ParentTip: Engaging the Child Behind the Behavior

When a child is misbehaving it’s easy to assume the worst. Whether it be our own child, a student, or family member, thoughts like “they’re just doing that to get attention” or “he’s just a troublemaker” sneak their way into our heads and actually affect the way we perceive that child’s actions in the future. Adults can have a habit of immediately labeling children without considering the factors that may be contributing to the unwanted behavior. This can result in a child being labeled as “bad” when it’s really the behavior that’s causing trouble. Now imagine how such a label could impact a child who struggles with chronic anxiety or depression which manifests itself as unwanted behaviors in the classroom or at home?

Kids who are struggling with chronic emotional and behavioral concerns deserve the benefit of a compassionate doubt.
— Mitch Abblett and Joseph D'Antuono, Esq.

Psychologist Mitch Abblett suggests that adults try look past the behavior and focus on the emotions that are fueling it. Easier said than done when your seven year old is face down in the kitchen kicking and screaming for a granola bar right? Thankfully, he offers a step-by-step approach to staying calm and becoming curious to what’s causing your little one to completely lose it.

Pause & Practice: Kid-Whispering with Kindness

The next time you’re watching a kid struggle to manage their feelings and actions, try the following practice to spark a higher, more helpful perspective.

1. Anchor yourself in your breathing. Feel the sensations of the breath in the body as you inhale and exhale one complete breath.

2. Notice something in your immediate surroundings or bodily sensations (perhaps the feel of air on your skin, your feet on the floor, or the tick of a clock). Just quickly and silently notice something that is “here and now” other than the labels, judgments and blaming thoughts about the child (e.g. being “a pain,” “manipulative,” “just looking for attention”) that are likely surfacing.

3. With genuine curiosity, ask yourself: What might they be “needing” behind this unpleasant, disruptive, angry behavior? What unmet expectation is most important to them? Don’t stop with labels of “attention” or “escaping a demand.” While these may have an element of truth, they still blame the kid in a way. Instead ask: And what might be behind that? (Hint: it will be something along the lines of looking for caring, respect, reassurance, a sense of competence, being connected and belonging to something/someone, etc.).

4. Notice any blankness, push-back, or “but” reactions in your mind and let them pass. Let go of your agendas and desired outcomes. Hold onto the need behind their behavior as if it’s a jewel you’ve discovered—a hidden treasure others have missed in this kid for a long time.

5. Wonder how this perspective on what’s behind things for this child might inform your next action. How might you act from compassion instead of consternation? Perhaps you will lean forward and whisper that you “know things are hard” and that you “want to help them get through this.” Or maybe simply loosen and let go of the scowl or the exasperated eye-rolling.

6. Wonder how this child might benefit from actions from adults informed by compassionate, “behind”-the-behavior perspective? If you in some way reach or, or stay present with them despite their difficulties, what message will that send?

7. Take in another breath and take a leap in the direction this perspective nudges. DO something to talk in a non-blaming or shaming way. Offer choices or solutions. Give them your sincere caring. Certainly make it clear that they are responsible for their negative behavior AND make it clear they are not a bad kid for having used these behaviors to wake people up to the needs behind them.

8. Adults should give kids permission to fail. We shouldn’t avoid talking to children about their problems and “imperfections”—be they emotional, physical or behavioral. The avoidant silence from adults is message enough. Kids struggling with emotional, learning, behavioral, or physical challenges are left filling in the blank stares with assumptions of blame and badness. Joe thinks we should let kids be imperfect. “Just talk to them,” he says. “Have the conversation so that they know you care.”