When They’re Hell-Bent on Misbehaving

“In contrast to their enthusiastic, loving nature, all children (like all adults) experience times when they aren’t themselves. They lose their sunny attitude, their ability to make each day a good one… They can’t listen or respond thoughtfully to the situation around them. Their behavior goes off track, and they begin to do things that don’t work, things that isolate them from other people…Every effort to guide them sends them further off track…When our children are unreasonable, they are asking for our help. They need us to set limits for them. They also need to know that we care about them. It’s our caring that puts them back on track again.” — Patty Wipfler

Pillow FamilyWhen your child is acting like a little demon, it’s your cue to step in. He’s signaling that he needs you to hold him — figuratively and literally.  He needs your help to work through some “messy” pent-up emotions.  He needs to reconnect with you, and with his own sense of well-being.  And he’ll keep acting out until you help him.

If you punish him for misbehaving, you’re not helping him dispell the emotions that have fueling his misbehavior.  Even “mild” punishments like timeouts isolate a child and disconnect him from us just when he needs a loving parent the most.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t set limits as necessary. In fact, a limit–set emphatically so he feels safe–may be just what he needs to trigger a release of his upset feelings. Crying in the safety of your loving presence restores your child to a state of well-being and connection. It takes time to listen to all the upset, but once he feels good again, he’ll be more flexible and content, because he’s feeling the love you’ve offered him.

How do you set limits that help your child?


1. Be kind but firm“We don’t hit….It’s time for bed…..Toys are not for throwing….It’s time to leave the playground.” Usually, you’ll need to intervene physically to enforce the limit because kids in an upset state can’t control themselves. Your child needs to know it’s a firm limit.  If she senses you waffling, she’ll keep fighting to change the limit rather than grieving and moving on.

2. Empathize “I see that this is hard…You really want the candy,” or, “I know you don’t want to stop playing.” Don’t try to name or categorize your child’s feelings, but do say that you care, and you see their struggle. Be brief. Be warm. Few words and lots of listening are what’s needed.

3. If your child begins to rage or cry, stay close. You’ve given your child a tremendous gift:  access to the feelings that were making him act out. You may think he’s over-reacting, but who knows what hurts he has stored up that he needs to get off his chest? It’s your loving, attentive presence that allows him to feel all these scary feelings and let them go. Hold him if you can, but if he struggles, just stay close. Be his witness.

Reassure him that things are OK, and that you care about him in the midst of his upset. You can say things like, “I’m right here. I’m sorry this is so hard. I will stay with you. When you want, I’ll hold you.” Don’t say much about crying, or that it’s good to cry. This tends to take the focus off your support and your caring, and to make children feel that you want a certain result out of them. “I want your day to go well,” “There will be another time for what you want,” “No one is upset with you,” “I know…this is hard,” are the kinds of things you could say that focus on your caring and your understanding, or that show your confidence that he can make it through these challenging moments.

4. Reconnect. After kids have a meltdown, they’re ready to reconnect with you. Don’t insist they talk about their emotions.  They probably don’t know why they were so upset, and feeling analyzed will make them feel less safe about trusting you with their inner lives.  Just scoop them up, hug them, reassure them that everyone needs to cry sometimes and that you love them no matter what.

Should you always set limits?  No. First be sure that what you’re asking is age-appropriate.  You can’t ask a two year old to sit quietly in a restaurant in the name of setting limits.  Second, be sure you’re not creating the situation with your own impatience. Kids are acutely sensitive to the tension a grownup carries, and often show that they feel cut off by acting out. In those cases, a quick change in expectations, and a hug or a few moments of Special Time might help to restore everyone’s sanity. Third, offer help.  Sometimes your child can pull himself together if you just offer assistance with whatever’s frustrating him.

But if he seems hellbent on trouble, he’s asking for your help. Give him the heaven of your loving attention, and you’ll get your little angel back.

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