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!
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.
- Show kids what you DO want them to do, and support them, encourage them, catch them doing it, praise them. Give them positive options!
- 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.
- 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. :^)
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!
experience? Your child does some bad thing, in public or in front
of relatives of course, and someone gives you the “evil eye” and says
“Aren’t you going to do something about that? Are you going to just
let her/him get away with it?!”
Aside from the judging,
unhelpful nature of the comment, what’s interesting about that to me is
that it highlights what I call an “old paradigm” of parenting. The
best way to shape a child’s behavior doesn’t happen after they’ve done
something WRONG–it happens before & after they do something RIGHT.
We the parents truly need to plan ahead, identify the positive
behaviors we want to see more of, and work consistently to support, recognize
& reward our kids when they show us THOSE behaviors–not the bad
The ideas above, although not new, are newly presented
in my current favorite parenting book. At this point it would make
sense to tell you the name of the book, but I’m not, because I think
the book title is misleading. It should have been named “Parenting
101” or “What Every Parent Needs to Know About Shaping Behavior”, or “What
Science Tells Us about Parenting” (since the book’s methods are proven
to work, based on results from many, many different studies by many
different professional researchers.)
But alas, they didn’t ask
my opinion about the name, so I’ve just had to make up my own:
“Behavior 201 for Parents”. Anyway, I’m currently leading a book group
on it, and plan to start another one in April. If you’re
interested in joining the book group, stay tuned, I’ll send out more
(PS. Follow the link if you want more info on the book, or to know its real title.) ;^)
As an MSSW first-year intern, I worked at a residential treatment facility for teenage male sex offenders. I didn’t ask for that job, and it was really-really challenging, but I definitely learned an enormous amount there. This is one of my favorite stories from that time.
I worked with a psychiatrist who was a super smart guy. He was completely dedicated to the kids, but not terribly patient with the interns. One day I made the mistake of complaining to him. One of the kids had just interacted with me in a sexually inappropriate way, and I was feeling gross and uncomfortable and just icky all over. I tried to evaluate the interaction in a professional, clinical way, but mostly just came up with the conclusion that the kid was “wrong” and not working his treatment program appropriately. So when I ran into the psychiatrist, I described the kid’s behavior, probably in such a way that I highlighted how “bad” and resistant to treatment the kid was. (“Bad kid, bad!”)
The Dr looked at me, and immediately said: “Good for him!”
Oh my goodness. I was just a wee bit offended and righteous. But, thankfully the doctor didn’t care, and his desire to educate me prevailed. Here’s what he taught me that day:
We really must view a child’s behavior as communication, and communication is good. That doctor wanted me to be able to recognize that a child in a treatment center for a sexual offense, who hits on a staff member, is sending a message loud and clear. And the doctor wanted me to get the correct message. The message wasn’t: “I’m a bad kid.” Rather, the message I needed to get was: “I’m not done learning and growing. I need more help with healthy relationships.” (*)
To be clear: I’m not saying that the behavior itself is good-or even okay. Rather, I’m saying that if we look at it as a communication, then we can find the good behind the behavior. There IS good behind the behavior, and our kids NEED us to choose this perspective. So, we can look at the kid as though they are intrinsically “good,” and that their “bad” behavior is a communication of need. Compare this with assuming that a “bad” behavior is a reflection of a “bad” child. Which of these perspectives will allow us to be more loving and helpful to the child as they grow? Which perspective discourages growth?!
Our kids need us to look behind their behavior. They need us to assume the best, and help them grow and learn.
So, parents, when could you say “Good for him/her!” about your child?
(*) It’s also possible that the child’s message included either (a) “Are you safe? Can I trust that you won’t be unhealthy with me even if I try to be unhealthy with you?” or (b) “I know that you are safe, and that’s why I can trust you with this communication-that I am still not safe.”