Behavior is Communication

child on swing

Sometimes my kids come home from school with a story about a “bad” kid and how that kid was misbehaving in class. I try to teach them to be more open-minded and talk about scenarios that that child might be dealing with on a personal level that prompted them to act the way they do. Behavior is communication. Positive or negative behaviors are an attempt to get needs met. We all have bad days and have done things we wish we hadn’t. It doesn’t mean that we deserve a label that typifies our behavior.

Think about your own bad behavior. It usually stems from stress, lack of sleep, being hungry or feeling like you don’t have control over something that you want control of. Sometimes we act out and do and say things that affect others because of our own internal battles. What we hope for is that someone can see past our behaviors and give us what we need: reassurance, a hug, or even food! Children are not much different from us in this respect. Any kind of behavior, good or bad is communication of what they need. An angry child at school may be disregulated, triggered by a traumatic memory, hungry or scared. But what the teacher and students see is varying degrees of unacceptable behaviors.

Parents see the same behaviors at home. How much different would a parent’s reaction be if they can see past a negative behavior and see what the child is trying to communicate, possibly without  the child even understanding what he needs. I challenge you to look at your child’s behavior and see what is causing it; more often than not it is the base emotion of fear that can be triggered from emotional or physical needs that are not met or do not feel controlled. If you understand that your child is scared when she is throwing things or saying hurtful things, it is much easier to respond with empathy and love instead of escalating with your own need to gain control and be respected.

I should make the point here that parents have their own fear-based behaviors when they react to a child’s negative behaviors by being louder or stronger in an attempt to stay in control because they fear not being in control or losing respect. Brad Reedy in his book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent made a profound statement that has always stuck with me. He pointed out that parents who yell are communicating to their children that they need the child to help them calm down and get their needs met—usually this means the child’s compliance. It is hard work, but parents have to try to be okay with not having control in the midst of a child’s behaviors in order to focus on the child’s needs. Doing this will communicate to the child that they are safe with you, and you will always love them and try to meet their needs.

 

References:

Forbes, H.T. (2012). Help for Billy. Beyond Consequences Institute, Boulder, CO.

Reedy, M. (2015). The Journey of the Heroic Parent. Regan Arts, New York NY

 

Love and Fear

arleen-wiese-457173-unsplash

 

Many psychologists and therapists believe that there are only two primal emotions: love and fear. Love keeps us connected, fear separates us. Positive emotions and behaviors come out of love, negative emotions and behaviors have their root in the fear the person is feeling.

 

What if we can recognize a behavior as stemming from love or fear in our child and in ourselves? How would that change our relationship? For most of us it would drastically change our relationships!

 

When our mind perceives that there is danger or something to be feared, we respond with emotions and actions to deal with the threat whether it is real or simply perceived. Any negative behavior is driven from fear. Explosive behaviors such as anger, aggression, defiance all stem from fear. Withdrawing behaviors like sadness and depression have their root in fear. Children with trauma in their pasts attempt to regulate their fears of terrible memories with behaviors like stealing, hoarding, lying and phobias.

love v fear
from Calming your Angry Mind by J Brantley

 

To make matters worse, when we as parents are confronted with negative behaviors, we react with our own fears- “this child is out of control”, “I need to get control of this situation”, “I will not be disrespected”- that have their roots in our own traumas, misgivings, and memories. Too often, a child’s negative behaviors are met by parental negative behaviors and they escalate each other instead of the parent being able to parent effectively and help the child regulate.

 

If we as parents can see past the behaviors and see that the behavior is driven by fear, it changes everything. It opens our mind to respond with love and empathy to try to address the child’s fear. Once we can see the fear in the behavior, we stop the feedback loop of escalating negative behaviors. When a parent can stay calm and loving when confronting a child’s fear, it is a scientific fact that the calmer person can help the other person calm. We are such interconnected beings, which is why the natural tendency is to respond to negative behaviors with negative behaviors. Our mirror neurons pick up on the emotional signals of the other person and reciprocate. It is just as true that positive behaviors are reciprocated by positive behaviors. Parents can stop the cycle and chose to stay connected by choosing to respond in love instead of fear. Stop, take a slow deep breath and say to yourself, “I am afraid”. Bring awareness to what you are feeling and then look at the child and see that he is afraid too.  Choice connections is about choosing behaviors that will keep us connected to our children. Choose love.

 

References:

Brantley, J. (2014). Calming your Angry Mind. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA

 

Forbes, H.T. & Post, B (2012). Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control. Beyond Consequences Institute, Boulder, CO.

What to Do When Children Lie

Canva - Mother with son in street

Do you feel like your child has a problem with lying? Are you worried that this may become a habit and there may be long term consequences if the child continues to make a habit of lying? You feel angry and disappointed in your child? What should you do?

 

Understand first of all that all children experiment with lying at some point. It is a part of normal development to understand fact from fiction and how to develop words and a story to persuade people. Also, in a way, we’ve taught children that is it socially acceptable to lie. Have you ever made your child thank someone or apologize for something, so they go through the motions without the sincerity behind the words? Have you ever demonstrated to your child that it is ok to lie to someone to protect their feelings?

 

“Oh, your hair looks really nice!”

 

“That is such a nice drawing, I love it!”

 

“No, those jeans don’t make you look fat.”

 

“I’m fine, thanks.”

 

 

By telling “nice” lies we teach our children that there may be legitimate reasons to lie- to stay connected to someone. I’m not here to judge you for sparing people’s feelings with socially acceptable lies, but be aware from a young child’s perspective how they may be trying to figure out the rules of when it is ok to lie and when it is not. If you think about it, both adults and children lie because they are afraid that the truth will affect the relationship. Lying is an attempt to stay connected.

 

Also understand that children with traumatic pasts, who maybe have been adopted or fostered, often had to lie to survive. The lies are motivated by fear and an unsafe environment. They did what they had to do to survive, when they desperately needed to stay connected to someone with power over them, but understandably, these survival skills are not always helpful in a trusting family environment. Children who have come out of an unsafe environment and are moved into a safe and nurturing environment may take a while to feel safe enough to change their survival behaviors. Parents may feel that children lie to protect themselves or they may lie to get attention. Try to reframe your thinking about the lies so the child can be connected to the person they are lying too- although they probably will not be able to voice that or even understand where the lies are coming from. The underlying issues are a need for security and love.

 

So how should parents handle children who seem to be lying often? Do not threaten punishment for lying. Most likely the child will react by getting better at lying to escape punishment as this keeps their fear on a high level. The child needs to know that they will be safe and loved even when they tell the truth about something that they feel is wrong. Encourage the child to tell the truth by expressing what you would like to hear- the truth, by saying something like, “You make me happy when you tell the truth,” if you suspect a child is about to lie.

Sometimes a child lies, because they think it is what the adult wants to hear, so saying this helps the child understand exactly what you want to hear. Also let the child know that you will love them no matter what they say. You may not have to say this in words, but in building consistency when they see that your love is still there when they trust you with the truth. In creating safety and consistency to reduce fear and mistrust, set rules and be open to negotiation. If a child knows there are rules, but a parent is open to hearing the child’s point of view, it increases communication, builds relationships and reduces fear. After a child tells you the truth maybe about how they broke the rules, keep your own disappointment and frustration from turning into anger and blaming the child. Take a deep breath to calm yourself and try thanking him for telling the truth. You can tell them you are disappointed if you need to give information about how you feel, but clarify that is your emotion and you will handle it, they do not need to regulate your emotions. Try not to tell them that you are disappointed if your goal in telling the child that is to shame him.  Remember, you want to foster connection and let them know they can always tell you the truth. Keep to the set consequences of breaking rules and tell them you know he can do better next time to let the child know you are on his side.

If you feel that your child is lying about silly things that don’t seem to matter, try approaching it with playfulness, “did that really happen or is that a silly story? Ah, I thought so, that’s a pretty silly story!” They may just be exploring that normal development discussed earlier, and your playful reaction helps them know you are connected with them and helps establish truth from fiction in an unthreatening way.

Connect, empathize and let them know they can trust you with whatever truth they need to tell you.

 

 

Resource: Bronson, P & Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock. Twelve, New York, NY.

Ockwell-Smith, S. (2017). Gentle Discipline. Penguin Random House, New York, NY