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.
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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. ;^)
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Safety. Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all. It is absolutely essential.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- Give your children power and control over age-appropriate decisions. Let them flex their muscles both literally and figuratively.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?
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.
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.