Faced with Unwanted Behavior? Ask, “What Does it Mean? Not, “What Do I Do?
Children of all ages demonstrate unwanted behaviors. They don’t always do what good-hearted parents wish. Babies cry after they’ve been fed, changed, stimulated and hugged. Toddlers make messes after you’ve just cleaned up. Two- and Three-Year-Olds thrive on saying, “No.”
And so it progresses as children, tweens, and teens don’t follow rules you carefully lay out on their behalf. What’s a parent to do?
You lay out your expectations, set routines, and give all the love you have in your heart. But kids still misbehave. Why? What’s it all about anyway?
Three Big Questions to Ask Using Parental Intelligence when Kids Demonstrate Unwanted Behavior
2. What Does Behavior Mean?
3. How Do I Understand My Child’s Mind?
There seems to be a common parenting belief that unwanted behavior must have immediate consequences. It’s counterintuitive to not act instantaneously when your child is disobedient. Discipline and punishment are considered the cornerstones of parenting. But how do you punish what you don’t understand?
How Unwanted Behavior Can Show Positive Emotional Development
It’s also counterintuitive to consider that unwanted behavior can be positive; that behavior can guide parents. But if behavior is understood, if we know what it’s about, that’s precisely what you may learn.
You ask, “Why does my three-year-old love saying, “No” when I ask him to put his toy in the bin?” With the answer you make a discovery about his growing development. He says, “No” not because he doesn’t want to listen to you, but because he’s exercising his newfound autonomy.
If you tell him to stand in the corner until he listens, he feels defeated and maybe even scared depending on your tone of voice. But if you realize it’s about feeling independent, a positive developmental step, you might say, “Okay. Put it in the bin when you want to.”
Presto! He puts it in the bin. If you thought his misbehavior was about not learning to listen or cleaning up, you would have been incorrect. Oops! He just wants to show you he can think for himself. He feels proud that he puts his toys away.
Unwanted Behavior is a Catalyst to Change
Your teenager starts slamming doors. You might take away her technology for the weekend for not having regard for others. However, she just hides away in her room frustrated and angry because she doesn’t feel understood. After the punishment, the doors are slammed again. What’s going on?
Punishment is making things worse because now your teen isn’t even talking to you. You start to notice that the doors slam when you and your spouse are arguing. It dawns on you there may be a link between the parental ruckus and the door slamming.
One quiet evening, you mention to your daughter that she seems to slam her door when you and your spouse argue. She says bluntly, “Are you getting a divorce?”The whole picture changes. She was scared that her life would change. While the arguments were going on, she didn’t have the courage to speak up and express herself except by the action of slamming the door and hiding in her room by herself.
Now that you understand, you have an open discussion about whether the arguing was something she needed to worry about or not. Slamming the door actually was a catalyst for talking together.
She doesn’t have to know what her parents are arguing about if it’s not in her best interest, but now she knows she can tell her parents how it is affecting her. This paves the way for future discussions and a stronger parent-child relationship.
Key Elements of Parental Intelligence
• Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior
• Understanding What is on Your Child’s Mind.
Once the meaning of behavior is understood, you know your child’s thoughts and feelings, underlying problems surface, resolutions follow, and parents and children grow together.
Four Tips for Using Parental Intelligence when Faced with Puzzling Behavior
1. Step Back before you take any action when your child misbehaves. This means refraining from immediate consequences and punishment until you understand the puzzling behavior. Don’t judge or make assumptions about the behavior. Stay calm and your child will see you trying to refrain from reacting too quickly and will calm down, too.
2. Speak in Quiet Tones when you see unwanted behavior especially if your child is screaming or raising his voice. When you speak in quiet tones, your child has to strain to hear you. This will calm him down and get his attention.
3. Contain Your Gestures when you see disturbing behavior. If your child, for example, is jumping up and down in distress, waving her arms, lying on the floor or other disorganized movements your more restrained gestures and gentle movements will provide the safety and security needed during those moments.
4. Be Respectful of Your Child when she is in distress emotionally. This means avoid yelling or speaking to your child in ways you wouldn’t want to be spoken to. Sometimes children say things that hurt their parents’ feelings and it’s tempting to strike back and regret it later. Monitor your choice of words so you stay in the position of the older generation who is able to sustain a barrage of comments from a child who is out of control or scared. Then your child feels safer and calms down because he knows he’s with a trusted adult who loves him.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent and adult psychotherapy. Her new book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius.com, and wherever books are sold. Dr. Hollman has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research, among others. She has written extensively on parenting for various publications, including the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation, The Inner World of the Mother, Newsday’s Parents & Children Magazine, Long Island Parent, and her popular column, PARENTAL INTELLIGENCE, at Moms Magazine. She also writes blogs for Huffington Post.