Approaching Children’s Behavior with Compassion

June 7th, 2010 by Dionna | 9 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Consensual Living, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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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


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

  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.

9 Responses to:
"Approaching Children’s Behavior with Compassion"

  1. Sarah

    This is a great post at a perfect time.

    My LO seems to be weaning herself (nursed once in 2 days and refusing when I offer) and has also decided that she loves her trampoline and will not get off it. lol poor kiddo has been on it for almost 48hrs.

    I could force her to get off, but I think it would do more harm than good. After all this seems to be in direct response to having no control over so many other aspects of her life. Her sister takes her toys, we tell her she has to go in the van – and the carseat. She wants to go swimming and we say no. We might be gentle when we give orders or refuse privileges – but it still comes down to having limited control.

    My Dh would like us to stop feeding her until she gets off – but reading this post helped him see that it wouldn’t help at all to do that.

  2. Great post! Great Tips!
    I feel that Aodhan has been willful since the day he was born….and get a little sick of hearing people comment on it….I, like you, see this as a normal and natural way of being and have helped him cultivate this aspect of himself. Thanks so much for a post that normalizes it.
    Yahhh for guest posts.

  3. Michael Rosenbaum   dadwrites

    As a dad on the other end of this parenting journey, I can guarantee that control is an illusion. If we try to control our kids too much, the pressure causes them to push back in some other way or at some other time.

    Anyway, it’s not our job to try to control behavior, but to guide it. What worked with my girls was setting a band of acceptable behavior. Anyplace within that band? No problem. Outside of the range? Problem. As they got older and more mature, the band widened and our input declined.

    We all want our children to be capable, independent adults. The drive for independence starts early and matures, if we don’t get in the way too much.

    Michael Rosenbaum
    Your Neme Here: Guide to Life

  4. daisy   TooTooDaisy

    Love the Kohn-man, even when I know I can’t fully meet the bar he sets. Most of us could do well to turn the same sort of attention to ourselves. As adults it’s easy to get so harried that we don’t realize we’re getting testy because we are exhausted or lashing out because we worked through lunch time. When we can see the source of our own behaviors they become easier to manage. I also think parenting generally falls along a very broad continuum of balancing boundary-setting with enabling independence, or put another way, balancing love with limits. So while I might lean toward a Kohn approach I’ve got to keep in mind that even my own husband may want to set the line differently. What I really like about this post is that it focuses on raising our awareness rather than criticizing any particular parenting style.

  5. We try to ask ourselves all of these questions when our Paloma is having a bit of a tantrum, and it’s worked wonders. For us, I mean. Doesn’t always do anything to quell the tantrum, but we are suddenly a lot calmer and more equipped to handle the outburst because we’re then thinking rationally instead of responding emotionally. And I think Paloma picks up on that and it makes her feel safer and more loved.

  6. Rachel

    I enjoyed reading this post as you can never be reminded too much as a parent to give your child all the love you have and they need. As far as behavior goes though my son has been difficult since birth and the limits I give him have little to do with my love for him except that I love him and want to teach him what behavior is good and right and what he needs not to do. So often we see children as little adults which just isn’t true. A two year old can make their own decisions but have no idea what the repercussions of those decisions may be. As parents we are teacher and guides to help them understand why they can’t do x rather than letting them do it and ‘learning’ from their mistakes. Children want to respect their parents but they want you to earn that respect which is why so often they test their boundaries. ‘Bribes’ and ‘threats’ are simply incentives to do the right thing which we all even as adults have in our lives. It is very few people who would say they are bribed to work because they get paid every two weeks. Rather we receive a reward for the work we do with that paycheck. It is the same with behavior ‘star charts.’ I agree that our children need more love than we can ever realize but they also need discipline and that takes love to give.

  7. brenda

    We are having family issues at the moment as a relative is very sick and has cancer. Our LO knows that grandma is sick and needs lots of TLC. She doesn’t know that grandma has been given a timeline but we are praying for her.
    When we were away recently for our anniversary LO did play up and I am grateful for the post that I saw today cause I am going to try and use it.
    I would be grateful to hear how I could address this more as she does tend to have meltdowns and sometimes talking doesn’t do anything and then I feel like I am at the end of my tether.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Without knowing more about your situation (or how old your LO is), I would first gently remind you that our little ones are going through SO much. Try to put yourself in her shoes – she is physically small, she gets to make very few decisions, she doesn’t understand what is going on with a sick grandma, she might be feeling shuffled around, she probably senses the emotions of everyone around her and doesn’t know how to process them, it must be very tough!
      I think in times of stress, remember that “this too shall pass” works wonders. Give yourself some time to breathe if you need it – arrange for a friend to come over and play w/your LO so you have some free time.
      I hope that your grandmother enjoys a wonderful end of her journey, and that you and your little one are left with many happy memories.

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