When Diane first met with me, she was frazzled by 4-year-old Emma’s misbehavior. She was convinced her daughter was a problem child or a child of rage. Like other parents, Diane assumed Emma was behaving badly, the incidents would never end, and they were both doomed! When I told Diane that I could show her how to manage Emma’s misbehavior without stress, she hesitated. When I told her that I would focus on positive discipline and attachment parenting styles, Diane looked at me like I was nuts. Now, she’s a believer!
Our initial conversation started with Diane’s passionate expressions of grief: “Every night, I try to get her to listen, but she just won’t. When dinner time arrives, I call her into the house, but she backtalks or refuses to listen. And when bedtime arrives, forget it. I feel like World War III is about to erupt. She throws temper tantrums, argues, acts defiantly, lashes out angrily and even blames other people for her misbehavior. I don’t know what to do.”
Diane wanted to be an effective parent, but she was stuck. As I saw the desperation in Diane’s eyes and I was moved. It was apparent she loved Emma but felt like a failure. I continued nodding empathetically, for I’d met many “Emmas” before. They’d been labeled with all sorts of interesting terms:
- Behaving badly
However, once I meet these so-called “holy terrors,” I get to help their parents recognize—for the first time—what is going on just below the surface. I live for those moments and here’s why. Once parents understand the real reasons driving a child’s unwanted behavior, it turns their anger and frustration into compassion and empathy in a flash.
The second I met Emma she shuffled into my room. It was clear to me that the misbehavior of this problem child was driven by something else. First, she was startled by sounds from the other room, signaling she was hyper-sensitive to noise. Then, she squinted, suggesting the fluorescent lighting was bothering her. Within minutes, Emma informed me the tags on her clothes were “itchy.” Emma went on to ask me if she could take off her shoes because her feet were hot. I was clear that Emma was NOT:
· A problem child with a quick temper
· A child of rage with undiagnosed mental health problems
Emma was an ordinary girl and something hidden and just beneath the surface was driving her temper tantrums.
At home and school, everyone assumed Emma was “making poor choices.” They focused on teaching her self-control so she could learn how to control her impulses, be more thoughtful, and make “better” choices. However, these well-meaning “experts” failed to recognize that Emma’s alleged “misbehavior” was not driven by “poor choices” or being “lazy” and “unmotivated.” It was driven by stress.
Emma’s misbehavior was also stress-behavior.
Please note: when children are hungry, tired, lonely or upset, their brain is under loads of stress. As they react to that stress, parents tend to assume the reactivity is misbehavior instead of stress-induced-behavior.
I wanted to help Diane be more successful with Emma. I wanted to give her healthy parenting tips focused on positive discipline, attachment parenting, and simple ways to get Emma to listen better. To do that, I needed to enhance Diane’s ability to assess Emma’s level of readiness correctly. I needed to help Diane recognize the extent to which Emma demonstrates the ability and willingness to do things like brushing her teeth and get ready for bedtime. Keep in mind that Emma’s readiness levels vary. For example, asking Emma to “get ready for bed” may go without a glitch on Monday. However, if she’s hungry, angry, lonely, or tired on Tuesday, Diane may only get a youngster who is behaving badly.
If you can relate to Diane’s story, I want to help you succeed. I want to help you understand the contrast between Emma’s misbehavior and her stress-induced-behavior. All you need to do is follow the two major components of your child’s readiness.
Component one: Emma’s ability
It’s been a long and very active day at the beach. Emma is super tired, and now it’s bedtime. Given Emma’s spirited temperament, her age, and stage of development, does she have the ability to emotionally self-regulate during the bedtime routine? If the answer is no, it’s safe to assume that Emma is unable to follow your lead. You can assume that Emma’s “insecure,” “lazy,” or “defiant” behavior is not a “poor” choice. Instead, Emma’s behavior is likely the product of being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. In this case, Emma is stuck and in the grip of these hidden forces. As a result, emotional reactivity and stress-behavior are sure to follow. This is a classic case of stress-behavior, not misbehavior.
What Emma needs is your patience, acceptance, and understanding. Emma needs empathy, warmth, hugs, patience, and then some gentle guidance. As Emma develops, she will gain the ability to manage bedtime after a long day at the beach. In the meantime, find your empathy and compassion (i.e., positive discipline and attachment parenting) and help Emma self-soothe. Try saying, “I know it’s hard to come upstairs and get ready for bed after a fun day at the beach. Sweetie, I remember how hard it was when I was your age. Do you want to walk upstairs, or do you want to ride on my back?”
Component two: Emma’s willingness
Let’s assume that Emma is ready. She has the ability to handle your request to get ready for bed. Next, we need to ask, “does she have the necessary commitment and motivation?” If the answer is no, it is safe to assume Emma is unwilling to go upstairs and get ready for bedtime. She is choosing to backtalk, defy, and act like a problem child for the moment. This is a classic case of misbehavior, not stress-behavior.
Yes, Emma is behaving badly. However, what she needs is your ability to be kind and firm at the same time. Your best bet is to calmly (let me say that again, calmly) give Emma choices or instruction and then supervise her closely. You could make it fun and start by repeating the example above and offer her a ride on your back up the stairs. If being lighthearted doesn’t do the trick, then it’s time to firm up your approach. Try saying something like, “Sweetie, would you like to go upstairs now, or do you want to lose a privilege?”
Yes, Emma’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions matter, but she’s unwilling. She’s not unable. When Emma’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions reflect her unwillingness, you must NOT be manipulated by them. Remember, Emma is able, but now she’s unwilling. Therefore, the faster you stop giving in to her misbehavior, the quicker she will learn that being stubborn or a child of rage only creates problems for her, not you.
The similarities between misbehavior and stress-behavior.
Misbehavior and stress-behavior are the languages of young children. Both contain incredibly valuable information about what children are afraid of and what they desire. But most importantly, both convey what children are able and unable to handle. Like Emma’s mother, you may be tempted to focus on self-control and yell, “Stop it!” or “Calm down!” when stress-behavior erupts. But Emma needs someone to show her how to self-soothe before she ever learns how to control her impulses.
Teaching Emma to self-soothe is about identifying the root cause of her behavior. It’s about being a safe-haven of rest for Emma, so together, you can help reduce her patterns of inattention, impulsivity, or defiance.
Pro tip: The trick is not to force your child to “face her problem,” exert her willpower, and “control” her impulses better. Instead, recognize the problematic behavior as an S.O.S. distress signal, not a poor choice. The unwanted behavior is a possible indication of being overstressed and in the grip of those hidden forces. Teasing apart misbehavior and stress-behavior is a bit like playing detective. Here are a few more practical ways to put this into practice:
Identify the symptoms of stress-behavior and misbehavior.
If your child comes down with a rash or a fever, those physical signs let you know something else is going on, something deeper, something underneath the surface. The same is true for “misbehavior.” On the surface, you may observe your child hitting, biting, yelling, sulking, crying, or being stubborn. But if the root cause is inability (not a choice), it is something deeper, something hidden like a knee-jerk reaction.
Like Emma, your child may be sensitive to sounds, lights or even certain textures. Developmentally speaking, he may be vulnerable to stress for her age. Like Emma, she may get overstimulated and “caught up” in social situations, unable (not unwilling) to make good choices. Sitting, standing, or waiting too long may be too much to bear for her temperament, age, or stage of development. The verdict? The unwanted behavior is stress-behavior, not misbehaver.
Reflect with your “problem child” so she can identify and regulate her stress better.
Giving children non-judgmental feedback ensures that they (not just you) become aware of the signs and symptoms of being hyper-aroused, overstressed, or a child of rage. Try saying something like, “I noticed you get pretty upset when your brother wants to play with your train set. Is that when you resort to hitting him?” Helping children understand the cause of their stress (rather than just managing their symptoms with “make a good choice, Emma”) will help both of you change your behavior over time.
Reduce the stress together as a team.
When Diane recognized Emma’s misbehavior as stress-behavior, she took action quickly. She lowered Emma’s daily activities and managed her arousal level more closely. She encouraged her to take breaks to “cool off” rather than reacting to Emma’s antics and punishing her with a timeout. Next, Diane dimmed the lights around the house and kept the noise at a minimum level. Large parties and loud play dates were avoided. Most importantly, Diane offered warmth and emotional support. She validated Emma’s stress and doled out plenty of hugs, smiles, and supportive gestures. Together, they lowered her stress. Together they started to restore their family harmony!
Respond to misbehavior, don’t react with discipline.
It is so important to be aware of and sensitive to your child’s innate and unique way of dealing with the world. Doing so helps you tailor your parenting style to match her temperament. As you read your child’s emotional states and behavioral rhythms, it helps the two of you function as a single relational unit—like a waltz or musical duet. Even more, it helps you both find the best way to bring your child back to a calm state, so you don’t have to endure the drama or resort to discipline! Would a hug or pat on the shoulder calm her? Does verbal affirmation help her relax? If you invested more quality time with her, would that soothe her soul? If you created space apart from each other, would that calm her down? Or, does something fun to focus on like a toy help restore emotional balance?
Pro tip: Responsive parenting or authoritative parenting are often associated with being too soft or permissive.
Permissive parenting involves:
· being responsive and nurturing (which is good for kids), and
· being lax or reluctant to impose limits (which is usually not good), and
· trying to be more of a friend than a parental figure to your child (NOT good).
Authoritative parenting (which science hails as the best parenting style) involves:
· being responsive and nurturing (which is good for kids), and
· imposing limits in a sensitive yet demanding way (which is good for kids), and
· trying to be an authority figure who builds mutual trust and respect (Fantastic!).
I am happy to report that after a few tweaks in her parenting style, Emma’s mother reclaimed her energy, peace, and joy. “Sure, I know he’ll still act out from time to time,” she said. “But I’m no longer in survival mode. Now I have clarity! I know the difference between Emma’s misbehavior and stress-behavior. I know how to guide her through BOTH with greater awareness, increased sensitivity, and much more confidence!” Best of all, now I can get her to listen the first time.
Have a “problem child” or “a child of rage?” Here’s a point to ponder.
When you zero in on the REAL source of your child’s behavior, it can generate a NATURAL and IMMEDIATE shift in how you think about, influence, and relate to your child. Your anger and frustration can turn into compassion, empathy, and confidence in an instant—and that’s what happened to Diane!