By: Cristina Trette
Sometimes children act out in maddening ways - tantrums, explosive fighting with siblings, or an outright refusal to comply with requests. When these kinds of behaviors happen in homes with frequency, they tend to be met with strictness, tight control, or even force. It makes sense that parents would want to "lay down the law" on these types of behaviors! It is not pleasant to be around children when they are in this mode and many parents have been taught to eliminate these kinds of behaviors through punishment.
I punish from time to time. It is a reaction built in and passed down through generations. Yet, punishment-based parenting advice is out-dated. In fact, research suggests that punishment can make problem behavior even worse.
What we know today, and research supports this, is that children tend to act out when the level of stress they are experiencing exceeds their ability to cope. Unless mom and dad learn to look past behavior and consider the root causes of why their child is acting out, they are likely to overlook the possibility that their child is experiencing internal struggle and strife. For example, if a kid's tantrum is caused by mom and dads fighting, punishment will not stop the tantrums from happening.
Most young children do not have the brain capacity or sophistication to articulate what is happening in their inner world. Therefore, when having a really hard day or when going through challenging life events such as changing schools, moving, or divorce, most kids will act out their feelings which can show up as angry outbursts or defiance.
For example, lets look into the world of Matt, age 9. Matt's parents are successful, well-educated, and hardworking adults that are loving and attentive. Matt lives in a family friendly community and attends a top-notch public school. Yet, his parents fight a lot after he goes to sleep. And, last night, when his parents thought he was sleeping, they were so angry with each other that they started yelling. The next morning he went to school as usual but his worries about his parents stayed with him, brewing below the surface.
On the way home from school, Matt was upbeat and did not mention a word to his mother about any of his troubles. On some level Matt knows that his parents difficulties are troubling him, but he does not know how to articulate this. When the mother-son pair arrived at home, Matt eats a wholesome snack and gets started on his homework. Suddenly, Matt becomes whiny. Whines quickly lead to screaming, a rude outburst, and refusal to do his homework. Matt yells at his mom, says he hates her, and goes to his room.
Mom is feeling angry and baffled. What-just-happened?
Her son had just become an angry and defiant little monster! Mom could raise her voice, lay down the law, and demand that Matt begin his homework RIGHT NOW. She could sternly remind Matt that he will not be allowed to play outside or enjoy screen time until all of homework is finished.
Perhaps mom starts here, but hopefully she does not stay here.
There is another approach is more likely to elicit cooperation while also keeping the relationship intact. Mom could look at Matt's outburst as a signal that something is going on inside of him that he is having difficulty with understanding, feeling, and expressing. Matt's mom would see that he is having a hard time coping - with an issue in his life - and she would seek to discover the root cause of his behavior. Mom will still set and hold limits, and maintain high expectations, but she will also allow space for Matt to feel and move through his feelings and make sense of what is going on. Until children learn how to feel feelings without acting them out, it can be messy. Part of the job of the parent is to help children move through this process.
Punishing poor behavior assumes that children act out on purpose and that they are choosing to be difficult. Although this may happen from time to time, my strong assumption is that most of the time children do not choose to act poorly. Instead, poor behavior is a sign, a symptom, a signal that the child is experiencing difficulty with some aspect of his life which could include the parents relationship, friendships, performance in school and sports, or the relationship with the parent. Looking at our children through this lens enables parents to get to the root cause of acting out behavior which is more likely to create long lasting positive changes in the way your child behaves and acts while also increasing closeness within the parent-child relationship.
With this realization, Matt's mom will slow down, move in for physical affection (assuming Johnny responds well to touch), tap into genuine compassion and empathy, and become curious. With this approach she is likely to get more tears and an earful about the situations and events that are troubling Matt. And once Matt has gotten his troubles of his chest, feels heard, and re-connects to his mother, it is likely he will regain composure and be ready to tackle homework.
This approach takes patience, time, and a willingness on the part of the parent to be open to exploring the child's inner world. Yet, it teaches children valuable skills such as emotional regulation and responsiveness, gives them the ability to go to adults for help and guidance, models conflict resolution and assertiveness, and creates a strong internal model of healthy relationships.