Help! My child won’t stop…

No matter the child’s age, a common concern I hear from parents is related to their children acting out of control or misbehaving. Behaviors such as tantrums, not paying attention, bullying, defiance and picking on siblings can undoubtedly strain parent-child relationships. Sometimes, parents just want to know how to get their child to stop acting out and relieve the tension at home. There are some seemingly quick solutions for these problems offered to parents in the form of behavior plans and medication for their children. While there may be times when these kinds of interventions can be partly helpful, some difficult and complicated questions can often be overlooked when the emphasis is only to stop a behavior. Here are some examples that I have found useful with parents: What is my child saying by behaving in this way? Many times, children (and adults for that matter) show what they can’t say. Sometimes acting out is the only option a child has to temporarily relieve overwhelming feelings. Words can be overvalued, especially at the expense of what a child says through action. It is helpful for a child when parents can hear the behavior as part of a communication, instead of just controlling or correcting it. Paying attention to misbehavior as a child’s way of communicating opens up the door for helping him make sense of his predicament with meaningful parental interventions. This is one important way that children learn how to navigate through feelings such as fear, worry and jealousy. What kind of help does my child need in order to grow through this phase? The road to greater independence is a long struggle, beginning with the ability to depend. The kind of assistance a child receives in the present will shape how they are able to help themselves and rely on others when the time comes. When a parent can be receptive to a child’s overwhelming feelings, they lay a foundation for their child’s future capacity to manage internal struggles. Is there a way to maintain firm limits on misbehavior, while also conveying my understanding of the underlying feelings my child has? Sometimes understanding gets confused with permissiveness. Allowing a child to act out of control is not the same as helping him navigate and make sense of his predicament. Ignoring a child’s feelings in the face of his misbehavior is not the same as setting a boundary. Parents indulging misbehavior in their children may worry about disapproval from their children. Parents ignoring a misbehaving child’s feelings may worry that understanding conveys endorsement or approval of misbehavior. While it is a difficult and sometimes incomprehensible tension, children need both firm limits on behavior and understanding of their overwhelming feelings. When parents reflect on these kinds of questions, they develop a posture towards their children that facilitates a deeper bond. Similarly, parents also need some capacity to self-reflect on these same questions. A parent paying attention to his or her own ordinary struggles with frustration, disappointment, guilt and regret is a parent who can be more reflective on his or her child’s struggles to grow up.