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. :^)
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!
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?
Parents of young children often share their concerns with me that their kids say things to them like “I hate you” or “You’re the worst mom in the world,” or even the milder but still related: “I’m not going to do that!” It’s these “strong statements” that often leave parents feeling guilty or worried or challenged by seeming defiance.
Here’s the problem–adults mostly* communicate through the spoken word. Generally, when I tell someone: “I’m not going to do that,” I’m not going to do that thing! If an adult saw fit to say “I hate you,” they would probably be describing the feelings they had towards the other. “You’re the worst ____ in the world” would be an evaluative comment that reflected our assessment of their quality! Therefore, when our children use the spoken word with us, we tend to take their comments literally.
So this is where I encourage parents to try to look behind the literal meaning of their child’s words. “I hate you” might be your child’s (imperfect) way of expressing their frustration with the limit you just set. “You’re the worst mom in the world” could be an expression of their disappointment over not getting something they really wanted. “I’m not going to do that” can just mean “I really, really don’t want to and you’ll have to help me.”
If you can look behind your child’s strong statements, you’ve already won half the battle, because you won’t react to those strong statements. (HUGE!!)
(stay tuned, because my next post is a followup to this one–where I explain how I encourage parents to ‘take it up a notch’ once they have this down.)
* Note: Okay, actually, honestly– even grownups don’t say what we mean all the time. We often say “I hate that” when we really mean that it annoys us or we’re tired of it, and “I’m not going to do that means “I’m unlikely to do that unless you sweeten the pot or unless I change my mind or or or…” etc etc. But oddly we grownups still take each other at our words–it would behoove us to think about where the other adult (!) is coming from more often, too. Remember the phrase “It’s not about you”?
Parenting is really hard work. Some days are harder than others, and
everybody loses their temper sometimes. The parents I work with
acknowledge this truth, but also want to grow and change. They want to
lose their tempers less frequently, and when they do succumb-they want
the overall experience to be yet further muted. So how to stay calm is
an important, and common topic in my office-especially for those
parents who didn’t have role-models for calmness in their own
Today’s post is taken with permission from the newsletter of
Celebrate Calm, written by Kirk Martin. Kirk is a father who has
created a program to help families, schools, and churches better
respond to kids with ADHD. Here’s what he says about how to keep the
calm in your home:
Control yourself. Realize that we cannot control our
kids, nor should we want to. Our primary job as parents is to control
ourselves and model proper behavior. How many of us throw our adult
tantrums when something goes wrong, then expect our children to remain
Make a conscious choice to remain calm no matter what your child or
spouse does. Screaming, or withdrawing emotionally, only makes the
situation worse. When we are calm, we can problem solve instead of
creating more problems.
Have self-respect. We are not responsible for our children’s
behavior, attitudes and actions. If my son is in a bad mood, so be it.
I choose not to give in to or join his pity party. If your child comes
into the kitchen barking orders and being rude, you are not obligated
to respond. Walk away calmly, go about your business and let your child
know when he’s ready to talk and be polite, you’ll help him with
If my son refuses to do his homework, then he will suffer the
consequences at school. Our children need to learn that they are
responsible for their choices and I am responsible for mine.
Assume a calm posture. Each time I enter my teenage son’s room, I
ask myself, “Do I want to have a conversation or a confrontation?”
Instead of standing in his doorway barking orders, I sit down and put
my feet up on the ottoman. It is impossible to yell and lecture when
you assume a calm posture.
Take care of yourself first before trying to take care of others.
Exercise, walk your dog, pray, listen to music, whatever helps you be
calm. Make a decision that no matter what your child or spouse does,
you are only responsible for your actions. This liberates parents and
frees children to be responsible for their choices.
Be the calm. When your home is spinning out of control, draw others
into your calm by sitting down and coloring or reading a book. Let
everyone else know that you are in control. You’ll be surprised at how
your children (and spouse!) begin to calm down once you do.
I absolutely love the image of the father sitting down in a chair,
feet up, to have a conversation with his son. The tone and likely
outcome of the conversation will be so much better as a result of the
father’s proactive choices. And actually, this trick would be useful in
many different relationships-spouses included. Another trick in the
same category is to purposefully slow your physical movements-a lot.
This is especially true when parenting toddlers, as they absorb our
energy directly. If, for example, your toddler is misbehaving and you
need to pick her up-try doing it in slow-motion. It’s likely that she
will (a) not get even more wild in response to your response…, and (b)
hopefully absorb some calm, quiet energy instead.
One final thought of my own… while all of the above suggestions are
good, I suggest working on taking care of yourself first. When self
care is lacking, everything else is harder to handle. It’s almost
impossible, for example, to stick with a conscious choice to stay calm
if you’re stressed, hungry, and tired to begin with. So, getting
yourself back up to the ‘baseline’ is first, and then you can tackle
the other steps.