.  Yay for not needing to be perfect!

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.  ;^)

You say you want a revolution…

When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change.  Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow.  That desired change?—it begins in the brain.

Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better.  Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life.  This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears.  Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.

Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough.  I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture.  It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
  2. Good nutrition.  You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better.  Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
  3. Physical activity.  Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity.  Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
  4. Novelty.  Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness.  But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change.  So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation.  It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
  5. Focus of attention.  What are you paying attention to?  Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain.  More energy and information=more growth.
  6. Safety.  Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all.  It is absolutely essential.
  7. Mindful awareness.  This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting.  I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode.   Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show.  Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.

If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list.  The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.

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?

When should we tell the kids that we are getting a divorce?

Once parents are certain that they are separating or getting a divorce, they begin to think through when/what/how they should tell their children.  Regarding WHEN to tell children about a divorce or separation, here are some tips.

A few concrete suggestions:

  • Avoid major holidays and birthdays, etc.
  • Consider the child’s school or extracurricular schedule (major tests or events, etc.)
  • Don’t tell them right before bed/school/playdate.  Plan to have plenty of free, unscheduled time after you tell them in case they need a break or to be alone or whatever reaction they have.  (If they need to be distracted after the conversation, that can be done impromptu.)
  • Think about your own energy level and make sure to schedule this conversation at a time when you aren’t tired or stressed or otherwise taxed.
  • Try to tell them enough in advance that they will continue to see you and your spouse co-parenting and running the house as you always have just a little longer.  The idea is to show the kids that while the marriage is ending, the co-parenting and cooperative, cordial adult relationship is not ending.

But my most important piece of guidance about scheduling this conversation:

There is no “perfect time” for this conversation.  Of course, as a loving parent you are trying to manage every detail in order to minimize their upset feelings, but even with all that they will still have those feelings.  If they are going to feel agony, they will feel agony no matter what day you tell them.  And, you want them to feel 110% permission to feel their feelings about this very big change, so the best thing I can tell you might be to just worry a little less about the scheduling and instead do what you can to be prepared to listen and watch and breathe and love them whenever you do tell them.

Video: How to talk with young children about death

As part of my work with SWParents.org, we produced a video for parents on how to talk to your kids about death.  I also share a few basic tips for understanding and responding to the various ways that children can express grief.  Please take a look if you think this topic might be helpful to you or a loved one.  Non-members can watch up to 10 videos or read 10 articles per month for free.  The link below will take you directly to the video.

See the video here.

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