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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.  :^)

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: When should a parent seek professional help?

When our kids are sick and we don’t know what’s wrong or how to deal with it, we usually go to the doctor. We don’t feel conflicted about seeking that professional’s help, and we don’t wait until things are so bad that our child is comatose. But for some reason, with behavioral/emotional/relationship challenges, people can be reluctant to seek help, often waiting until the problems worsen and get cemented in place. John Gottman says that, on average, couples wait 7 years before they seek the help they need. I think that parents do better, and seek help much sooner, but it is so important to remember that therapy can be supportive at any stage, and can help improve relationships by resolving minor challenges before they become a major problem.

When a child has behavior problems, parents come in to my office, and say that they worry that “x” behavior might be a sign of something very serious. I understand that fear, I really do (I’m a parent, too.) But, it’s not just when something’s terribly wrong that we can get help from a professional. Even when “everything’s fine,” it’s possible for a professional to help parents identify and improve the small hangups in their daily life.  A skillful child & family therapist can help parents tweak a particular area, and–via the magic of the parenting relationship–even if the parents had little to do with creating the problem, they can still be largely responsible for fixing the problem.

So what is a small area of your daily life that you’d love to see get better? Bedtime? Transitions? The dinner table? A difference of opinion between you & your spouse about how to handle something? Homework? Mornings? Chores? I encourage you to seek out a supportive, non-judgmental therapist who specializes in kids/families/parenting. Please feel free to email or call me if I might be of help!