What Not to Do When Your Child is Acting Out (And What to Do Instead)
Let’s be honest.
In the middle of a meltdown, my first question is: “How do I get them to calm down?”
In the middle of a disagreement, my goal is: “How do I get them to agree with me?”
In the middle of an argument, I plead: “How do I make this stop?”
And, if we’re being totally honest…we know that these are the wrong questions.
But, there is truth at the heart of these questions.
We want to know how to help our child work through their big feelings. We want to have proactive and positive conversations. And, we want to feel confident and in control.
It can happen! But first, we need to explore a few alternative questions.
Confidence-Boosting Questions for Parents
- What’s triggering me about this situation? There’s a reason you feel upset in the heat of the moment. Maybe you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, tired. Maybe you feel pressured, undermined, or embarrassed. Maybe it reminds you of something from your childhood. The more honest you can be answering this question, the better you will be at creating a solution to help you stay (or return to) calm.
- What role do I play? Interactions with your kids are like a dance. Your child says something, you respond. You say something, your child responds. Being curious about this “dance” can help you see how your words, body language, and actions impact the situation. It also may help you understand what your child may gain from engaging in this “dance” with you.
- What need(s) is my child’s behavior expressing? Every behavior has a purpose. Your child may not consciously be thinking through their actions, instead, it may be an unconscious act to fill a need. Maybe they need attention from you or connection to you. Maybe they are feeling powerless or need more opportunities to have their own choices. Stepping back from the situation may help you explore the underlying needs.
- What else is impacting their behavior? Even though behavior may seem to “come out of nowhere,” when you take time to be curious, you may identify a number of things that led to the tantrum or argument. Things like feeling overstimulated, tired, hungry, having difficulty with transitions, or feeling jealous of the new baby, can all impact behavior. Here is a list to explore. Here is an example.
- What skill(s) does my child need to learn? Sometimes, behavior happens because your child is lacking the knowledge or ability to do things differently. Rather than expecting them to just “miraculously” discover these abilities, you may need to go back to square one, teaching them the basics, clarifying the steps, role-playing a conversation, or taking the time to practice a new skill together.
These questions are just a starting point. Give yourself time and space to think through these questions. Don’t rush to solve the problem, impose a consequence, or try to get your child to settle down.
Gaining clarity about the situation will help you respond in a positive, respectful way.
As your curiosity grows, you may realize that there is a lot more to explore. You might realize this “dance” happens in other situations or that your child’s lack of skills transfers to other environments.
You might also notice that your triggers are too much to manage on your own and that you need to learn how to manage them differently (with the help of a mental health professional or parent coach).
The more open you can be, the better prepared you will be to manage the ups and downs of parenting without confidence instead of panic.
In other words, even if your initial instinct is to ask “Why are you doing this to me?” you’ll be able to rephrase it in a way that helps you get to the root of the problem (instead of feeling powerless).
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