Parents often come to me baffled by why their children are behaving a certain way. Rightly so. The hitting, screaming, whining, vies for attention, snarky responses, disrespectful attitude or defiance. We are good parents. We take care of our children, love them and give them what they need. Why do they get so upset or treat us so poorly?
There is a purpose for or reason behind every behavior, and it's often an attempt to reach some sort of goal. The first step in working with your child or teen's challenging behavior is what I call becoming a "behavior detective" – understanding where that behavior is coming from.
The topic of behavior development can be complicated and by no means will I be able to cover it all here, but in general a child’s behavior develops from a few simple places: genetics, brain development, interaction with others and the environment around you, and an attempt to get certain essential needs met.
In my most recent column I talk about behavior as developing in a social context – within the relationships we have in our families. It develops as a result of how we are responded to, what others believe about us and the strategies we use to get certain crucial needs met.
Read more below from my Feb 24, 2021 column in the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
Be well, go hug your kids, and take good care of yourselves and others.
With love and faith in you,
Behavior Development and the Crucial C's
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Whining. Disrespect. A snarky attitude. Not listening. The list can go on. Sometimes it can be hard to understand where a child’s behavior is coming from.
A child’s behavior often develops in a cause and effect relationship with their parents or caregivers. The cause is the child’s behavior. The effect is the parent’s response. If this response is consistent, the child soon learns that if I do X, then Y will happen. If Y is something the child desires, then they will continue to do X in order to get what they want. However, if Y is not what they desire, they will soon stop doing X.
Let’s use the classic example of a whining child. Child whines and parents do one of two things: parents either respond by giving the child what they are asking for, or parents will say, “stop whining”; “use your big boy voice”, or “I can't hear you when you talk like that”. Either way, child gets a desired outcome – parent’s attention. What if parent didn’t respond at all? Child whines and parent keeps doing what they were doing or acts like they didn’t hear the child. Parent simply ignores and moves on. This may sound a little harsh at first, yet hear me out.
Child may get confused. Whining has always worked in the past, why isn’t mom or dad responding? So child may whine harder and louder to get parent’s attention. But you, the parent, are committed and won’t be broken. The whining is hard on your ears and has an impact on your relationship with your child since you end up frequently frustrated. Thus you stay calm and move on to something else. Then suddenly, at some point, out of nowhere your child asks for your attention using a clear, kind and normal voice. What do you do? You drop everything and give your child attention immediately. “Ah”, thinks the child, “this is what I want - mom or dad”. And if this pattern continues child will soon learn that using a regular voice (X) gets me what I want – mom or dad (Y). To confirm this you may note that your child does not whine at school, because the teacher does not respond to the whining – the child knows the strategy of whining to get attention only works with her parents.
This is what it’s about. Behaviors are strategies we all use to get our needs met. As psychologist Alfred Adler puts it, behaviors develop as a result of how we are responded to by others in our world. As a child these “others” are typically our parents or immediate caregivers. Psychologist Amy Lew has described it like this: as a child when we are born into a family, it’s as if we are born onto a stage and we are trying to figure out our role in the play without a script. We look to the other actors to determine our lines. We wonder if we are an understudy or if we are in the spotlight. We determine our role based on how we are responded to, our relationship with the other actors, and how we feel the others think about us.
Behaviors are thus directed by the goal to get certain needs met. If we can achieve this goal, we feel capable. We feel good that we can do something that takes care of our needs. We have a positive outlook of ourselves. If we can't achieve our goal of meeting these needs, we may become discouraged. This is where misbehavior can emerge as the child uses other means to meet their goal.
What are these needs – the goals that children are trying to achieve? Many will describe them using different words but they all boil down to the same thing. Using psychologists Amy Lew and Betty Lou Bettner’s “Crucial C’s”, “all human beings strive to fulfill their needs to be connected to others, to be capable of a degree of independence, to count as a member of the family and the community, and to find the courage to meet life’s demands and seize its opportunities.”
Connected. We all need to feel that we are loved and accepted for who we are, that we are safe and secure and that we belong. This is not just a psychological need, it is also a physical need. As a young child we cannot survive unless we are connected to a capable adult. As children we will try different ways to relate to others and find the connection we need, and these strategies become part of our behavior.
Capable. We all need to believe that we are competent human beings, capable of taking care of ourselves and the world around us. We need to feel that we have efficacy – that we can enact change, meet our goals and create a desired result. As children we have an innate desire to strive for independence. The strategies we use to move toward becoming a capable and independent adult become part of our behavior.
Count. We all need to know that we are significant, that we are valued and that we matter. We need others around us to notice that we make a difference. As children, the attempts we make to feel valued, and whether or not we feel like we count to those around us, will impact our behavior.
Courage. We all need to feel that we can overcome challenges, that we have the courage to get up from a fall, that we can solve problems, and at times, tackle things that we don’t necessarily enjoy. Life is filled with challenge and risk, trial and error. Whether or not we have the courage in ourselves and the belief of others in our abilities plays a role in how we behave.
Yes, there are other factors that impact our children’s behaviors. Genetics, brain development, feeling tired or stressed and societal impacts all play a role. Yet we are social beings developing in a social context and we cannot separate our development from our relationship with those around us.
So whether you are raising a toddler or a teen, start thinking about the cause and effect of your interaction with them. Does how you respond bring about a desired effect or behavior (the Y)? If not, how can you switch things up?
If you are interested in diving deeper into these ideas, join me and other parents on my periodic “Parent Talk'' discussion group. Find more here.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!