How To Reframe Our View of Children’s Negative Behaviors
Being a parent is difficult. You are thrust into the most important job of your life with little preparation and little guidance on how to succeed. Unless you have a degree in Child Development, you are often left with little to go on, except how you were parented. And to be honest, the way most of us were parented, left much to be desired. It’s no wonder many parents are struggling from the moment their child enters toddlerhood.
When our kids are babies, life is relatively easy. They cry and fuss, and we do everything in our power to meet their needs. They are completely dependent on us, and no matter how exhausted we are, we make it our mission to make sure that they survive.
But when our children are inching towards toddlerhood and showing independence, it’s as if something snaps inside. And we start perceiving a lot of their behaviors through a very negative lens. Toddler pulling hair, in our eyes, turns into a vicious and premeditated action that needs to be nipped in the bud, unless we want our child to turn into a hardcore criminal. Toddler not responding to the word “No”, means stubborn and defiant child that needs that stubbornness knocked out of them or else. It’s really not a pretty picture.
These types of views of child behavior set up the stage for overly punitive and harsh parenting. This parenting corrodes and weakens to bond between parent and child. Contrary to the beliefs of most people, harsh parenting actually leads to worse outcomes as the child grows, while parenting with empathy helps the child to grow and develop into the best version of themselves.
So, how do we stop this vicious cycle of perceiving our children as conniving, manipulative, stubborn, and defiant? We do it by understanding what underpins child behavior, and reframing how we view these negative behaviors. When we switch the label, we are able to see our children for who they truly are, and provide empathy instead of harshness.
First Step – Understanding What Lies Beneath The Behavior
For a very long time, behaviors have been approached as an almost stand alone action with nothing underlying it. Behaviors were viewed as simply adaptive or maladaptive. The adaptive behaviors are those that are socially approved, and get us what we want in an appropriate manner. It’s something like saying “please” and “thank you” when you want something and when you receive it. The maladaptive behaviors are those that are generally not socially approved and are considered inappropriate. Those would be yelling at someone if you don’t get what you want.
Because behaviors were viewed as stand alone actions, the whole strategy of ignoring the bad behaviors and praising the good behaviors was employed for so long. The problem with it, it didn’t work nearly as well as we would have liked. If behaviors were as simple as, if I do this, good things happen, so I continue; but if I do this, bad things happen, so I stop; we’d be able to nip bad behaviors in the bud at warp speed. But as any parent or child professional knows, it doesn’t work that way. (It doesn’t even work that way for adults). And because we have armed parents with a poorly working strategy, parents get frustrated, angry, and eventually overly punitive with their children.
It is time to end this cycle, and explain what really happens when our children misbehave.
First, it’s important to remember that our children’s brains and nervous systems are under constant construction. In fact, our human brains don’t reach full maturity until 25 years of age. (If you’d like to learn more details about toddler brain development, read Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old). So, keeping that in mind, you can’t expect that learning of socially desirable behaviors will happen neatly and quickly.
How fast your child adapts will depends exclusively on how their brain develops. Some kids develop very fast in their ability to self-regulate and manage emotions, while others develop very slow. You also need to remember that while you can make some base generalizations about neurotypical children, you cannot do the same about neurodiverse children.
*For anyone unfamiliar with the term neurodiverse before, it applies to people with all sort of developmental differences like Autism, ADHD, Down Syndrome, and other developmental disorders. Although calling any of these disorders is not the best description of what is actually going on in the brain.*
But with new research coming out about behaviors, we now know that behaviors are like the tip of an iceberg. They are simply what is visible from the outside. But there is a giant piece underneath that is hidden. That piece is what precedes the behavior.
Now that you can see that your child’s behavior started somewhere in their body and wasn’t simply for attention, you can start addressing it differently. You know now that ignoring the behavior you don’t like will not make it go away, unless it truly was for attention, but few behaviors really are just attention seeking.
Same goes for punishing the behavior. By simply punishing a behavior you are not addressing the underlying reason for the behavior. Thus you are not actually helping the behavior to stop. That’s why doing multiple time-outs a day, taking things away, screaming, yelling, or spanking doesn’t actually lead to any meaningful behavior changes. Behaviors are changed through empathy, understanding, and patient teaching, which is hard but doable.
Second Step – Getting Curious About Your Child’s Motivations
Since you now know that there could be 5 different things that precede your child’s behavior, it is time to get curious about which one actually applies. That is a very important step. True teaching can only happen when you view your child as an individual. Yes, you can and should use the knowledge you gain from quality parenting books and blogs to start setting up parenting strategies. But you should be open and flexible to change things up if they’re not working. And again, this will heavily depend on whether your child is neurotypical or neurodiverse. This article is primarily geared towards neurotypical children, as the strategies we use can be more generalized. With a neurodiverse child, I would encourage you to use these strategies as a mere framework that you will adapt to your child’s individual needs.
Since we are talking about negative behaviors, one of the biggest things that sets parents into a frenzy is children’s non-compliance. I know that all parents know what I’m talking about. It’s the time you are running late to work, and your child is dragging their feet, and being the slowest they’ve ever been. Or the time you tell them “No”, they look at you, and do it anyway. It’s infuriating to an already stressed out parent.
This non-compliance starts to feel premeditated, and directed at you with a malicious purpose. And when those thoughts start swirling around in your head, you start descending into a pretty dark place. A place, where you can no longer find any empathy for your child. And that is a dangerous place to be.
So, next time you feel yourself descending into this spiral, STOP and take a deep breath. Keep in mind that these behaviors are not directed at you (even if it feels that way), and are not malicious or meant to make your life more difficult. They are simply your child having a difficult time or trying to learn how this world works. There is always a reason behind your child’s actions and that reason is rarely a malicious one.
Third Step – Don’t Take Non-Compliance Personally
When you are met with non-compliance next time, take a moment to get curious and understand why your child is not complying. Do they not truly understand what you want? Or maybe they’re lacking self-control to actually do it? Studies show that parents, unfortunately, overestimate how much self-control is age appropriate to expect. For example, saying “No” to a 1 year old and expecting them to comply is a recipe for getting very angry and starting to punish your child. Even if you think your 1 year old understands what you are saying (most likely they do), they lack the self-control to comply with you. And you can’t make that self-control develop faster by punishing them. Self-control only appears with age and repeated practice. It should never be fear driven.
Another example where non-compliance gets taken personally is when your child can’t transition from one activity to the other at the speed you want them to. Instead of understanding the why and helping their child in the process, many parents simply get irritated, then angry, then they scream or throw hands up in the air and feel powerless. Neither outcome leads to a good situation.
The truth is, you’re probably tired, have gotten into an argument with your partner, potentially feel like no one listened to you at work, so having your child pile on top of that ends up being the last straw. You break and unleash all your pent up rage and frustration on your child. But the reality is that your child isn’t not complying because they want to make your life hard, they’re having a hard time transitioning.
Please, next time your child is not compliant take a breath and pause. Take a few seconds to figure out why they may not be complying, then voice your findings to your child, see how they respond, and then come up with a solution together. Of course, with a younger, even verbal child it might be hard to come up with a solution together. This is where you can take a more assertive role, and suggest things that could work and have your child follow through. Make it a positive experience that is geared towards helping your child, not a punitive one.
Fourth Step – Change The Negative Labels For Your Child and Their Behavior
Now that you know that negative behaviors deserve curiosity and should not be taken personally, it is time to change all the negative labels you have for your child. What I have encountered personally and working with other parents, is that we often use very negative language to label our children. And with this negative language we build negative associations, and lose the necessary empathy to help our children work through tough times.
Ask yourself, what have you labeled your child when they don’t comply or do things the way you expect them to? How do you describe your children to others, especially when you’re venting?
Here are some common examples of negative labels we give our children:
- Out Of Control
Now, let me ask you this – do you really want to help problem solve with someone who is spoiled, stubborn, or manipulative? Of course not. Who would? And if you see your child as any of those negative things, you are more likely to take their negative behavior personally, and less likely to help them solve problems. And that is not a good parenting approach.
Let’s change this. It’s completely in your power. Sit down and make a list of what labels you use for your child whether in your head or when you’re venting about them. Now say them out loud, without your child being able to hear, and see how you feel in your body. You will most likely experience tensions, slight heart rate increase, irritation, and maybe even a bit of anger. Those are all clues to you that these labels are corroding your relationship with your child.
Try to come up with more positive labels for your child’s behavior. And if you need some help, this worksheet is there to get you started.
Fifth Step – Remember That We’re All Human
As the final step in reframing your view of negative childhood behaviors is perhaps the most important step of all. Remember that we’re all human. Yes, that means you, mama, and your child. You are both human and come with your own set of quirks, your own temperament, your own needs, and wants. A lot of the times your wants and needs will clash with your children’s. It is normal and to be expected. Learn to give both yourself and them some grace.
As a parent, you need to change your mindset around child obedience and compliance. Neither one of those should ever be the long term goal. Children don’t come into this world as empty cups that we must fill. They come pretty full of their material, and we, parents, need to learn how to work with this material, and help it reach its full potential. So, forget all the advice you’re getting from the “well meaning” relatives about needing to control your child. It’s not necessary. After all, our goal in parenting should be our children making the right decision not out of fear, but because it’s the right thing to do.
When you feel frustrated and angry that your child isn’t complying, take a break. Walk into a different room, and take a few breaths. Lock yourself in the bathroom, if necessary. But find a space for yourself to calm down. Clamping down on your child and demanding obedience will only spiral you further.
We all have bad days, bad moods, moments when we don’t feel well. It’s ok. It’s important to remember that when we aren’t doing well, our children aren’t either. They sponge up our negative emotions, and then reflect them back at us. This is all the more reason to engage in self-care and prioritize your well being, over the next load of laundry or another spec of dust. Humans need rest. Humans need breaks. And they need fun. So, incorporate that into your life as much as possible.
Final Words On Reframing Our View of Children’s Negative Behaviors
This blog post only scratches the surface of our need to reframe how we view children’s behavior. But it’s enough to get you started to make positive changes in yours and your child’s relationship. Remember, you and your child are human. You both have your own priorities. But it’s up to us, adults, to help navigate these priorities for everyone, in a way that feels positive. I know you can do it! I know you can make this change!