Understand our children's behaviour
Eye rolls, snarky remarks, defiance, is this simply bad behaviour from our children? Or is there something more to it?
It seems as though our normal stresses have been ramped up exponentially because of all of the changes we’ve had to endure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Deprivation of social-connections, fewer opportunities to de-stress, forced online classes and families in a state of panic have affected many of our children’s mental health and well-being.
Many parents have come to me with complaints about their children’s behaviour. I hear a lot of the ‘what,’ as in ‘what’ their child is doing to upset them. For example, Tina is lying about doing her homework. Johnny screams at me when I asked him if he has revised his work. Mary passes us “like a full bus” in the house without even saying good morning or good afternoon.
I’ve heard parents say that they “can’t take this disrespect anymore” or that they feel to “slap this rudeness” out of the child. But before we do something that we regret, before we cause hurt and trauma that may not be healed, let us pause to figure out the ‘why’.
In order for us to know how to cope with the behaviour we first have to figure out why we are seeing this. Remember, our children’s behaviour is their way of communicating with us.
Instead of reacting to the specific behaviours we face when our children act out, it is important that we investigate the cause. We have to look beneath the tip of the iceberg to really see the full picture.
Reacting to ‘bad behaviour’ in an aggressive way will only worsen it.
It is critical that parents observe themselves to ensure that they are not modelling the same behaviours they are seeing in their children.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the Secondary Entrance Assessment has historically been a time of great angst. Mental health professionals, medical practitioners, teachers and other allied professionals have witnessed children regress, act out, withdraw and display other behaviours associated with acute fear.
Now, those children who are our current standard five classes, during the coronavirus pandemic have even more to cope with.
In my practice, I have seen well-intentioned parents perpetuate high levels of stress and worry. Incessant nagging, as well as subtle and not so subtle threatening remarks about exam performance, result in heightened levels of hypervigilance and sensitivity.
Because parents are fearful, their children become fearful. As such, there is a high level of reactivity in the home. Parents then become the unknowing cause of trauma and pain for the children they love most in the world.
Some children act out to feel a sense of power and control. Often times we see this in children who are anxious or fearful.
Acting in an overtly hostile manner may give them a semblance of power in a situation where they may be feeling powerless. The negative, hostile, or knee-jerk reactions may be their ‘worry-brain’s’ way of trying to protect them in a situation where they feel vulnerable.
If you suspect this is the situation with your child, it is important to figure out why they are feeling powerless. In this pandemic many children are so sad and angry their worlds have been taken away from them in such an aggressive manner that they are reacting in an equally harsh way.
Other children act out to hurt others because they are hurt. They loop on catastrophic thoughts which then lead to victim-oriented thinking. They believe that they have been the target of an unfair system or unfair authority figures so they may push-back in order to inflict the pain they are experiencing. They lash out at those who want to help or even those who simply want to spend time with them. This behaviour is the result of a lack of coping strategies and high defence.
Some children act out to avoid. Maybe the work is too much or too taxing. Perhaps they are unable to independently manage it all. As such, they may act out or even withdraw to dodge having to do the work, which is the source of the anxiety.
Finally, some children may act out to get the attention of others. When a person feels incompetent or even undeserving, it may be that the only time they feel seen is when they are noticed for ‘bad behaviour’. For some, it is better to be noticed even if they are seen in a negative light than to be ignored or dismissed.
So, what can we do? Sometimes it is so difficult to get children to speak to us when they are highly defensive and hypervigilant.
First, and most importantly, we must take a deep, possibly difficult, look at ourselves as parents. What message are we sending to our children by our behaviours? Are we sending the message that our love is tied to their performance whether at school or anywhere else? Do we make demands on them by dangling our kindness and affection in front of them like the proverbial carrot before the donkey? Are we using emotional blackmail to get what we want? Do we make threats, subtle or not, that plant catastrophic thoughts in their minds? Are our expectations realistic?
If you have noticed these behaviours in yourself, it is important that you take some time to reflect. Think about your priorities and consider whether your behaviour towards your children is aligned with what matters the most to you. Take some time for self-care. In doing so, you model this for your child. Healthy eating, exercise, meditation are all in sync with wellness.
Prioritise your day for bonding exercises which will allow for conversations to flow freely. For some, the most meaningful conversations are held during a game of cards or when taking a walk. These are the situations where the defences are down which would set the stage for healthy bonding and communication.
Practice and teach grounding strategies for your children. Challenge the extreme thoughts which haunt you. Instead of thinking about what might happen, what could happen, or what should happen, focus on what is happening in the present. Remember, we cannot return to the past and we can’t control the future since it has not yet happened. We have only our present and in the present, we must guide with love and respect.
Allow your child to see they have a choice. They can choose to ruminate on negative thoughts or thoughts which limit them and keep them inflexible. Remember if you, as parents, are modelling such behaviours, a child is more than likely to imitate it as well.
Conversely, if you model the strategies to challenge negative thoughts, then your child can choose to identify strengths, recognise helpful strategies, and recognise their competency. All of which will lead to a feeling of empowerment. It is important to focus on what their situation is rather than what it isn’t.
For example, if a child complains about not seeing friends or being in a social group, focus on what can happen instead of what can’t, even if it is not ideal.
Together, have a discussion about safety protocols and procedures but also ask them to help you come up with alternatives which work.
Instead of looping on thoughts of isolation, chose one or two close friends/family members who you are both comfortable with.
Instead of complaining about not playing with friends, have your child choose outdoor activities or an outdoor area which is safer than remaining indoors.
Instead of focusing on banned contact sports, choose from a few non-contact sports where they can engage in play with one or two friends (bike riding, cricket, swimming).
As parents, it is critical that we maintain our self-control by engaging in consistent self-reflection. This will calm the energies of the home and thus allow for healthier communication. Allow for the natural consequences of behaviours but then engage in a healthy discussion of the event. Encourage your child to discuss lessons learned, challenges faced as well as action-planning. This will encourage resilience, strategic thinking as well as perseverance despite whatever obstacles come our way.
Consistency in parenting is critical since it helps enforce desired, healthy behaviours which lead to success. For example, if a child throws a temper tantrum to avoid the subject she dislikes, then she may continue to do so since her actions proved fruitful in achieving her goal.
Instead, find the source of the discomfort and set a plan together to cope. This will build flexible thinking, motivation and resilience which are key to success. Let your child see that you are aware of his/her feelings, that you accept them with all of their emotions and that you allow them to experience the emotions in their entirety.
Guide your child through the process of noticing his/her sense of competency as well as merit. This will help build inner strength and fortitude.