What’s Going On?! Understanding and Responding to Your Child’s Behaviors

2017-07-13T00:40:33+00:00 May 25th, 2017|

Parenting is really, really, tough! Becoming a parent is a lot like starting to do CrossFit – you hear such great things about it, everyone seems to be doing it, and after you start your body hurts in ways you never imagined possible. Being a parent pulls on every insecurity you have and shoves it back in your face daily while having to make dinner at the same time. Parenting is complex, amazing, heartwarming, fascinating, incredibly difficult, fun, and not so fun all at the same time. So, if you’re feeling lost or like you just cannot get your head above water, you’re in good company; I think we all do at times. The purpose of this article is to help you develop a figurative compass and raft. While it’s not possible to completely prevent feeling like you are treading water, we can build a raft to support you and a compass to help you find your way home. To accomplish this I’ll talk about a few ideas that have helped me.

Children are Amazing Communicators; We Just Need to Decipher Their Language:

To help with this we need to have two assumptions: 1) all behavior is meaningful and 2) there can be multiple truths. What does that mean? Well, if a person came into an emergency room after a car crash the doctors would presumably look for external and internal injuries. The same type of examination is needed for responding to a child’s behavior. On the exterior (surface level) behaviors can be in response to any number of triggers AND it also represents some internal (emotional) hurt that has occurred. The “internal hurt” is all the difficult emotions children experience as a part of growing up that they need help processing.

As parents, we need to help our children heal on both levels. We need to look for the internal hurt. When we do this it’s as if we are communicating to them, “Hey, I know you’re experiencing big emotions that are hard to understand, I’m here to help. I got this, and we’re going to figure this out together.” Imagine a boss or co-worker saying this to you during a difficult moment. How would you feel? Supported? Cared about? Understood? Probably all the above. When we explore, find, and heal our children’s internal hurt, WE are communicating all those messages to our children. It’s those messages, repeated over and over again, that help our children gain the skills to process and regulate their emotions as adults. Essentially, we model how to regulate emotions in a kind and safe manner and, over time, they internalize our modeling as their own. YOU are the best, and most influential, intervention for your child.

If you’re wondering why challenging behaviors appear as the result of internal hurting, think of the behavior as a signal indicating the internal hurt is occurring. It is hard for children to recognize difficult emotions and verbally ask adults for help. They will often use their behaviors as a way of saying, “Hey, I’m experiencing some really big emotions now that I don’t know how to process on my own can you help me feel more in control?” Locating and understanding your child’s internal hurt will help you provide more accurate and pointed support and advice.

Timing is Important and Time is on Your Side:

Attend to your child first; respond to the external injuries before looking for the internal hurt. If Johnny is throwing a tantrum and crying because his sibling got a red cup and he did not, first help him calm down and make safe choices. Once he is calm, look for the internal hurt and see what you find. He may say he felt sad and left out that his cup was different from his sibling’s cups. Armed with that knowledge, you can help your child process those feelings in a safe and kind manner: “I’m sorry you felt sad and left out; you’re such an important part of our family! For dinner I’ll make sure to ask you which color cup you want, how does that sound?”

As parents we need to remember to be kind to ourselves. There will be times when you do not handle situations to the best of your ability and may make decisions that you regret in hindsight. That’s ok. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and time to reflect and refuel. Time is on your side. Coming back to your child after you both have calmed down, and re-connecting with him or her after difficult moments, IS GREAT parenting. Think about what that models for your child – the importance of reflection, how to move forward after making mistakes, kindness, love, strength and lots more. Even if you fall off your raft, know that it has not gone far and is waiting to support you.

We’re Playing the Long Game with Our Children:

It takes time to develop into a well-functioning adult – like 25-30 years. This helps me put behaviors into perspective. If my son is 26 and yelling out for “Momma” every night while lying in bed down the hall, that is something to be concerned about. If this is happening at age 3 – after his brother joined our family 9 months earlier – it is less concerning AND something to work on. Keeping this in mind helps me to not judge my “success” as a parent on one behavior or action. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every other parent has it “figured out.” It can be easily believed that everyone else can get their kids to bed at a reasonable time to have a relaxing evening on the couch drinking wine and watching their shows. In reality, I’ve learned every parent has struggled at some point and there is a reason streaming shows on your own schedule is so popular. Find the successes in what you’re doing and be proud of them. I couldn’t think of a greater message to teach, pass on, and model for our children.

Parenting is tough and you’re not alone. Knowing that my children’s behaviors are meaningful provides me support when my head feels under water. In an odd way, it is reassuring to know that even when things are at their worst my children are still reaching out for and communicating with me. When I’m back on my raft I use finding and healing the internal hurt as my compass to guide me towards understanding my child. As parents, I don’t think we can go wrong by helping our children feel seen, heard, and understood. When you’re struggling and asking yourself, “What is going on? Why is my child acting like this?” Remember to pause and consider the different feelings your child’s actions might be communicating and try to respond calmly to the situation and internal hurt. Let these ideas be your raft to help support you during difficult times. It’s not about “getting it right,” but rather using your raft and compass to help navigate stormy weather.