I used to have a lot of tricks up my sleeves.
I had a little green chair that was specifically for naughty children.
I learned to count to three menacingly because it was supposed to work like magic.
I bribed with stickers and candy.
I tried to reason.
I even had a complicated chart I construed. On this chart hung three squares. On one side of each square was a smiley face, and on the other, a sad face. As long as my kiddo was behaving well, he kept all his smiley faces, but the minute he messed up, one of his smiles got flipped. If all three got flipped, he got sent to that little green chair for a time-out.
I told myself I was being fair. I told myself this was positive discipline. At least it wasn’t the spankings I’d grown up with. He wasn’t cutting his own switches. And I told myself the behavior chart was simply a visual reminder to him to control his behavior, but really it only served as a constant reminder of his inadequacy, because let’s face it, three-year-olds don’t behave perfectly.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but every day I measured his worth with three hanging smiley faces.
I began to wonder what my own chart would look like. How many smiley faces would I get flipped? If someone was measuring my ability and worth as a mother, partner, and human being, flipping a card every time I huffed, every time my patience wore thin, every time I messed up, how quickly would I feel defeated? How many cards would need to be flipped before I felt like a total failure?
Would it ever motivate me to do better? Or would it discourage me to the point of giving up?
I knew the answer immediately, and my heart sank at the realization that this, and all of my methods of control, were doing nothing but making my boy feel defeated. We all look to our family and friends for approval and acceptance. For young children, if their need for acceptance and belonging isn’t met, it greatly affects their developing self-concept. If they don’t feel validated, they begin to feel unworthy. Shame, isolation, and punishments are popular tricks, but they are dripping with disapproval.
I could tell our relationship was suffering. I needed a different approach, one that inspired him and helped him behave better.
It was back to the drawing board. I started back at square one. What is he doing and why is he doing it?
Why was my previously gentle and agreeable son suddenly acting defiantly? Why was he back-talking constantly? Why was he banging his head on the wall in frustration?
He was two, and at first, I thought that explained it. I had been told to just expect the terrible twos. This was just part of it; that’s what I had been led to believe. But when I looked behind this “terrible twos” behavior, what I saw surprised me.
My three-year-old wasn’t “defiant,” he was sad. His “bad” behavior had started shortly after the birth of our second son. There had been a lot of changes in our house with the addition of his brother, and he was feeling overwhelmed. The mommy who was all his, who he had been so close to, now belonged to someone else – at least in part. He had big feelings and an immature brain that couldn’t process them. His behavior was his distress call.
If I hadn’t looked for the reason behind his behavior, if I’d just continued to punish his actions, I would have missed the pain. We can’t help what we don’t see.
What he needed was connection. He needed to know he still mattered – that I was still his. He needed some routine back. There were no tricks - no punishments - that would have made his behavior better. The trouble was a bruised heart, and only connection heals that.
I tossed the behavior chart and the green chair, and I made extra effort to play with him. I laughed with him more. I focused on reaching his heart, and do you know what happened? His behavior improved drastically.
Now that’s magic.
Years later, when his baby brother was eight-years-old and saying things that weren’t very nice to him, I knew that something was hurting him. Rather than punish his behavior, I worked to find out why.
A heartfelt discussion allowed him to open up and tell me that he felt his brother was better than him at everything. He thought he was better at drawing, better at video games, better at school, and had more friends. Once again, my child wasn’t naughty, he was hurting. He felt like he didn’t measure up. He felt bad. His behavior was his distress call. He didn’t need to be grounded to his room, he needed to be grounded in the truth that he was good enough.
Feelings drive behavior. What we perceive as “bad” behavior is most often caused by big feelings, an unmet need, or some lagging skill. Because a child’s prefrontal cortex is still very undeveloped (the part of the brain responsible for empathy, rational thinking, and connecting cause and effect), they operate mostly from the limbic region (the emotions center). Until their brain matures and they are capable of self-regulation, their feelings will come out in their actions.
Misbehavior is really a way of saying “I need help” when the words will not come.
We wouldn’t answer “I need help” with “you’re in big trouble.” We’d say, “I can help. Here I am.”
Answer the distress call. This is where true change begins.