When Children Misbehave
Anthony Sammeroff, Contributor
“What should I do when my children misbehave?” a client asks during a communication coaching session.
If we agree that the use of force, threats and punishments are not favourable approaches because they damage the relationship between parent and child, and that bribing children will only turn them into sneaky politicians who only ever do good when there is a reward involved, then this is clearly a very important question. Sadly it is also a little simplistic, assuming that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. Were it as simple as having one answer no one need ever use coercive means to build harmonious families.
Strict parents have the dubious advantage of being able to plan their approaches with certainty. If the child does x then y, where y is a ‘time-out’, ‘grounding’, or god forbid a spanking. However, the long term effects of taking authoritarian means are well established now. These are not likely to enjoy such intimate and fulfilling relationships with their young ones, who may turn out overly meek and afraid to embrace life, or chronically rebellious and defiant. It is simply not a risk worth taking.
Truly dealing with what is often called misbehaviour, requires ingenuity and forward planning. It always depends on the situation at hand, and asking what to do in principle is like asking what will I do with my Tuesday poker nights if I give up gambling – there are all manner of things to do on a Tuesday night, and no two Tuesday are necessarily the same.
All behaviour is a strategy for meeting certain desires and trying to get something from the environment. If we understand this, then we know that good modelling (practicing what we preach, including expressing our needs in a mature fashion) and preserving the good will in our relationships are the primary predicates to preventing. We must always strive to use our experience, intelligence and empathy to understand what is motivating a child to behave the way they are, from this stand point we can work with them instead of doing something to them. Rather than imposing consequences which can put a real strain on the good will in our relationship, taking a methodical approach can free us to be our dynamic selves rather than simply run a cause-and-effect program of action and consequence. We understand the child’s needs and act to prevent a reoccurrence.
1) Why are they behaving the way they are? What do they want?
2) How have they been treated in the past that may have lead them to think this is a good idea? Is it the only way they know of saying something?
3) Are there alternative ways that they could impress the same wants, desires, feelings or needs upon us, and can we teach them or suggest they do those instead?
4) Can we empathise with them so they know we are on their side and they want to be on our side as well. Can we identify their feelings and say things like, “you must be furious,” or “I know you are frustrated…” to show we understand. Have we taken the time to build up lots of good will between us so that they want to cooperate with us and find mutually satisfying solutions?
5) Have about talking out solutions? Can we suggest some or help them come up with their own ideas?
6) Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate! The more practice the child has in problem solving the more their sense of efficaciousness at doing it ties into their self-respect and they cultivate a talent of reasoning and discussing that will likely serve them for life.
It is always important to discuss the incident in hindsight when things have calmed down (days later if you wish) so that you can come to agreements over how to deal with similar situations in the future without fighting.
Prevention is better than cure, so what we really want to do is teach children better ways of communication all the time, rather than waiting for altercations, so that if and when things do get strained they can fall back on these skills which they have already internalised through practicing when calm (think of preparing for a piano recital, because last minute nerves may make you more likely to make mistakes you get plenty of practice when stress-free.)
Ask yourself these questions about your child:
1) Do they know how to express their feelings about things?
Eg. “Daddy I am furious that Edward broke my kite,” “Mommy I’m so happy you’re home.”
2) Can they differentiate between different strong unpleasant emotions like feeling angry, frustrated, upset, confused, jealous, guilty, shameful or do they all muddle together into a blur?
4) Can they express conflicting thoughts when they’re ambivalent? “Part of me wants to do this because… but another part of me wants to do that because…” This talent is a great predicate to discussing the relative value of different options.
5) Can they reason? For example, if there is no fuel in the car engine, then the car won’t run, but that doesn’t mean that just because the car won’t run there is no fuel in the engine, it could be something else. Can they understand this kind of logic?
6) Can they identify other people’s feelings, thoughts, and needs?
7) Can they empathise with other people’s feelings when they are expressed? It is up to you to demonstrate how this is done.
If they can’t do some (or any) of these things yet, then perhaps you can begin learning to start expressing yourself in these ways and pass on these essential skills by example. Teach them to do the same as you are doing by pointing out their feelings, by asking them what they need, for example – put it to them “does part of you want to do this because this, and part of you want to do that because that.” Teach them good reasoning and how to spot logical fallacies. By expressing your own feelings, thoughts and needs you also teach them to become aware of the inner environment of others, and by empathising with them you teach them to empathise.
About the Author
Antony is a relationship coach, theatre critic and piano tutor living in Edinburgh, Scotland where he runs life-changing workshops to help people improve the way they communicate with themselves and others to improve their relationships. He administrates The Progressive Parent youtube channel which provides free resources for carers of children to help them do the best job they can, and is also studying his postgraduate doctrine in Counselling part-time. Of all his vocations, his favourite activity is working with individuals one-on-one to help them enrich their lives and relationships. His website can be found at www.enrichyourlife.co, and he takes bookings internationally over skype or phone.
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