When difficult behaviors start being daily occurrences for our children, what do we do? Behavior problems are an expression of an unmet need. But where to start? In our recent parent group, we were discussing aggressive behaviors in children, from talking back to hitting. Instead of just focusing on what we could do to STOP the behavior, we began making a list of all the possible sources of the behavior. What could be causing the child to be angry, defiant, and decidedly in charge? A significant awareness the parents came to, was that so often a child’s behavior is a reflection of something the parent is doing or not doing, or something that’s going on at home. It could be parents arguing, or having problems at work, or not understanding what the child needs at a particular stage of development. If we begin to look at ourselves first when our child is having problems, it may help us find a solution to help our child move through a difficult period.
A three year old was acting aggressively towards friends and teachers both, and nothing seemed to make any difference: time outs, special attention from teachers, not being able to play with certain children or certain toys. The aggression was actually increasing. We met with mom and talked in great depth about the boy and his daily schedule. Mom was so busy it was hard to find one on one time with her son; when they did have time together it was always with his baby sister. We figured out he was angry because he wanted more time with his mom. So we brainstormed how she could find the time, and she was able to come up with a half hour on weekdays. The change in his behavior was immediate: when he got what he was needing, the anger went away. Young kids can’t talk about what they need or what is going on inside of them that is more subconscious. It is up to us to figure it out, and that often requires an honest evaluation of ourselves.
The second place to look when children are having behavior issues is school or with peers. Older children are dealing with more complex pressures that can result in acting out in anger or negativity. When we have conferences with parents we again explore a bigger picture than just what is going on at school. We don’t only try to change the situation, but look for overall patterns that may be making it difficult for the child to emotionally handle the conditions she finds herself in. We also look to the parents to give us a deeper understanding of the child.
There was one girl who was extremely anxious in working out problems with friends. She got so pressurized that she would cry, shake, be unable to express what she was feeling, and sometimes lash out physically. After meeting with the parents we found out that mom tried very hard to make everything perfect for her. She was anxious that the child behave just right, have the best manners, be on time, etc. This pressure, although it came from a loving place to want the best for her daughter, was actually pressurizing her, and she couldn’t handle it. Once mom started to relax more, let there be imperfections and mistakes, and not be right on top of the child, the girl began to relax and find solutions to problems she had with her friends. Her relationships began to improve.
In other situations, the school a child is in is not the right school for that child’s needs and learning styles. This can be true for countless children who school administrator’s recommend “drugging” so that the child can sit still and learn. Often children are acting out because they are bored, not interested in the material being taught, lost in a large classroom where they can’t connect to the teacher in a meaningful way, or unable to learn from the usual intellectual presentation when they are hands on learners. Is something really wrong with the child, or are they in the wrong learning environment that isn’t exciting, challenging, joyful and inspiring (which is what school should be for every child).
Lastly, we need to realize that we not only pass on hereditary traits to our children, that often come down through generations (yes, hot tempers can run in families, as can learning problems such as dyslexia), but that our children also “inherit” other tendencies that they learn from us directly or though modeling. These can be both gifts, talents, strengths as well as weaknesses and issues we wish we didn’t have. I can give countless examples of how our children reflect us, and if we would have the courage to look honestly at ourselves before we blame external conditions, or even solely blame the children for their behaviors, we will learn a great deal about how we deeply affect our children in everything we do. This can sometimes be painful, but if we are willing to work and grow, our children grow.
I do believe that children ultimately have to take responsibility for their actions. This is much less likely to come about if the main emphasis is on punishment for behaviors, and it certainly won’t come about with too much permissiveness. If we don’t get to the root cause of the problems, they also will continue, most likely throughout their childhood or even life. I have often had to tell parents, you better look down the road and see what kind of adult your child will be if these issues don’t change. This first and foremost, means looking at themselves.