Understanding WHY a child behaves as he/she does provides you with the answer as to what the child needs to willingly and capably improve his/her behavior.
Communication is a behavior, and all forms of behavior are ways of communicating. The child who resists bedtime is communicating something, and the message goes beyond merely saying, “I don’t want to.” The same is true for the child who refuses to turn off the TV or turn away from the video game. The child who speaks to you disrespectfully, explodes in anger, becomes violent, or seems to fall apart emotionally at the drop of a hat is communicating at least one underlying need that is not being met.
Just reacting with anger and frustration to a child’s challenging behavior, and imposing hard consequences, fails to address the underlying cause. This means that the behavior problem either returns or, more commonly, worsens.
No parent or teacher wants to react with anger, stress and frustration, but we do so because we believe we must. In this article we will discover how to free ourselves from angry and stressful reactions, recognize what the child needs for improved self-conduct, and help the child to meet that need for mutually satisfactory outcomes.
Seeking Happier Alternatives
The first thing to realize is that no child likes how it feels to fight with you. Just as you don’t like the feeling of a power-struggle with your child, your child feels at least as unhappy in the midst of that power-struggle. The child is just as disturbed by your stressful reactions to his/her behavior as you are disturbed by your child’s behavior. This means that when there is a clash of wills between parent and child, both parent and child are unhappy. Human beings naturally want to find alternatives to unhappy experiences, and this is true of our children as well.
Let’s say that your older child is doing things to annoy his younger sibling. In this instance, both children are unhappy. The older one is expressing his unhappiness by continuing to annoying his little brother despite the little one’s protests. What is going wrong with the older child? What does he need to feel better, so that he stops dumping his frustration and unhappiness onto his little brother? If you pause to find out what that is you are beginning to resolve the entire issue. If you merely demand that the older one “stop that”, his underlying need – which he obviously does not know how to meet on his own – goes unmet, meaning that his unhappiness will continue to drive poor behavior in some form. Additionally, your attempt to suppress his expression of his need is likely to exacerbate his internal stress and therefore drive even more disturbing behavior.
Here’s a simpler example. Let’s say that your 3-year-old is resisting going to bed on time. If you pause to find out what he needs, which you can usually do from observing him closely and engaging in a bit of empathy, you can help him get his need met, which will result in him willingly cooperating with you at bedtime. Often, all the child needs is some time to run around to get out his last bit of energy. He may feel the need for more quality time with you before going off to sleep. You can solve both problems by engaging him in some play that involves him running hard for a while, 15 minutes before you want him to brush his teeth and get into bed.
“Eat Your Vegetables”
For a child to live up to our expectations, presuming those expectations are truly in the child’s best interest, there are certain needs within the child that must be met. Trying to overpower the child and force him to behave against his will is the same as trying to force him to go without his legitimate needs being met, which is not just futile; it is callous and even cruel. If you shift your focus from, “How do I make my child behave?” to “What does my child need in order to willingly behave well?” you begin constructively solving the behavior problem.
Let’s say your challenge is that your child won’t eat his vegetables. Instead of using punishment to control his eating, or just nagging and complaining about it, consider what your child needs in order to willingly eat vegetables. You might realize that what he needs is an understanding of the value of good nutrition. There is no way to convey this to a 4 or 5-year-old. In this instance, you have to look deeper. What you really want is for him to do what is good for his body. What this requires is the child’s ability to sense and feel what his body wants and needs to feel strong and healthy. We cultivate this sensibility by respecting and supporting the child’s internal guidance system. Imposing a punishment does not get him in touch with his body’s healthy instincts. Giving him the space to follow his own sense of what he wants to eat, within reason of course, allows him to honor and tune in to his body’s internal signals. These signals drive us all to do what is healthy, like giving ourselves some downtime when we feel ill. The only time we ignore or go against these signals is when we have been so imposed upon by outside will that all we care about is bucking that will to express our need for autonomy.
This approach may not immediately result in your child eating vegetables, but it sets the stage for that to take place when it is really needed.
Improving School Performance
Let’s say that your teen is floundering in school. His low grades are not the real problem. They are only a symptom of the problem. The problem may be that he is not concentrating, that he is not fully applying himself, that he is not willingly putting in the deeply focused effort needed to raise his grades. The question to ask yourself, then, is, “What does he need in order to willingly and happily apply himself fully to higher academic achievement?”
If you ask him what the problem is, he might simply tell you that the work is boring. He might say that his grades don’t really matter, or that he just doesn’t care about school work. The fact is his grades really do matter to him, and that he really does care about doing well in school. It just feels too hard to do.
Whatever his answer, if it justifies him not doing his best, it is pointing to what he really needs. For instance, if he says that the work is too boring, you now know what he needs. When a child feels genuinely interested in a subject, he eagerly applies himself to learning all he can about it. Your challenge then is, how do you interest your child in learning what he is not interested in?
The way that we become interested in something is by giving it our full attention. Once we start noticing what is going on, we begin making discoveries, we begin learning, and learning is intrinsically joyful. As the child learns he experiences more success, and success motivates us to take on bigger challenges. So, in this case your child might benefit from having an enthusiastic tutor who can help him to deeply concentrate on the subject, leading to revelations that inspire him to continue and help him to succeed. This tutor will be building up the child’s strength of sustaining focus on that particular subject; simultaneously, the child’s capacity for deeper concentration will be developing generally, facilitating his capacity to learn and to be more successful in any area of work that he engages in.
Punishing a child for not getting his schoolwork done is like punishing a child for throwing gutter balls when bowling, rather than helping the child develop the skills and strengths he needs to throw more strikes.
There are also usually surrounding influences impacting a child’s challenging behavior. For instance, a child who is exposed to much mean-spirited squabbling between his parents is likely to engage in squabbling with his sibling. What he needs is a calmer, more harmonious household and better relationship modelling from his parents to do better in this area. The child who blatantly defies your reasonable requests and behaves recklessly may be reacting to a chaotic household in which he never gets the chance to calm down and think clearly about what he’s doing and why.
Addressing the child’s needs requires that we get free of our own automatic stressful reaction patterns. This requires getting in touch with our own needs for maintaining our emotional balance, our peace and poise, when confronting a challenging situation. If we focus our efforts on meeting this need of our own, we prepare ourselves for meeting our child’s need.
In my parent coaching I help parents uncover their child’s need, as well as gain freedom from their own stressful reaction patterns that prevent them from recognizing and meeting those needs. Feel welcome to contact me through my website: www.boblancer.com to schedule your complimentary, introductory phone consultation. You can also contact me to discuss my Parenting With Love keynotes and seminars for parents, and my trainings in meeting the child’s needs for teachers at all grade levels, including preschool. My background includes being the Parenting Expert of WSB Radio, WXIA TV, The Atlanta Public Schools Cable TV Network, and Radio Disney Atlanta, and I’m the author of the much-heralded book, Parenting With Love, Without Anger Or Stress. I’m available for media interviews and for providing guest blog posts.