Managing behavior can be like grabbing a badger. You do not want to deal with it because it looks and feels unpleasant and when you finally do go after it, you realize it is completely unpredictable and downright nasty. Toddlers are exhausting with their endless testing this behavior and that behavior. So are teenagers. Behavior is even more ominous when it occurs in the classroom.
When I say the word behavior, many parents have an immediate negative reaction. Technically, behavior is a neutral word. And to take this a bit further, both good behavior and bad behavior can tell parents what is going on with their children. I have to be honest. My 17-year-old son brought me roses the other day out of the blue. The first thing that ran through my head was, “What did he do?” Good psychologists can tell as much from good behavior as bad behavior. Behavior is an outward clue as to what is going on internally with your child.
I’m not asking you to become Sherlock here. Sherlock was famous for deductive reasoning, but with human behavior, we can only do our best with inductive reasoning which provides us with our best guess as to what’s going on. Many parents make the mistake of assuming their child will tell them when something is bothering them emotionally. Ahem. Kids typically don’t think, “Oh, I should share this with Mom.”
“Hey, Mom! My core shame around being unlovable has cropped up again, because I did not get an A on my last history test. I have noticed that my perfectionism in response to what I have perceived as an identity failure has been on the rise along with my anxiety. I recognize my need to be impossibly perfect is planting seeds of self-hatred. We should really talk about this. I am so frustrated I am acting like an angry badger!” If only it was that easy.
Using my inductive reasoning, I know that my daughter’s argumentative nature and her outbursts in school are due in part to her extreme sensory issues and her epilepsy. Her emotional brain is always is in a state of overwhelm. You can relate. Have you ever worked out in the heat for a long period of time or ran a marathon or just had an exhausting day? Try doing calculus afterwards or even balancing your checkbook. You can become a little testy. You can’t focus because you’re hot and all you want is a shower. My daughter is like that all day, everyday. It is hard for her to live in her own skin. We cannot “see” this, but I can use her behavior as a clue.
When behavior takes an ugly turn, try not to judge your child. View the behavior through the detective’s magnifying glass. What is that behavior telling you? Is the behavior new? Is it out of character? Talk to your child without leading the witness; meaning, don’t assume they are just being bad. Bing Crosby said in The Bells of Saint Mary’s, “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” I agree with Bing wholeheartedly. There is always a reason behind behavior.
Behavior is a clue to a child’s underlying struggle. An anxious child is rarely “just” anxious. I always look for a cause. I came out of the womb anxious due to a genetic disorder, so I do not always need an additional reason to be anxious. I’ve had to learn how to calm myself despite my normal state of vigilance. However, anxiety builds more anxiety. So, I must remain ever watchful for things that might be aggravating my anxiety.
Here is a different way to consider behavior. How many times have you fought with your partner or friend when, in actuality, you know deep down inside that you are fighting because you are upset about something completely different. I will start to pick a fight with my husband when I am upset about one of the children just so I do not have to feel that pain. It sounds nuts, but we all do it.
The wisdom to be found here is that we need to stop addressing behavior in isolation. Punishment, reward and neglect are typically not effective approaches to managing behavior. I have had no success with these approaches. Predetermined consequences for older children work very well. When my teen violates a rule, he knows exactly what will happen. We have it documented in a contract. When he is creative enough to come up with a whopper that is not documented, Dad and I have a conference to determine how to amend the contract. I highly recommend Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book, The Whole-Brain Child, to figure out how to discipline and interact with your child, especially younger children. Setting and holding boundaries, my next blog topic, is key to managing behavior.
We must understand that behavior is a clue to the mysterious brain, emotions, health and mind of a person. So, next time your child acts out, ask yourself why. You might find yourself less reactive and a tad more curious, which is good for you and your child. When you look a little closer, that angry badger might in reality be just a frightened kitty.