Approaching Children’s Behavior with Compassion
Today I would like to welcome Katherine, who has written a guest post on parenting with compassion. Katherine is a natural and attachment parenting advocate, author, attorney, vegetarian, and mother to two beautiful girls (and one more little girl on the way). She blogs at www.momioso.com.
It always comes as a surprise – especially to new parents – when a young child suddenly develops a will of his own. The ease of the baby years pass, and suddenly, that complacent little cherub learns the word “no.” He refuses to eat what you want him to eat. Refuses to put his shoes on. Wants to wear underwear to the store and nothing else. Screams when you put him in the car seat. Whines all day long. Throws tantrums in the grocery store. Throws shoes at unwitting parents from the back seat to the front (yes, that was my child). From the toddler years on, we parents are presented with a vast array of behaviors that challenge, frustrate, anger us, and perhaps drive us to tears.
Our immediate, innate reaction is to get control of the situation. We adults always want to be in control. When a child acts out, it scares us. Our brains flash forward ten years, and we fear that if we don’t get control now, the child will be wild as a teenager. So we react. We react with threats. “Stop screaming now or I will put you on time out.” “Stop throwing your shoes or I will take away your new toy.” Or, we react with bribes. “If you put on your shoes, you can have a cookie.” “For each night you stay in your room without getting out of bed, you’ll get a sticker on your star chart.”
While these tactics come easily to us, and do, indeed work to some extent in the moment that they’re applied, they are not ideal. Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting and numerous other wonderful works, believes that when we use threats and bribes on our children, we are not providing them unconditional love. Instead, we are teaching them that our love depends on their complacency with our demands. When we bribe, we are telling them that they need to earn our love; when we threaten, we make them feel that our love can be taken away. We certainly do not intend to convey these messages, but indeed, they are the messages that are communicated.
We need to challenge ourselves to parent from a gentler, more compassionate place.
Look for Your Child’s Unmet Needs
When confronted with a behavioral problem – which we typically only realize after we’ve been in react/control mode and our threats/bribes have failed us – we need to step back and ask ourselves one question: Why is my child doing this?
The answer, generally speaking, is that the child has a need that is not being met. Here are some of the major needs that might be underlying behavior problems. When confronted with a problem, mentally scan through these and see which might apply:
1. Overtired: Did your child get up too early this morning, or go to bed too late last night? Miss a needed nap? Hasn’t slept well for days?
2. Low Blood Sugar: Has your child recently eaten healthy, non-sugary food, or has it been many many hours?
3. Sick: Is your child sick, coming down with something, or teething?
4. Diet: Has your child eaten artificial colors (e.g. F, D & C # whatever), MSG, high fructose corn syrup/refined sugars today? Every day?
5. Stress: Is there a new stressor in your/your child’s lives? Are you pregnant? Did you just have a baby? Are you and your partner going through relationship troubles? Is your child being bullied, or having trouble (e.g. grades) at school? If you’re single, do you have a new partner?
6. Development: Could this just be the child’s developmental stage? Is this simply a point in your child’s development where behavior challenges are normal?
If you think reasons #1-4 might be the problem, cut your child a lot of slack. Understand that his behavior stems from one of these causes, and let him release the energy for the moment (it’s okay to let him scream! it’s okay if he doesn’t eat!). Then, work to meet his needs. If the child is tired, help him get more sleep in (sleep WITH your child if you need to). If your child has low blood sugar from not eating in awhile, get him healthy protein and vitamin rich food STAT! If your child is sick or teething, offer him the breast and/or soothing food, homeopathy (or Western meds if that’s your thing), and lots and lots of hugs and holding and quiet time together on the couch. If your child is eating food that’s not good for him, change what your child is eating – ensure his diet only consists of healthy, organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, proteins, and whole grains, and lots of water.
If there is, or recently has been, some major change going on in your lives, you must keep this in mind: children are incredibly sensitive. They DO know what’s going on. They feel stress just like us, and just like us, feel afraid and angry as a result of the stress. Unlike us, however, children do not know how to gently communicate their feelings. Children are great big balls of emotion and energy, and instead of talking or crying it out, they scream, they throw things, they hit, they are so lost in their emotion that they refuse to listen to us. If your child is acting this way, instead of threatening, instead of bribing . . . allow her to express that energy. And then make it your mission to let her know she is loved, cherished, adored. Always.
How? Increase your physical contact with your child. If she’s light enough, wear her in a carrier (we carried our 2.5 -3 year old in an Ergo after her baby sister was born). Let her sleep with you in your bed if you’re not already. Hug her all the time. Sit with her on the couch with your arm around her. Take her on special trips where you can spend quality time together. Tell her how much she is loved, that she is safe, that there’s no need to be afraid.
If none of these whys seem to fit, then the behavior problems that you’re witnessing could very well be part of a normal, developmental stage. Remember that children, by nature, want to become independent from us. They want to make their own choices, they want to have control over their own lives. This starts in those early toddler years, and continues until they leave our homes as young adults. In these instances, we need to stand back and appreciate our child’s need to grow up. Let them make choices for themselves even if it’s only-underwear-all-the-time, even if it’s eating yogurt all day.
Really, when you come down to it – children are like us. They have one overreaching need: to be loved and understood. Dear parents, whatever the behavior problem, keep in mind the whys, take action to meet the needs if you can, but mostly – just shower your little one with love. 1
- Important note: I am not saying that we parents should not set limits on our children’s behavior. Children do need rules and limits, absolutely. However, the point of this particular post is to get parents to recognize that many behavior problems stem from unmet needs, and that we can address those problems not by applying limits/repercussions, but instead by offering love and compassion. ↩
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"Approaching Children’s Behavior with Compassion"
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