by Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW
As a psychotherapist and parenting coach, one of the places I see parents get stuck most often is with their child’s behavior. What parents perceive as negative behavior in their child often triggers the parent’s own frustration and aggravation—and it’s easy to understand why. Being around a child who’s acting out, whining, or tantruming is not exactly most people’s idea of fun.
But even a slight shift in perspective can make all the difference between a parent’s heated, negative reaction and a calmer, more positive response. Most of us have an automatic negative reaction to a child’s acting out (particularly if it’s your own child). What’s easy to forget is that your child’s behavior isn’t a personal attack, it’s simply an expression of his experience in that moment.
Where we get lost is in the meaning we attach to the behavior:
I spent time with him all afternoon, and this is the thanks I get?
We’ve talked repeatedly about not hitting, but he just goes ahead and does what he wants.
She does this just to push my buttons. She doesn’t want me to have any peace.
It’s so embarrassing when he acts this way in public—everyone must think I’m a terrible parent.
If she really loved and respected me, she wouldn’t talk to me that way.
If we were to search for evidence that thoughts like this were actually true, we’d be hard pressed to find it. What is true, though, is that for kids and adults alike, when we feel that someone is telling us we shouldn’t be having the experience we are having, we get angry.
Take Cameron, a very smart and sensitive 5-year-old boy I know. The slightest things seem to set Cameron off—being told it’s time for bed, for example, or that he can’t make pretend mountains with the dirt from the houseplants. He gets grouchy when things don’t go his way, and sometimes he explodes in frustration and tears. When he was younger, his mother, Erin, would get exasperated with Cameron, insisting that he shouldn’t be upset about such trivial things, and trying to discipline him into better behavior with time-outs and punishment. Not only did that approach not work, it made the behavior worse. Eventually, Erin came to understand that, because of Cameron’s sensitive nature, things that might seem like no big deal to another kid—like having to wear a different shirt because his favorite one was in the wash—to him are indeed a big deal. Even though it’s not always easy for Erin to navigate the turbulent waters of her son’s moods, he has the right to have all of his feelings—even the messy ones.
The mistake we often make with kids, or anyone for that matter, is that we judge the behavior without listening to the expression of feelings underneath it. Some behavior does need to be disciplined, particularly if it’s aggressive. But discipline is only effective when we attune to the child first, maintaining our respect for him as a person, even if we don’t like the behavior. When your child is acting out, he is still himself—he’s simply having an experience—no matter how unpleasant that experience is for others. When we stop fighting a child’s reaction and instead see the world, for that moment, from his perspective, we open the door to connectivity, compassion, empathy, understanding, and peaceful communication. After that first important step has been taken, any necessary steps toward discipline, if needed, will be much more effective.
Here are some ways to foster your child’s positive behavior:
- See your child in a positive light. If you constantly dwell on his negative behavior, you’re likely going to get more of it—partly because he’ll begin to see himself in the same negative light that you do. Kids who feel bad about themselves are more likely to act out. If you focus on his positive qualities instead, there’s a much better chance he’ll show you the best of who he is. Each day, focus on one thing you appreciate about your child—recall a memory where you’ve see your child embodying that quality, and “play the movie.”
- Default to her feelings. If your child’s emotions and/or behavior start to escalate, instead of trying to explain why she shouldn’t feel or act that way, step inside her shoes and tune into her perspective: “You really want to keep playing with Madeleine instead of having to leave. I’ll bet you wish we could stay here all afternoon.” Most parents worry that empathizing this way will only fuel more of the protesting or negative behavior, but you’ll almost always find that the opposite is true: when your child genuinely feels heard, she’ll often calm immediately.
- Honor his experience rather than seeking to change it. Perhaps the most loving thing any of us can do for another is to honor the other person’s experience, whatever it is. We don’t really want anyone to change our experiences for us. What we really want instead is for someone to simply hold space with us, without judgment, while we’re having those experiences. When a parent does this for a child consistently—providing discipline also, when necessary—the child learns empathy and self-regulation. Then, he can offer these qualities in service to others.
- Don’t take it personally. When your child acts out, it does not mean that he doesn’t appreciate the love, support, guidance, and understanding you offer as a parent on a regular basis. Conversely, offering those things is not a guarantee that your child will not act out sometimes. Everyone is entitled to a grouchy mood or an off day now and again, and our ability to tolerate so-called negative feelings makes it less likely that we’ll need to act them out. It also deepens our capacity to experience emotions like joy and gratitude.
- Take responsibility for your own happiness. If your emotions go up and down depending on how your child is feeling or acting, you’re setting yourself up for a bumpy ride. Rather than tethering your well-being to hers, find your center from within. When you remain grounded during her turbulence, you convey that you can keep her safe while she’s having big feelings. This will not only make it easier for you to get through a tough moment, but you’ll also more easily her find her balance again.
Jill and Jennifer have been featured in a variety of media, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Good Morning America, The Today Show, CBS Evening News, Inside Edition, WebMD, Parenting, and Variety. They are the curriculum consultants to Pajanimals, a joint production with the Jim Henson Company and PBS Sprout. They are also the co-creators of award-winning book and DVD, The Sleepeasy Solution.