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Last summer, my son went to a summer school for a few hours a day.
After school we used to do a fun activity together, and he was very happy to spend time with me, so our afternoons were filled with joy and playfulness.
But then, out of a sudden, something changed.
The boy who would come home with a big smile on his face turned into an angry child who would find a reason every day to get mad at me and do something that he knew was wrong.
Our afternoons turned into an endless cycle of power struggles, and no matter what I did, nothing seemed to work.
I felt helpless and frustrated, and I just wanted things to go back to normal so we could enjoy our time together like we used to do.
But I realized that this wouldn’t happen unless I discover what is really bothering him. I knew that his behavior was caused by all the emotions he couldn’t express in a better way, so I needed to help him deal with those feelings.
So one day, after he came home from school, I tried a different approach.
Instead of engaging in power struggles or trying to put an end to his behavior, I focused on connecting with him and making him feel safe.
I wanted him to know that he can let go of all those strong emotions that made him act out.
I wanted him to know that I’m there to help him, and that he can share all his feelings with me.
And I wanted him to know that no matter what he’s going through, we can find a solution together.
That evening, when he got angry, I stopped trying to show him I’m right in every argument he started. I stayed calm and empathetic, and I kept telling him that I’m there to help. I stayed close to him and told him how much I care about how he feels.
My behavior had a great impact on him.
After an intense half an hour when he kept acting out, his anger wasn’t so strong anymore. He stopped pushing me away, and he sat next to me on the couch.
“You don’t understand!”, he yelled.
“I want to understand. I’m here for you.”, I replied as I got a little bit closer to him.
“I don’t want to talk to you!”, he said, but I could tell from his voice that he was about to cry.
“Then I’ll just stay here with you”, I answered and put my arms around him.
As I was hugging him, I felt how the tension in his body slowly disappears. Tears started rolling down his face, and he hugged me back.
We stayed like that for a while, then he started opening up to me. We had a long conversation that evening, and it was the beginning of a positive change in his behavior.
I finally understood what was causing his behavior, and this made a huge difference! Focusing on the real reason behind the behavior allowed me to help him manage his feelings better and stop acting out.
In just a few days, everything got back to normal. And I felt like our relationship grew even closer because we overcame this difficult time together.
This experience reminded me once again that discovering the reason behind a child’s behavior is much more helpful than just addressing the behavior.
So every time I struggle with my son’s behavior, I take a step back and try to find out what hides behind it. And today I want to share with you everything I learned along the way!
Why discovering the reason behind the behavior is so important
The “traditional” approach to parenting teaches us to look at our children’s negative behavior as something that we need to control and correct because otherwise, we risk raising “bad kids” who will never listen to us.
One of the most fundamental changes that positive parenting brings to parents is a change in the way we see our children’s behavior and react to it.
Kids don’t misbehave because they want to give us a hard time. Acting out is children’s way to ask for help and connection because their brains are not developed enough to allow them to manage strong feelings or stressful situations.
I know that many times, in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to see things this way. It’s not easy to deal with a child who screams, hits, acts disrespectfully, or doesn’t listen to you and remain calm and empathetic.
But the way you perceive your child’s behavior can have a big impact on your ability to offer support and guidance instead of getting overwhelmed and frustrated.
When it comes to dealing with your child’s behavior, here is the most important thing to keep in mind: Behavior is communication.
Children are not able to easily put their feelings and struggles into words. But their behavior is a reflection of what’s happening inside them. The secret to handling negative behavior is being able to see what hides behind the behavior.
In most cases, the behavior is just the tip of the iceberg.
Every behavior we see hides a deeper reason. Sometimes we can easily guess what is going on, other times we need some time to figure it out.
An important perspective shift for dealing with a misbehaving child
As parents, we sometimes get so caught up in trying to find ways to stop the unwanted behavior that we forget to look for the real reason that is causing it.
This only generates more frustration because no strategy will really work if we don’t address the root of the behavior. Instead, our attempts to stop the behavior can lead to more difficult moments and power struggles because the child will not feel heard and understood.
The only strategy that can really put an end to an unwanted behavior is focusing on the reason behind the behavior and finding ways to offer your child more support and guidance in managing that struggle.
This perspective shift makes it easier for us to be empathetic a misbehaving child, and see unwanted behavior as an opportunity to teach them how to make better choices.
To help you put this into practice, I want to invite you to try an easy exercise: Write down a negative behavior that you find difficult to handle with your kids.
Then take some time to dig deeper and see what might cause it. Use the questions below to help you identify possible causes.
Then, for the next week, every time your child displays that behavior, remind yourself to focus on the cause instead of just reacting to the behavior.
10 questions to ask yourself when trying to discover the real reason behind your child’s behavior
1. Is the child getting enough rest?
(e.g., bedtime struggles can be caused by starting the bedtime routine too late when the child is already tired and less willing to cooperate)
2. Does your child feel connected to you?
(The lack of connection is the cause of many unwanted behaviors. If you suspect that this is the case with your child, try to make connection a priority to help your child improve their behavior.)
3. Does your child receive enough positive attention from your side?
(This helps kids feel safe and makes it easier for them to share their feelings with you instead of engaging in negative behaviors.)
4. Are you allowing your child to have enough control over their life (in an age-appropriate way)?
(Many times power struggles appear when kids feel powerless and need more autonomy and control over their lives.)
5. Does your child have the skills necessary to improve their behavior?
(e.g., Kids who often have angry outbursts need the parent’s support to discover the calming strategies that work for them and learn how to put them into practice.)
6. Are there any particular situations or moments of the day that trigger the negative behavior?
(If so, check if the child’s needs are met in those moments. Also, see if you could create routines to make things easier to handle for your child.)
7. Is your child dealing with strong feelings and needs more support in managing them?
(When young kids experience fear, frustration, anger, anxiety or other intense emotions, they need guidance and support to learn how to overcome them. If they don’t get enough support, they get overwhelmed and act out more often.)
8. Are there any recent changes in the child’s life?
(this includes important life events – like welcoming a new baby in the family, starting school, moving to a new house, but also small events that might not seem important to you but might have affected your child – like having a new teacher at school or fighting with a friend)
9. Is there anything in your behavior or emotional state that could impact the child’s behavior?
(When the parent struggles with being patient and calm or deals with personal issues or emotional challenges, this can reflect in the child’s behavior in a negative way.)
10. Are your rules and expectations reasonable and age-appropriate?
(If not, kids might feel overwhelmed and frustrated because they are not developmentally ready to fulfill your requests.)
Use these questions as an inspiration for filling in the possible reasons behind the three behaviors you wrote down before. Then, create a short action plan for addressing the reason behind the behavior and helping your child behave better.
Download the list and use it anytime you want to find the reason behind your child’s behavior
Keeping this list of questions at hand will help you manage your child’s behavior better anytime you go through a difficult time in your parenting journey.
This is why I created a printable version of the list that you can download using the form below.
More parenting tips
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