Why is My Child Behaving This Way? (A Checklist)

I’m blessed to work with mindful parents, most of whom have ‘sensitive’ and ‘respectful’ down.  They’ve made a concerted effort to develop a quality connection with their children, and their behavior usually reflects that. So they’re understandably thrown when resistant or defiant behavior occasionally crops up anyway. The good news: getting back on track is simple, because all that’s usually needed is a bit of minor tweaking of their approach and responses.
Which is why I thought a parent-response checklist (based on the difficulties parents most commonly share with me) might be helpful.

1. Prevention

An ounce of prevention can save us tons of aggravation. We take preventative measures by structuring our environment and daily life in a manner that limits possibilities for off-track behavior.

Remember: Children learn by exploring and testing their environments. They also express uncomfortable feelings through limit-pushing behavior. So, if we don’t want children jumping on the couch or playing roughly with the baby — and we don’t want to be a broken record constantly saying “No” and becoming increasingly annoyed — we’ll need to minimize or remove certain options (the ones that are going to put us on edge).

  • Does my child have a completely safe, “Yes” place to spend the majority of his or her day? This not only limits opportunities for testing, it also provides kids with the abundance of freedom they need to be able to accept the boundaries we do create.
  • Does the new baby have a protected, age-appropriate place in which to “play” freely and safely? (A playpen or crib is enough for the first  4-5 months.)
  • Is our home life relatively peaceful, our daily routine somewhat predictable? Predictable routines create comfort and foster a sense of security. Routines also make it easier for children to accept our boundaries and directions, because they learn to expect the tooth brushing (for example) that always happens after dinner. Young children greatly appreciate being able to predict what will happen. “After breakfast, my mom (or dad) goes to the bathroom and then the kitchen while I stay in my play area. Then she comes back and watches me play.” Or “When we walk near the road, we either hold hands or my parents carry me.” Of course, there will still be complaints and resistance from time to time, but not as much.
  • Do I spend time observing and understanding my child, give positive attention? 
  • Do we allow, even encourage our child to express uncomfortable feelings?

2.  Confidence

Confidence is crucial and very, very often what’s missing when our responses and directions aren’t working. Confidence is firm,  decisive, and often upbeat, not angry or stern. Children sense our feelings and can easily detect whether we believe in our decisions, directions, and limits. And if we don’t, there isn’t a chance in the world our kids can feel comfortable, which means they are far more likely to cry, whine, protest, object, or keep pushing limits.

This is a universal law of parenting: Children can’t approach situations with confidence unless we do first.

A parent I consulted with recently provided the perfect example. We’d spent 55 of our 60 minutes together addressing her three year old twins’ sleep difficulties. They had been resisting and stalling bedtime, employing some classically brilliant toddler tactics designed to stab parents in the heart or, at the very least, create tremendous doubt: “I’m hungry…I’m thirsty… I need to go pee.” And most harrowing of all, “I’m scared.” One of the twins was once startled by a shadow and mom had been concerned, so fear had become a credible and potent addition to their list of complaints. Since there were two of them, they could pass these complaints to each other like an infectious disease and create a double whammy for their poor mom.

With just a couple of minutes left on the call, it suddenly occurred to me to ask, “What about naptime? How does that go?”

“Oh, I just let them know it’s naptime, and I have to go do my work. I close the door, and they go to sleep.”

When I got up off the floor, I sputtered, “Well… Do that at bedtime!”

Truly, it’s all about confidence.

Back to the checklist… So, what does confidence look and feel like? Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  • Am I being direct, clear, simple, decisive, firm, upbeat, matter-of-fact, even somewhat bored (rather than tentative, ambivalent, wavering, uncertain, or anxious)?
  • Am I feeling calm, capable, unruffled, and on top of this (rather than urgent or emotional)? Remember, toddlers are tiny, impulsive, but non-threatening people.
  • Am I refraining from running when I could stride, shouting when I could be matter-of-fact?
  • Am I being brief and nonchalant rather than pointed? Am I coaching and reminding rather than lecturing?Sometimes it’s just that extra split second we give to correcting unwanted behaviors that can turn them into an interesting experiment for children to continue. They might be feeling, “Hmmm…why is my hitting such a big deal? Can’t they easily stop me? Why such a pointed lesson? I definitely got a rise out of them. Interesting, but also a little unnerving (which, by the way, is why I’m smiling!). Better try that one again to see if these big people can get a better handle on it.”
  • Do I believe in my decision or direction? There’s no reason not to, because if we’ve been too rash, we can change our minds (confidently) later, and that’s great modeling. For example, we might say, “You know what? It is actually fine for you to play for a few more minutes, and then it will be bedtime. I’m sorry I didn’t think that one through carefully.”

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