When I consult with parents about their children’s more challenging behaviors, I sometimes offer a visual that I hope will put otherwise volatile situations into perspective. I’ve been reluctant to share this on my blog for fear it might be misinterpreted, but since so many of the parents I hear from continue to struggle with remaining centered and calm when their children push limits and buttons, I decided to risk it and share my descriptor: teddy bear behavior. I know — teddy bears are objects, babies definitely are not. I’ll explain, but first, a bit of context…
Our children are born sentient — as present as you and I — and so our primary job is forging person-to-person relationships with them, relationships that are honest, caring, respectful and unconditionally loving.
Yet all children exhibit behaviors that are impulsive and irrational, especially during periods in their development when they need to resist us in order to test their wings (like the toddler and teen years). How are we supposed to respect our small “person” when she can be so disrespectful, hurtful and downright rude?
Some might conclude that young children are nothing more than thoughtless beasts (and that would explain the “taming your toddler” type of advice, which includes distractions, tricks, treats and other manipulative interventions). It’s easy to get personally offended, or fear that we’ve failed our child somehow, that we didn’t teach her appropriate behavior or respect.
Triggered by our anger, frustration, fear, or guilt, we are likely to respond in a manner that unfortunately creates even more challenging behavior. Truly, when children repeatedly test, it is more often than not the direct result of our previous responses. That is why remaining calm and centered matters. A lot.
The easiest and surest way to calm ourselves is perspective, which might mean reminding ourselves that the toddler screaming and swinging at us is a tiny person who has spent only 2 ½ years on this planet. She needs us to tolerate her screams and stop her from hitting, but a response of anger or confusion would be unsettling to her, to say the least.
And so I suggest that parents suffering the slings and arrows of a child’s behavior consider it in the context of something cuddly and benign, like a teddy bear.
Teddy bear behavior includes occasional hitting, kicking, biting, screaming, whining, refusing to follow directions, resistance and rejection, “I hate you” (in all its forms), and grumpy teenagers scrutinizing you under a microscope and criticizing every single thing you say, do and wear. It is age-appropriate and can certainly be annoying, but it is essentially harmless. If we can perceive teddy bear behavior for what it is and respond appropriately (for more on that please read HERE and HERE), it will be temporary and not progress to chronic, dangerous or harmful.
Teddy bear behavior is sparked by:
- A need for the reassurance our gentle leadership provides
- Stress, hunger, exhaustion
- Fear, sadness, anger, frustration, all of which children need us to help them express
- Feeling out of favor, ignored, unloved
- Emotions surrounding transitions: the addition of a sibling, moving to a new home, attending school for the first time, changing schools, changes of any kind
- Developmental phases and milestones
The two’s and teenage years are classic teddy bear territory, but ages 4, 6 and early adolescence (ages 9 and up) can also be teddy bear periods.
Teddy bear behavior is eased when we:
- Feel unthreatened, breathe, let it rollll off our back, project confidence
- Prevent it whenever possible (by giving children safe “yes” places to explore, for example, rather than free access to markers and white sofas).
- Set limits calmly, clearly, early
- Acknowledge all desires and feelings and encourage children to express them (“You feel like throwing the trucks. I can’t let you. That’s unsafe. Are you upset about Daddy leaving for work? You sometimes miss him when he goes. Over there are some safe toys you can throw.”)
- Discern needs and do our best to meet them
Perceiving teddy bear behavior doesn’t ever mean treating children like teddy bears, objectifying them, ignoring them, or talking down to them with patronizing words and cutesy voices. Children are whole people who always deserve our respect and authenticity. However, once teddy bear behavior has subsided, they might want a cuddle, whatever their age.