I often hear from parents because they have noticed a change in their child’s behaviour. Perhaps this change has come out of the blue, seemingly overnight; maybe it’s been happening for a few weeks, or perhaps there’s been a gradual increase in challenges over a period of months. But whatever the situation, these parents are often baffled, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and are uncertain about what to do and how to manage the behaviour. Their previously sweet, compliant toddler or preschooler is suddenly hitting, biting, talking back or being defiant. And they – understandably – want their sweet child back!
One of the first things parents tend to ask me is how to make the behaviour stop. They want to know what consequences they can provide and what strategies they need to use. But to support parents with their child’s behaviour, we actually need to look past the behaviour. We need to stop focusing on the behaviour itself, and instead, look at WHY it’s happening. And that begins with understanding what behaviour actually IS.
What is behaviour really?
You may have heard the expression, “Behaviour is communication”. And while this is absolutely true, I also think that sometimes this statement causes us to assume that children are intentionally behaving a certain way in order to send us a message. And this is simply not the case.
We tend to think about behaviour as an intentional choice, but sometimes it really isn’t. In fact, behaviour is really just a reflection of what is happening inside of your child, deep within their nervous system. When children feel safe, connected and well regulated they are able to access the thinking area of their brain. They can make intentional decisions about how to act. When children feel unsafe, and the fight/flight/freeze response has been activated, children do not make intentional choices about how to act. They are in survival mode. The very fact that they are acting in ways that drive disconnection instead of connection, tells us this. And no one behaves well when they feel unsafe.
What do children need to behave well?
To behave well, children need to feel safe. They need three really important things: connection, regulation (i.e. a way to manage their stress), and skills. When we provide all of these things for children, we create the relational safety they need to behave well. Not perfectly of course, because they’re still children – but as well as they can!
So let’s take a look at how each of these things impacts behaviour and how you can support your child if one or more of these conditions is missing right now.
Why is your child’s behaviour challenging right now?
1) They don’t feel connected
When children feel connected to us and supported by us, they feel safe and secure. They want to do well. When children are feeling disconnected from us, they are far less likely to cooperate with requests. Partly because that disconnection is stressful on a child’s nervous system, and partly because, well…do you want to take instructions or direction from someone you don’t have a great relationship with? Someone who you feel doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t treat you with respect, or whom you’ve had a lot of negative interactions or conflicts with recently? Unlikely, right? And our kids are no different.
What can you do about it?
Try Special Time with your child. Special time is about providing your child with your undivided attention for a short period of time – usually around 10 minutes per day. To do it simply switch off your devices and remove distractions, get down to your child’s level and let them lead the way. Your child can use this time in any way they want, and your job as a parent is to simply be there with them, fully present. This allows them to feel safe and supported and re-establishes your connection after a long day of challenges, and potentially separation from each other. It is also an opportunity for your child to discuss any big emotions or challenges they experienced during the day and to feel heard and understood. But perhaps most importantly, it sends a clear message to your child that you value them and your time together.
2) They are stressed
We tend to think of stress as a uniquely adult problem. However, this is generally because we think of stress as being primarily psychosocial. That is, when we think about stress, we think about things like looming work deadlines, paying bills, juggling the demands of parenthood and generally having too many balls in the air at the same time.
However, stress is actually anything that brings the systems of our body out of balance and that we need to expend energy on in order to regain that balance. We all experience a multitude of stressors, all day long. And our children are no different.
For children, stress may include not getting enough sleep, or feeling hungry because they didn’t have time for breakfast today. It could be navigating relationships on the playground, or having a lot of birthday parties to attend (yes, fun activities can be stressful too, even when we enjoy them in the moment!). It may be worry about an upcoming test or school project, or conflict at home. It could be that they are learning something new and unfamiliar in the classroom that requires a lot of focus. It may even be that they think their teacher gave them a disapproving look earlier, or they’re scared they may get into trouble or be called on to speak in the classroom.
All of these things require a large amount of energy from our children, and when they are using up energy dealing with multiple stressors throughout the day, their resources become depleted. And this is often when we see a change in behaviour. Chronic activation of the fight/flight/freeze response means that the prefrontal cortex is laying low. All of those important skills our kids need to behave well – decision making, planning, reasoning, logic, problem-solving, task initiation, impulse control – are hard to access. Our kids are exhausted and have no resources left to meet our expectations of them. In fact, it may be that our expectations themselves are creating even more stress for our kids, making it less likely that they will behave well.
What can you do about it?
Start by taking a look at the areas of your child’s life where they may be experiencing stress. Are their physical needs met? Are there changes happening right now that are creating some emotional stress? Are there a lot of demands on their time or attention currently? Are they having any social difficulties?
Then have a think about whether you are able to reduce or remove any of those stressors? Can you cut back on some after-school activities? Do they need an extra snack during the day or an earlier bedtime? Do they need less screen time? More exercise? There are a variety of ways to reduce stress in kids, and it will depend on your child’s stressors and what their unique body and nervous system needs. But the most important thing we can do to help our children with their stress is give them lots of opportunities to relax and recharge. Our kids need more downtime. A balance of being and doing throughout the day. So find some activities that your child finds calming or re-energising and ensure they have time to engage in these – often!
3) They don’t have the skills they need to do better
Children do well when they can. If they’re not behaving well, it’s because something is getting in their way. Sometimes it’s because they don’t feel connected. Sometimes they are under too much stress to access the skills they need. And sometimes they simply haven’t learned the skills they need to do better. They don’t know what else to do
What can you do about it?
Think about what kind of behaviour your child is exhibiting and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it age or stage-appropriate? Sometimes it is not our child’s behavior that is the problem, but our own expectations and response to it. Are you being realistic about what your child is capable of right now based on both their chronological and developmental age? We need to meet kids where they are not, not where we think they should be!
- What skills does my child need to NOT engage in this behaviour? i.e. How do I support them to do something different? Assuming your child is capable of learning the skill – how can you teach it to them? We often assume that children will simply pick up important skills along the way, but more often than not, we need to explicitly teach them. So wait until your child is calm and settled (mid meltdown is not a time for teaching skills) and talk to them about what they can try next time a similar challenge comes up. Give them any tools they might need. Practice skills together. And if you can, coach them through it in real-time.
Ultimately, kids who feel connected, are well regulated, know what is expected of them (and can do it) will behave well. Not perfectly, but like children.
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.