Here are some tips on how to better understand your child’s good behavior and less-than-great moments.
Whether they’ve drawn on the walls or spat in grandpa’s face, acting out is always a symptom among children—not the problem itself. “Acting out” literally comes from “acting out their feelings,” which means when children can’t express their needs and emotions in healthy ways, they will act them out through displeasing behavior. Here are some tips on how to better understand those feelings and get on track to good behavior.
The key to understanding “acting out” is to see it as a communication driven by an unmet need.
Just as a puppy doesn’t purposely provoke us by chewing up the couch, our children’s behaviors come as much more natural expressions of their internal states.
It’s so easy to jump to judgments like “he’s just pushing my buttons” or “she’s doing it on purpose.” But we’d be wise to remember that when children can cooperate, they generally prefer to. Here are some reasons that might really be at the root of the challenging behaviors—and some ideas of how to respond to them.
4. They’re worried about something
If your child is harboring a concern about an upcoming transition—such as moving houses, a new baby on the way, a new school, a new job, a new babysitter ora sick grandparent—they likely will not have the words to express that in a healthy way. Rather, they’ll begin to refuse the meals you prepare, to hurt other children or to breakdown in tantrums at Every. Little. Thing.
This is their way of trying to gain some control over their lives. When you have an inkling as to what the worry is, pick a calm and connected moment, such as bedtime or a long drive, and address it head on. Be sure to be honest, but also optimistic and empowering. Don’tt dismiss their worries, but help talk abouth what might happen and what they can do about it.
Teach your child to express their anger through words, songs, painting… We love to sing the mad song (below) and eventually break into giggles. The healing comes when the angry feelings are expressed and allowed by you—even if the behavior is not.
What to say: “Yikes. I know you know that cushions are not for drawing on. And I can see from your face how mad you are right now! Being mad is just fine, but ruining our furniture is not. Would you like to stamp your feet and sing a mad song? Let’s do it! Repeat after me! “I’m MAD MAD MAD! I want to be BAD BAD BAD! I feel so SAD SAD SAD! That makes me MAD MAD MAD!”
5. They’re afraid of something
Most children experience normal childhood fears such as fear of the dark, monsters or robbers. While they may be normal, they can also be deeply inhibiting and can set them on edge throughout the day. Rather than remaining calm and regulated, your child might act out with anger. Helping him find coping mechanisms to gradually face these fears is key in helping children overcome their fear and not be controlled by it.
Validate their fears but still hold the expectation for them to overcome them, with support.
What to say: “I do not like being yelled at. I can see you’re feeling pretty angry right now. Has this got something to do with the questions you were asking me about robbers before? I know there are none, and I want you to feel sure, too. Would you like for us to go through the house with a flashlight so you can feel satisfied there are no robbers here?”
6. They’ve been influenced by something
If children are watching violent TV shows or have neighbors, friends or cousins who are wild, destructive or disrespectful—they may well try on this behavior. We all unwittingly, imitate what we see around us. When I’ve watched too much Downton Abbey, for example, my accent skews far posher than usual. So if your neighbor has been reciting a foul-mouthed rap song to your daughter this morning in the yard, you can expect some of that to come through.
What to say: “Hmmm, using those words is not how we speak in our home. I know you might hear other people using that language but being respectful is very important to our family.”
7. They’re mirroring you
I know this one bites. But when we’ve been losing our cool, yelling, punishing, threatening, it’s safe to assume our children will mirror that behavior right back at us. So when my son says: “How dare you?” it’s nothing short of hypocritical of me to shoot him down with, “You will not speak to your mother that way,” because clearly, he got it from me.
What to say: “I know I’ve been yelling and raising my voice. I’m sorry. It’s important that we all speak kindly and gently to each other, including me. Can we start over?”