Our child’s behavior can be perplexing, infuriating, and downright worrisome. But when we have an idea of what’s lying at the root of their upset, it can help us develop more empathy, understanding, and a more targeted response. It can help us apply the right strategies to heal the underlying hurt, so the difficult behavior doesn’t keep coming back day after day.
There can be many reasons why a child is whining, crying, or throwing a fit. Here are some things to consider:
Feeling Safe, Seen, and Connected
All humans have a deep need to feel safe and connected to other people. Safety is a basic need that doesn’t go away when a child is a toddler or even a teen. For young children, seemingly small things can rupture their sense of safety. When a parent goes to the bathroom or turns away to talk on the phone, it can feel like an emergency to an infant and even a two-year old.
A child’s sense of connection can be rocked when they get left out of a game at school, their sibling slams the bedroom door in their face, or they overhear their parents arguing. Or maybe a good friend moves away or a parent is sick and can’t care for their kid in the way they used to.
And what about a global pandemic to help you feel a little more isolated and a lot less connected?! Even global warming can set a child’s behavior off and impact our parenting. I was talking with a mom recently about a heat wave that rolled into Northern California and the impact it was having on her and her son. Neither of them were sleeping well, she was short tempered, her son was more grumpy in the morning than usual, and getting to school on time was difficult.
All of us want to be seen and acknowledged for who we are. A kid who loves to jump, run, and spin through the house may be seen as hyperactive. Rather than appreciated for their kinesthetic qualities, they are yelled at for not being able to sit still through dinner. What gets internalized is that a part of them is bad, and to be close to the ones they love they need to tuck those parts away. Not feeling seen or special, or being criticized for certain qualities, can leave kids feeling ashamed and resentful, which can get expressed through anger, aggression, or withdrawal.
When a child doesn’t feel safe, seen, or connected, they might be more likely to be mean to their sibling, aggressive with their parents, or dysregulated at school. It can be helpful to ask, what’s going on here? Why am I so triggered and why is my child so challenging?
Sometimes a sensory sensitivity can activate a child’s alarm system. My son is a huge sports fan. Soccer is his first love, but basketball and football are close rivals. One day, years ago, during the NBA playoffs, I took my son to one of our favorite Brazilian restaurants to have dinner and watch game three of the finals.
The place was packed, but we were lucky enough to find a seat amongst the crowd. What became evident was that this was not going to be a fun night eating Feijoada. In fact, it was so noisy that at one point I looked over at my son and tears were streaming down his face.
I couldn’t understand. Here we were eating food he loves, watching a sport he adores, at a restaurant we had been to many times before. I pulled my chair next to him and leaned in as he cried. But the noise from the sports fans got louder and so did his upset. He said he wanted to leave, so we finished dinner and got in the car. As we drove home, I remembered how sensitive he is to loud sounds and crowded spaces. I said, ‘That was too noisy, huh?” He nodded his head and sighed.
Sometimes we forget that sensory sensitivity plays a role in our child’s discomfort or upset. Are the lights too bright? Are the socks too scratchy? Some of these things can be easily fixed, but some sensory processing disorders are rooted in more difficult days or traumatic events. The remedy for that is actually very similar to how we would help a child recover from feeling deeply disconnected.
Lagging behind in skills or the frustration of learning new things (as well as jumps in developmental milestones) can cause behaviors to flare. But feeling safe, seen, and connected is paramount, and lacking one of those three things often lies at the core of a child’s challenging behaviors.
We don’t have to know why our child is acting the way they are in order to help them. But having more information can help us address the underlying issue. It reminds us that they are not trying to manipulate us with their whining or “just trying to get attention”.
Children are trying to communicate something to us through their challenging behavior. So the next time your kiddo throws their peas on the floor or your teen slams the computer down and walks away, remember that the behavior on the outside is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s worth asking, “What’s happening here? Why is my child so challenging and why am I so triggered? Are you seeing a dysregulated fight or flight system because of something scary that happened a while back, or was it just a bad day?
This is just the beginning of helping your child get back on track to the cooperative, kind, and compassionate person they can be.
To get the support and strategies to turn your child’s behavior around, sign up for a free, Calm and Confident Clarity call. We’ll look at the challenges in your family, where you’d like to be six months from now, what the roadblocks are, and the next steps to having the family you’ve always wanted.
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