Want To Change Your Child's Behaviour? Read This.
Updated: Jan 12
As adults in a relationship with any child, whether we are a parent, teacher, grandparent, therapist or older sibling, we understand and accept responsibility to provide for and ensure the physical needs of any child in our care be met: food, shelter, protection. But how often to we really think about our responsibility to interact from a state of love?
Let's take the example of parenting: We often hear that good parents love their children unconditionally, but we all know that no parent always feels loving towards their child, every moment of the day. So often this instills feelings of guilt and shame, as parents wonder what has gone wrong or what they have done that their child is behaving or reacting in certain way, and the parent is left on their own to figure out how to restore themselves to a state of love during the inevitable ups and downs of daily parenting.
The way out is, in fact, regulation of our own emotions and expectations, so that we can offer loving guidance rather than anger and frustration towards children. This skill, and it is a skill, is fundamental not only to good parenting, but any relationship with a child of any kind.
Moreover, this approach is not just good for our children. This inner work is what allows us to grow into our own full potential and can have a phenomenal effect on our adult relationships as well.
Is it hard skill to learn? Yes. Taking responsibility for our feelings and emotions and learning to regulate them is possibly the hardest work any of us will ever do (see my post on How Taking Responsibility Can Change Your Life and Heal Your Relationships). But it is completely possible.
Here's some starting points when interacting with children during a challenging moment.
1. When you let yourself experience an emotion - fully feel and experience it - the emotion will dissipate. Start by simply sitting with your emotion, in the exact moment that it happens—breathe into the feelings that are there but resist the urge to act or react - just for a few moments. Count to 30 while you do this if it helps. If possible try to label the feeling. If you are not sure what emotion you are feeling, that's ok too. In this case, simply notice any physical feelings in your body, or more simply, how your body is responding to the emotion. This could be a feeling of panic in you chest, a overwhelm in your head, a pain in your stomach etc.
As you do this, it is important in this moment not to bring the mind into the equation. The mind will start to make judgements and ask questions. We don't want that. So just feel and fully accept the feeling or feelings. This can be particularly difficult when we are feeling anger or frustration, but know that in actual fact, anger is merely a defensive reaction to fear, pain, and/or grief in a human. Once you let yourself feel the more vulnerable emotions under your anger, the anger will evaporate.
2. After doing point 1, you may still be feeling the emotion to some degree. That's ok. Say out-loud, or very clearly to yourself in your head:
"I am feeling very X right now, but I am willing not to feel X. I am willing to see this through the eyes of love." (Insert the emotion you are feeling where X is.)
This is a process and it is a new skill to learn, but as you practice it more and more you will find it transmutes anger, frustration, fear, pain, and grief into love, because we're creating love where there wasn’t love before. Our hearts get bigger, and we grow as people, as well as parents/adults/teachers.
So does the above that mean we don't address what's bothering us about children and their behaviour? No. In fact, we become more effective in creating the experiences and the behaviours we want with children. That isn't just a fancy way of saying that we become willing to tolerate something that we may have yelled about before, although that may be true.
For example, we may realise and accept that, just as we as adults get angry, it's okay for children to feel angry, and so we stop reprimanding them for it. Or we may realise that a child's jacket on the floor isn't nearly as important as how well they get on with their siblings. Or we may begin to see a child's "strong will" as a positive trait, and find better ways to partner with them (rather than giving labels which push them away). None of these positive responses are possible if we don't start by managing our own emotions.
But what about when children seem to be stuck in a counter-productive pattern and behaviour really does need to change? Even in this instance, as adults, our own emotional self-regulation, and our understanding and acceptance of the child as a divine, unique individual in their own right, on their own path, is the key to helping them.
1. Children learn emotional regulation from us. If we go into "fight or flight" so will they. If we can stay calm, they learn that it's not an emergency, and they calm down. The key is to learn to respond rather than react.
2. The emotional safety we create for our children is exactly what allows them to heal, grow and thrive. Like us, children want to feel happy and connected, but sometimes their fear or anger gets the best of them. As adults our calm example gives them a path back to loving connection.
3. When we provide a calm "space-holding environment" for children, they feel safe enough to experience their emotions, which is what allows those big feelings to evaporate. Children need to be able to feel and express feelings and feel safe in doing so - whatever those emotions and however difficult it might be for us as adults to tolerate/manage. Children need to learn that feelings are just part of being human, and we don't have to fear them or act on them. Many adults are afraid of big feelings too. As the adult in the relationship, becoming tolerant and even welcoming of your own uncomfortable feelings will help you to support your child in managing theirs. As you become more tolerant of your own feelings of pain, anger, grief, frustration, boredom etc, you will find you are able to tolerate them better in others, leading to less conflicts and greater understanding.
4. Children are sensitive barometers of our moods and tensions. If we have an unresolved issue going on inside, we can count on them to subconsciously pick up on it and act out. So very often, when we work on our own inner issues, we find that the behaviour of the children around us changes.
5. When we show up differently, so do our children. Remember, it's always a child's action PLUS your reaction that produces the outcome. As the adult in the relationship, with conscious understanding, ability to rationalise and an adult brain, you are fully responsible for making the change first and therefore being responsible for the overall dynamic in the interaction.
The good news is, even if our children have learned some counter-productive habits, it's never too late for them to learn to manage themselves emotionally. The key is our role-modeming and looking at ourselves to make the change.
Learning to regulate emotions is a lifelong journey. Start by noticing your own moods and feelings throughout the day. Breathe through them, but don't act or react until you're calm. Make a choice to feel a different emotion and go back to Love. Every time you do this, you're actually rewiring your brain...and creating changes in your future behaviour.
I guarantee you'll see your child, and likely many of your adult relationships, change too.
Clairey Rachel - Conscious Creative Therapies and Moon Sprite Creations