'Our daughter screamed, "No, it's not time to leave!" so angry that she didn't get her way about when to leave the park. She often reacted like this when we didn't watch the movie she wanted or follow her decision about a game or what to do next; she'd get rigid, her face intense and yell at me. Then her Dad would come down and yell at her to not speak to me that way, that it was unacceptable! Her sister would cower in a corner and I'd try to mediate. What a mess our family dynamics were.
It was hard not to think of her as a bossy, rude little tyrant. Our whole family revolved around avoiding or suffering through her outbursts, then becoming equally reactive. We felt powerless in our struggle.' ~Reflection from a Mom I coached.
This is the second in a series on challenging behavior, a big, agonizing, unruly topic. We'll focus on why it happens and the surprising solutions for it to stop.
The important message I hope you'll hear today is that you aren't alone, it isn't your fault, it isn't their fault, and there are clear steps to relate better.
Most of us react instinctively when faced with our child's challenging behavior like hitting, resisting, yelling, not cooperating, or speaking rudely. So we need to unpack it and learn the clear steps for how to untangle from reacting AT each other and get to what matters underneath.
I work with lots and lots of parents whose kids do challenging behavior. They all want to know the same 2 things. First, they want to understand why their kid acts out this way. Then, they want to clearly know how to stop it.
Since I had my own strong willed child and have studied this for 15 years, I have developed the 5 Steps To Connect framework to stop challenging behavior.
Debunking challenging behavior myths
First, it’s important to note that my child's behavior is not always challenging. If this is also the case for your children, you can get curious about why challenging behavior happens sometimes and not others. When does it happen? What are the patterns? Do I play a part in the dynamic?
We cleared up the myth in part I/III, that it is not the child's fault and in fact, ‘fault-finding’ is not a helpful lens. Leading with challenging behavior is NOT because they are inherently manipulative, limit testing, willful, coercive nor unmotivated. Blaming them is not the answer. If they could get along more easily, they would; being challenging isn’t fun for them either.
We also debunked the myth that it is not the parent’s fault. It is NOT because we parents are not good enough, inconsistent, passive, or not firm enough. Blaming the parent just makes the whole hard situation worse. It adds judgement and shame on top of the pain of a hard situation. These are not helpful lenses to find solutions. We need support just as much as our kids when our nervous system feels threatened by challenging behavior.
So why does challenging behavior happen?!?
In my research and experience, kids do challenging behavior when they consciously or subconsciously sense threat. Hand-in-Hand Parenting calls this being ‘off track’. Best selling author and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Dan Siegel’s term is, ‘their lid is flipped’. Becoming ‘off track or lid flipped’ is a way of describing the stress reaction of flight, fight, freeze. This means that a part of them feels threatened, unsafe, like their very survival is on the line. They revert to animalistic fear tendencies and are not rational. It is instinctive, it isn't willful; it's a reaction.
Lightbulb to relate better: reasoning with your child in this state is pointless until later.
Whether or not they sense threat* depends on 4 areas:
How full their tank of resources is. (How full mine is.)
What they think ABOUT what happened. (What I think ABOUT what happened)
Their core temperament/nature. (My core temperament/nature)
* instinctively react / flip their lid / go off track / nervous system activates flight, fight, freeze
Underneath this reactive state is a deep need to connect to what is most important, to their values. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg of Nonviolent Communication shows us how everything humans do is a result of trying to connect to our values/needs. Values like reassurance, safety, empowerment, understanding, partnership, being seen, connection.
What makes their challenging behavior even harder?
We parents often flip our lid in reaction to their awful behavior due to the exact same instinctive nervous system as our children. Now both of us our in our lid flipped, non-rational, flight, fight, freeze reactions.
I don't know about you, but nothing good comes out of my mouth in this state. It usually takes me longer to get there, but I yell, resist and have tantrums with the best of them.
Maybe this sounds familiar: You are patient with the first three times your child's behavior is awful and then they do it again and it pushes you past your tipping point. You yell back, argue, blame, shame or punish. Then they either double down and fight harder or stuff it inside, resentfully complying.
Everyone feels terrible.
Kids who are strong willed get to this ‘lid flipped’ point even more easily as the very structure of the parent-child relationship has built in authority, control and being told what to do which is what they fear the most.
So what’s the answer? How can we get challenging behavior to stop?
Start doing 2 things and stop doing 2 things.
#1 Start doing something that sounds crazy. In fact, it seems like the opposite of your goal: MEET them where they are. This means to start accepting exactly what they are doing right now, awful behavior and all. MEET and accept the child who is yelling, screaming, hitting, sassing, crying etc.
This seems counterintuitive, I know. It did to me too. However, yelling, screaming, hitting...is your child’s way of protecting themselves and communicating in this moment. It's all they've been able to come up with to meet their needs.
When you put on your MEET lens, you can see that they are trying to tell you what is important to them, what they value, what they need. Also, that they want your support. They may look like a wolf, angry and snarling, but inside they are a hurting puppy with unmet needs/values.
When you put on your MEET lens and accept what IS happening, you get to the present moment. It doesn’t mean you condone or agree with or enjoy what is happening. That would be a big fat lie; you hate it. It flips your lid.
It also doesn’t mean safety isn't still your first priority so gently and firmly stop any harmful behavior. It doesn’t mean you don’t speak your boundaries like, "I can't let you hit me." But meeting their raw and real self, their life force, is the path forward to relating better.
MEETing and accepting them where they are is how to stop the undesirable behavior permanently. The extra bonus is building connection and trust with your child.
It lets you put aside for the moment any and all thoughts about what 'should be' happening (it's wrong, it's embarrassing, they shouldn't be acting like this, they know better, how could they in front of my mother-in-law) and lets you be in the direct experience of what is happening. This lens allows you to see your child for the hurting puppy they are inside.
Lightbulb to relate better: Try on that if you MEET and accept them exactly as they are, snarling wolf and all, it doesn't mean you condone their behavior, but that you are open to the possibility that a part of them may be hurting, having a hard time and need support.
#2 Start to VALIDATE their feelings, the ones underneath the awful behavior. Their feelings are normal and necessary. Emotions are the guide to what deeply matters to your child. The window to their life force. The anger, sadness, embarrassment, fear and shame are all giving important messages about what they deeply value about their met and unmet needs.
When they receive this level of acceptance, this sense of safety and this permission to feel from you, it is like magic. Their whole resistance state, their need to protect their life energy is able to shift.
Once I started to VALIDATE my daughters inner experience and emotions they would positively glow. Their shoulders would relax, their faces would open, and their tension would melt away. It was like the tightness, the fight, the protection they had sensed they needed to be OK just drained out of them. They seemed to...bloom.
Lightbulb to relate better: Just once, see if you can catch yourself before you distract, minimize, fix, or talk them out of their feelings (anger, sadness, fear, confused). Instead, say, "It makes sense you feel... (angry, sad, afraid, confused)." See if magic happens and they glow...if they feel seen, heard and accepted.
#1 Stop giving them ‘CHANGE ENERGY.’ You give them ‘change energy’ every time you judge them as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or tell them they aren't ‘right’. When you do this, you are verbally and nonverbally telling them they aren’t OK the way they are.
You probably do this unintentionally, just to get the behavior driving you crazy to stop. This makes perfect sense, especially as most of us were given these same messages by our parents, or even worse ones.
But kids have a hard time differentiating between their behavior and their core being. So too often, ‘I’m not OK’ and 'I'm not enough' is the message they internalize. That's why a part of them resists.
Especially strong willed kids who are extra sensitive to these ‘CHANGE ENERGY' messages. Their very life force tries to protect against this 'I'm not OK' message you may be unintentionally sending them.
Lightbulb to relate better: Would you be willing to assume that they are trying to meet their needs, even though the behavior they chose is unskillful? Would this more generous assumption send them better energy so they'd be less closed and defensive and more open to discussing and hearing your perspective?
Stop UNILATERALLY DECIDING and communicating that since you are the parent, YOU KNOW BETTER than them about them. One way you may do this is stopping them from experiencing their emotions. Like if you tell them, "Stop making such a big deal about that" or even, "It's OK, calm down." Or messages like, “Don’t cry” or “I’ll fix it for you” or “You don’t need to get angry” invalidate their inner experience.
When you help them ‘get perspective’ and ‘be rational’ you are UNILATERALLY DECIDING YOU KNOW BEST rather than listening to them. Or any of the 100’s of ways we talk kids out of their feelings. We do this as our kids pain and discomfort are too uncomfortable for us.
I know for me it's excruciating. Intolerable. Most of us never learned how to feel pain and discomfort as our parents didn't know either.
So this clear step is ours: learn from our kids how to experience our uncomfortable feelings like sadness, anger, uncertainty and fear.
Understanding these concepts is the first part. Living into them by practicing is the next.
Lightbulb to relate better: Choose one hard feeling and be open to want to want to feel sad, angry, uncertain or afraid. (wanting to feel something we've avoided, rationalized, numbed and offloaded at others our whole lives is often too big a step. Want to want to explore these first.)
I have a message of hope if your family dynamics are hard and you are struggling. You aren't alone and it doesn't have to be so hard. There is support for you to stop triggering each other.
I coach parents 1:1 and you can set up a free Insight call right now to share what's contributing to your hard family dynamics. I'll show you a small step you can take immediately to make a positive difference.
In addition, Bounceback Parenting author and mother, Alissa Zorn and I created a membership for parents who all want to improve their family dynamics to learn and practice these concepts to move from surviving to thriving. It's called The Strong Willed Child Parenting Support Community.
We want you to experience empowerment and build hope. If you'd like ongoing tools, guidance and community we welcome you. You don't have to do this alone and it doesn’t have to be so hard.