When we deal with kids’ tricky behaviors, we usually go towards things like rewards, charts, punishments, and the like. That’s been the standard for the past several decades, and is probably something similar to what we grew up with. As a mom of three now teenagers, I raised my kids this way, and then I learned more about the way kids’ (and all humans for that matter) brains develop and I suddenly understood why none of what I was doing was working.
If you have a child or children with difficult behaviors to manage, like not listening, touching everything, not paying attention, refusal to go to bed or brush teeth, hyperactivity, maybe even hitting, biting, spitting and severe tantrums, you have most likely tried everything. You might feel like your kid is malicious and intentionally misbehaving, mean, manipulative, defiant, and worry that they’ll be a total jerk of an adult. I have been there. Kids who act this way have often been diagnosed with a disorder of some sort to explain the symptoms. One challenge of this point of view is that it implies that there is something wrong with the child, and can make us forget that they are people with feelings and not just problems to solve. When kids challenge us, as parents we get frustrated and hurt and even resentful, which makes us spend less time with the child offering positive relational connections and experiences.
Ironically, positive relational connections and experiences are the actual antidote to their troubling behaviors. The updated school of thought coming from the latest research in interpersonal neurobiology is that the behaviors you’re seeing are actually the child’s way of coping with internal stress and inability to calm themselves. The kid most likely doesn’t even realize what’s happening or why. Teaching a kid to self-soothe is talked about a lot when you’re trying to get a baby to sleep through the night, but the reality is that we need to think about co-regulating much longer into the child’s lifecycle. Co-regulating means to offer a soothing presence to a child in distress so that the child will reorient their nervous system towards safety and calm.
When a parent sits with the child and says, “You are loved, it will be okay, I’ve got you, you’re not alone in this.” that parent is sending signals to the child’s nervous system that help them settle down when they are unable to regulate themselves.
This sense of safety and connection is the most important aspect of healthy brain development and mental capacity because when a child is stressed and out of control, they need help, and when we get angry and dismiss them we are sending a message that their brain and body is interpreting as dangerous, and the behavior will just get worse. If a kid is in distress, their body will take some kind of fight or flight type of action. That could mean squirming, making noises, being disruptive, calling for attention, yelling, hitting or other escalated reactions. When you see this starting, stop the child by gently playing your hand on their shoulder or hands, giving them a hug, get down to their eye level and say, let’s take a break together for a moment, or offer some help with whatever they’re dealing with. Offering help more often, acknowledging their stress and frustration, and giving them a loving connection without judgment or teaching is an effective way to help them calm down before they lose control, redirect them without having to punish, and offer their nervous system a strong sense of safety that serves as the foundation for them to learn emotional regulation.
Think about behaviors as signals that the child feels stressed and needs your help to feel safe again, they’re not disorders or problems to solve, but normal brain and body reactions for a developing mind. Remember that kids with troubling behavior need more help and loving connection, not less. When we shift our perspective to understanding what’s happening inside their minds and bodies, we can increase the sense of love and calm in our homes.
You can find these and more strategies for helping your kids overcome challenging behaviors in the books, Brain-Body Parenting by Mona Delahooke, PhD, and Parenting from the Inside Out by Dr. Daniel Siegel.
You can grab some of my favorite books below, I often share these with parents of my clients and I reference them often in my work.