I just want it to stop!! Yelling at each other is so awful!
Undesirable behavior at home? 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.
Most of us react instinctively when faced with challenging behavior like hitting, yelling, blaming, shaming, comparing or fixing. So we need to unpack it and learn how to untangle from reacting AT each other.
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 two systems that work together to stop challenging behavior.
Refresher on why it happens. (In a hurry? Skip to The Answer. But Pro Tip: the middle is pretty juicy so you may want to circle back.)
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?
We cleared up the myth that it is not their 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 do well, they would; being challenging isn’t fun for them either.
We also debunked the myth that it is the parent’s fault. It is NOT because we as 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 get 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 their self care tank is low or empty so they are easily triggered. 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 they feel threatened, unsafe, that their very survival is on the line. They revert to animalistic tendencies and are not rational. That's why reasoning with them is pointless until later.
Underneath 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.
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 with a Challenger Mindset 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.
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, in this moment. Meet and accept the one 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.
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. Also, that they could use your support.
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. But meeting their raw and real self, their life force, is the path.
MEETing them where they are is how to stop the undesirable behavior long term. The 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, 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.
Start to validatetheir feelings, the ones underneath the awful behavior. Their feelings are crucial. They 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. 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 and need to protect their life energy shifts.
Stopgiving them ‘change energy’. You give them ‘change energy’ every time you label 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. Yet, ‘I’m not OK’ is the message they are internalizing, so they resist it. Their very life force protects against this unconscious message you are both directly and inadvertently sending them.
Stop unilaterally deciding and communicating that you know better than them about them. One way you do this is when you tell them to stop feeling what they are feeling. Messages like, “Don’t cry” or “I’ll fix it” or “You don’t need to get angry” invalidate their inner experience. Or when you help them ‘get perspective’ and ‘be rational’. Or any of the 100’s of ways we talk them out of their feelings which are too uncomfortable for us.
Understanding these concepts is the first part. Living into them by practicing is the next.
The good news is that Bounceback Parenting author and mother, Alissa Zorn and I have created a community of like-minded parents to learn and practice these concepts, and these systems to move from power struggles to peace. It's called The Real Peace Place. We want you to know there is hope.
If you'd like ongoing support we welcome you. You don't have to do this alone and it doesn’t have to be so hard.