Your child’s behavior is not the problem. Really.
If your child’s behavior is not the problem, then what is?
Some parents reply, “I’m the problem!” It’s true that you may be part of the problem but here’s the real answer . . .
The problem is the problem. There’s always something deeper that causes the behavior to show up. Always.
Behavior is only what we see . . . it’s on the tip of the iceberg.
But under the surface children have beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and abilities (or lack thereof based on developmental stage and physical or neurological differences) that are driving what we see.
When we get curious, and look under the surface, we begin to see that our kids want to do well, they want to please us and stay connected, but something is getting in their way. Our job is then to figure out what that is . . .
Sometimes what’s getting in the way is a basic feeling of hunger or fatigue. We’ve all seen how hunger and fatigue can affect our kids’ behavior, right?
Sometimes what’s getting in the way is abilities or rather, the lack thereof. When we expect our kids to do something that they’ve not yet developed the skills to do, that can also end up looking like “misbehavior.” For example, if you tell your 4YO child to color inside the lines, they might throw the crayon or scream out of frustration.
But there’s something else that gets in the way.
Alfred Adler, the pioneering psychiatrist whose philosophy underlies Positive Discipline, proposed that very often, what’s getting in the way of behaving well are feelings, thoughts or beliefs having to do with two things: Belonging and Significance.
Belonging: I’m included, connected, loved
Significance: I matter, I’m capable, I’m worthy
At the heart of Positive Discipline is the Adlerian theory (it’s really more fact than theory now) that all children (and adults) have a strong and basic need for belonging and significance.
And when children feel, believe, or think that these basic needs are not getting met, they will try to get their needs met, in whatever way they can think of, which might be to whine, or have a tantrum, or sneak, or any number of “misbehaviors.”
For example, if you believe you’re not included, not connected or loved enough after a new baby sibling comes home from the hospital, you might be more clingy or whiny, or you might try to push the baby off the bed (exactly what my oldest did at age 3.)
These are feelings, beliefs, and thoughts that can get in the way of doing or behaving well.
Think of yourself for a moment. When you feel rejected, (for example, how you might feel when you don’t get invited to the neighborhood Mom’s night out) or humiliated (when your boss criticizes you in front of the whole team), do you behave differently?
Most adults will admit that it’s hard not to behave differently because things like rejection and humiliation hurt.
Thanks to brain scan research using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), we now know that the place in the brain that registers social pain is the same place in the brain that registers physical pain. (Read more about this fascinating research in Matthew Lieberman’s book, “Social”)
To the brain, a threat to my belonging or significance feels just like a threat to my physical safety, and before I know it I’m ready to fight (with defiance or back talk for example), or flee (avoiding, lying, sneaking, etc.), or flop (accept my fate as a boring and useless member of society and give up.)
The opposite is also true: when belonging and significance are strongly felt, many misbehaviors simply disappear.
There’s no need for back talk when I feel connected and respected. There’s no reason to push the baby off the bed when I know I’m loved, valued, and needed as much as ever.
As Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline frequently notes, “kids do better when they feel better” and “where did we get the crazy idea that in order to make kids do better, we have to make them feel worse?”
The opposite is true, and it’s true for me, too: when I’m well-fed, well-slept, and when I feel loved, appreciated, respected, and capable, I do better – as a Mom and person in general.
So how do we help our children perceive that strong sense of belonging and significance (without feeding a sense of entitlement)?
One very easy thing to do is put your smart phone away and really listen to your child with your eyes, your body, and your heart. Deep listening is one sure way to send the message that “you matter, and I care about you.” This tool is called a GEM, a Genuine Encounter Moment and I swear when I use it, my child naturally gets more cooperative.
Another is to give your children meaningful responsibilities in the home, so that they learn life skills and create the belief that “I matter, I’m needed, I’m capable.”
These are just two of many tools that can help you parent with more peace and cooperation.