I remember being a new mom. Hair tossed into a messy crown. A combo of milk and spit-up on my shirt. An anxious overwhelm as I held our son and read the thermometer: 102.5.
Treat the fever … treat the fever. The thought replayed over and over again.
But behind all of that new-mama fear was my clinical knowledge. After passing that part of me the mic, I could hear her loud and clear: The fever is not the problem. It is the symptom.
The fever was a signal from my son’s body that something else was going on, which, when you think about the body’s wisdom, is pretty incredible.
Fast forward three years and that baby had grown into a toddler who had his own emerging identity, thoughts, feelings, and agendas. My wobbly parenting began to find its footing and I was feeling more assured of myself, and of him.
That was, until I wasn’t.
Things started to get tricky in a whole new way.
Power struggles. Meltdowns. Defiance. And hitting. So much hitting.
Treat the behavior … treat the behavior. The thought replayed over and over again.
Right? I am his mom. I needed my son to know that he could not hit. That there were rules. Consequences.
I needed to fix the behavior so my son didn’t turn into an aggressive psychopath who couldn’t control himself and hurt others. I needed to teach that skill.
But the more I saw my child’s behavior as a problem to fix, the more his behavior grew. Every time he reacted in a certain way, so too did I. And round and round we went on the misbehavior loop … a bad ride neither of us could seem to get off of.
But then a funny thing happened. In a moment of retreat to reclaim my sanity and shed a few overwhelmed tears, my mind drew me back to the day of holding our baby boy … swaddled … big eyes looking toward me as his safe place… swaying him back and forth as his body worked through that first fever.
My clinical knowledge once again spoke to me: The behavior is not the problem. It is the symptom.
Expectations And Behavior
Neurologically, our brains are wired to look for negatives. So when our children present with challenging behavior, we become conditioned to look for it. And, if you’re like most parents, myself included, you have found yourself thinking a time or two that if your child just did XYZ, the house would run so much more smoothly.
We become so laser-focused on modifying behavior that we fail to see the behavior for what it is: a signal from our children that they are struggling to meet an expectation.
And here is the tricky thing about expectations … When our child meets an expectation sometimes, there’s a fairly common adult assumption that our child can meet that expectation every time. And when they don’t, the child is seen as defiant, manipulative, or unmotivated, But just because they can do something doesn’t mean they have mastered it.
Let me give you a few examples:
- You have the expectation that your child will pee on the potty because she did it that one time last week, and this week for four days. But then, she stops. And so you sing the potty songs. You give her praise. You offer treats. Nothing works.
- You have the expectation that your child can be left alone with their sibling. But every time you do, your four-year-old hits and kicks your two-year-old. This leaves them both crying and you frustrated. So, you take things away. You try a sticker chart. You talk about why hitting hurts. Nothing works.
- You have the expectation that your child will finish their homework. But each day it is a power struggle as you stare at an incomplete handout. So, you argue. You bribe. You yell. Nothing works.
Why? Because behavior modification is like trying to treat the fever. It’s the symptom of something bigger, namely a lagging skill and/or an unmet need.
The chart below gives you some ideas of possible lagging skills and unmet needs:
|Lagging Skills||Unmet Needs |
|Impulse control||Need to feel safe|
|Problem-solving||Need for attention/connection|
|Emotional regulation||Need for power |
|Initiating or sequencing tasks||Need for routine and ritual|
|Focusing||Sensory under or overwhelm|
|Transitions ||Emotional overwhelm |
|Social skills||Feeling hungry or tired |
Transforming Challenging Behavior
It’s when we change our lens that we can change our practices. Instead of suppressing behaviors through behavior modification, we can ask ourselves three proactive questions:
1. What is the expectation my child is having difficulty meeting?
In the scenarios above, the expectations are 1) peeing on the potty, 2) being alone with their sibling, and 3) doing homework.
What expectations are a challenge for your child?
2. What is making it hard for my child to meet that expectation?
I like to first ask myself: The expectations my child is struggling to meet, are they age and developmentally- appropriate? If the answer is no, then I work to reframe my expectations. If the answer is yes, then I look to any lagging skills or unmet needs that may be fueling the behavior.
Let’s take a look at this step in action using the scenarios above.
- The child on the potty may be desiring more control in her experience and may also lack skills for noticing her body cues.
- The child who hits his brother may be struggling with emotional regulation and impulse control and have a need for attention.
- The child who shuts down during homework may be struggling with sequencing, a fixed mindset, or challenging social experiences at school.
Development marches at its own pace for each child. It takes curiosity and connection to uncover the origin of your child’s challenging behavior. But, I assure you, you are the exact parent your child needs and when you parent brain to brain and heart to heart, it will never let you down.
3. How can I help my child in a way that gives them some agency in their process?
Our children are co-creators of their life and we are there as guides by the side, nurturing the goodness that already lives within them. When we enroll our children in a process, they are more apt to be motivated to actively participate in that process. Using a Time-In space is a useful way to discuss the behavior you are noticing and to uncover their underlying feelings, thoughts, and challenges. Through connection, active listening, and skill-building, you can co-regulate with your child and find solutions.
Children who present with challenging behaviors are not bad. They are struggling. There is an unmet need or lagging skill getting in their way of regulation. You are their lifeline. Their safe place. And when we remain curious and connect, we see past behavior, bringing our child’s true nature in focus. Clearly seeing their goodness, we help them see it too.