Does it seem that disagreements rise up out of nowhere in your family? Tantrums, upsets, and arguments may seem to happen over such small occurrences but are often caused by a built up store of worry and fears.
We often call children's outbursts “bad behavior” but in her book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, Patty Wipfler describes off-track behavior as clear signals your child is asking for help. They are demanding attention because they need it.
When connections are close between parent and child, the world is sweet. Your home is filled with laughter and giggles, happiness and love. But when that connection starts to fray, bumpy behavior sets in.
When children feel frustrated, threatened, or worried, they look to you to feel safe. But when life takes you away – whether that's for work or into the kitchen to prepare dinner – cracks of disconnection can appear. That's why you might leave a gaggle of fun-loving kids one minute and then hear them screaming at each other the next. Other times, you may have spent a special day out having fun, and still arrived home with a grumpy sourpuss fizzing for a fight.
Kids don't purposely ‘treat you mean.' When they tantrum or shout they are telling you exactly what they need: a listening ear, a gentle word, and support. They need to feel your connection so that they can release whatever it is causing the upset. When children feel safe enough to release these feelings, the storm fades, calm waters return.
Most times, these behaviors seem unreasonable, sometimes they seem completely unfathomable, and as parents, when we have no idea where these upsets are coming from, it's easy to respond reactively – using harsh words, telling our kids to stop whining or crying, or demanding they do what we need them to.
As the warning signals below show, behaviors erupt as kids process their doubts and fears – some that they may have kept hidden inside, stored away, for a long time. By noticing the signs they are sending, you have a moment to gather yourself, take a breath, and put aside your agenda (the washing goes unwashed, the dinner gets put on hold) get in close, and listen.
Whether you choose to diffuse with humor or offer your support as they cry, this is a moment to restore your connections.
Read and Respond: What's Causing Your Child to Act Out?
THE BROKEN COOKIE: Sometimes a tiny thing, like seeing the corner fall off her cookie or losing a Lego catapults your child into tears or tantrums. This is probably the most common signal children give that they need your help and attention. This signal tells you, “I have so many feelings bottled up inside that I can’t go on. Every little thing makes me unhappy. I need you to be with me while I get rid of this upset! It’s making my life miserable.”
When you witness a huge emotional flare ignited by a tiny issue, it’s likely that much of the intensity is rooted in a difficult past experience. The broken cookie or lost Lego piece merely reminds your child of that earlier, harder time. What seems like much ado about nothing is actually a valuable opportunity to help your child heal. You can rebuild her sense of connection with you and make her less prone to difficult behavior in the future by offering connection and listening. If you anchor her through the storm, she’ll recover her serenity.
THE SPOILED OUTING: Birthday parties, family gatherings, holidays, and trips to special places will trigger a “spoiled outing” upset in almost every child. This signal arises when you give extra time and attention to your child, or when a group of friends or relatives gathers. At some point during the special occasion, your child gets upset over some small thing. This signal says, “It feels so hopeful when we’re having fun together. Now that we’re close, let me tell you about this awful feeling I sometimes have. Help me with this, please!”
It’s almost as if the security and fun of the moment flushes stale feelings out into the open with the power of a fire hose. Of course, this happens right when you’re counting on your child to be cooperative and tuned in. The Spoiled Outing is such a common occurrence that you can plan ahead for it. Your child is not ungrateful. She feels the good will around her, and her instincts tell her it’s a great time to clean house!
STOP ME!: This is another classic. When you’ve been busy, worried, rushed, or spending time with others, your child’s little boat drifts away from the anchor of your attention. She may have signalled for attention once or twice already. Perhaps you brushed her off, hoping trouble would go away; more likely, you had your hands full and couldn’t respond. So, desperate for connection, your child looks you straight in the eye and does something you’ve told her ten times not to do. She rips leaves off the plant in the living room, or throws a block at her sister. This signal says, “I’m feeling lost—it drives me nuts to see you right here next to me when I’m feeling so alone. Help me!”
When a child deliberately breaks the rules we’ve laid down, we parents often think she’s out to defy or manipulate us. But getting your goat is not your child’s goal. She’s so driven to connect with you that she’d rather have you come to her angry than endure one more moment in isolation. Her mind needs a connection with you, pronto! So she finds a surefire way to bring you closer.
WITHDRAWAL: Sometimes, a child will give up on asking for your help. She’ll turn inward, and try to numb the ache of feeling alone or scared with a little ritual—sucking her thumb, twisting her hair, or clutching a blanket or action figure for dear life. This signal says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel good. I’m going to shift into idle until someone comes to help me.” There’s not a lot of hubbub with this signal. But your child is losing precious time for learning and exploring. She’s not ready to risk an active upset, but she’s disconnected enough that she can’t use her mind or body fully. If she’s attached to a pacifier, she can’t talk; while clutching a doll, she can’t use one of her hands; if she’s twisting her hair, she can’t run, laugh, or explore. Her plea for help is silent, and it will continue until you come and connect.
AGGRESSION: When your child moves to hurt someone else or herself, her behavior says, “Connection: zero! Thinking: none! I have no idea why I’m lashing out, but I don’t know how to stop!”
A child trapped in aggressive behavior is frightened and needs a warm but hands-on limit from a kind adult who can remember that she is good. Her sense of connection has simply run dry. Chapter 11, Lifting Fear, and Chapter 12, Moving Beyond Aggression, will show you how to use Listening Tools to shift your child from fear-based behavior to real connection and cooperation.
Hand in Hand's listening tools lets you respond to your children's frustrating behaviors more calmly. Read about these five amazing tools here and find out how to transform the relationship with your child.
This post is shared from the book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Struggles.
From the Hand in Hand Toolbox
- Could Secret Fears be Driving Your Child's Aggression?
- Handle off-track behavior calmly using Five Tools That Will Transform Your Parenting
- Find out how spending 10 minutes of Special Time can build connections and reduce challenging behaviors in this free video series – with free checklist
- Join a warm community of instructors and parents when you join the Hand in Hand Parent Club. With daily updates and advice, and regular call-ins and answer sessions, you'll find parenting less stressful, more simple and actually fun!