How to Respond to Children’s Challenging Behavior

A three question framework to help you answer the question of "What do I do now?"

a little boy struggling with homework

During challenging moments, how do you choose when to empathize & connect, to set boundaries, or to teach a skill/lesson to the child?

I asked this question in our membership community, the Emotion Guide Collective, and we had a great discussion around what informs our decisions in the moment.

When children are struggling, it can be difficult to figure out how best to respond.

Our minds start whirling through our mental toolbox.

If your inner talk is anything like mine, it may sound something like this: “This strategy? No, this one. Well, that bombed. How about this one? What should I do? Nothing’s working! Aaargh!”

Having a framework of how to decide which strategy to choose in different situations keeps me from flailing about trying all the strategies hoping one sticks like spaghetti on a wall and the problem subsides.

Here are the three questions I ask myself that make up my decision making framework:

Empathize & Connect

Is the child out-of-control? Are they having an emotional meltdown?

An emotional meltdown is when kids are emotionally flooded and would be unable to quickly calm down even if we gave in to what they are desiring.

If the answer is yes, then I choose Empathize & Connect.

In Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, she shares five attributes of empathy:

  1. To see the world as the child is seeing it
  2. To be nonjudgmental
  3. To understand the child’s feelings
  4. To communicate your understanding of their feelings
  5. Mindfulness or paying attention to what’s happening in these conversations

 

Set Boundaries

Is the child in control and making an unacceptable choice?

If yes, then Set Boundaries.

This may look like…

“You took all the furniture out of the doll house and left it on the floor. Please pick it up so it’s inside the house for the next child who comes to my office.”

My request was met with a stone cold stare like she didn’t know what language I was speaking.

I gave her some time to comply, made my request one more time and then set the following limit:

“I understand you don’t want to pick up the doll house furniture, sometimes I don’t feel like cleaning up too, but it needs to happen. So I’ll give you two choices, both are okay for you to choose —One, you put the dollhouse furniture in the house. It doesn’t have to be neat or organized. It just needs to be inside the house. OR — Two, I’ll put the dollhouse furniture away after your appointment and next time you won’t be able to play with it. What works for you?”

Here’s the kicker… I truly had to be okay with her making either choice. I needed to detach from my viewpoint that there’s a “right” response and a “wrong” response. If I remain attached to what she “should” choose, it’s not really a choice.

She chose not to pick up and not to play with the dollhouse on her next visit. Okay, we all make less than stellar choices sometimes.

I know for many people this brings up the question of, “Well, that sounds all nice and good, Kim, but what about when they have no choice, when they have to do what I tell them to do?”

Here’s your answer (and it might not be what you want to hear)…

When you see no choice other than for the child to listen to you in exactly that moment, you are creating the perfect environment for a power struggle especially if you have a more strong-willed child.  

The usual way out of a power struggle is someone wins and someone loses. How much are you willing to up the ante on consequences to get your child to comply? How much is your child willing to lose to not feel powerless in the situation? How is this impacting your relationship with them?

And you get to choose your response.

  • Do you choose punishments and threats to gain compliance?
  • Do you get playful?
  • Do you let them have their way?
  • Do you co-create choices?
  • Do you Empathize & Connect?
  • Or something else?

All the nuances around setting boundaries are more involved than the scope of this article. If you’d like to be part of more in depth conversations, this is what’s happening inside the Emotion Guide Collective. You can learn more about joining here.

 

Teach a Skill or Lesson

This is an after-the-fact choice. I don’t choose it during meltdowns or in the heat of the moment. We can only learn when we’re calm.

In my experience, we tend to use this strategy when we don’t need it and fail to use it when we do need it. It takes some digging around to discover what’s really going on.

When one of my kiddos came to my office after getting in trouble for hitting at school, he was pulling out all of his avoidance and procrastination strategies.

When I said, “Hey, I feel like you’re trying to avoid our work today. What do you think we’re going to talk about?”

He answered with a mopey voice, “Why I shouldn’t hit people.”

And I said, “No, way! I know you already know why you shouldn’t hit people, but something got in the way and you chose it anyways. We’re going to talk about what got in the way, so next time you have more choices.”

Our school-aged kids know that hitting is wrong. That isn’t the lesson they need to learn.

What they need is to learn the skills they were missing that led to them solving their problem by hitting.

  • Do they need more coping tools for anger?
  • Are they defending themselves and lack other strategies for being assertive and standing up for themselves?
  • Do they believe they need to get revenge if someone does something wrong to them?
  • Or something else?

In short, the question I ask myself is:

What was missing or what got in the way that this choice was the best option the child had in the moment?

Then I teach that.

 

The Hybrid

In challenging moments with kids, I’ll often use a combo of these strategies depending on what’s happening in the moment. I may start with a boundary and then a meltdown ensues, so I switch to empathize & connect until everyone’s calm and then if necessary, I’ll teach a skill or re-set the boundary.

 

Having this decision making framework quiets the frantic guesswork of what to do next.

 

Here are the three questions again:

  1. Is the child out-of-control? Are they having an emotional meltdown? Empathize & Connect
  2. Is the child in control and making an unacceptable choice? Set Boundaries
  3. What was missing or what got in the way that this choice was the best option the child had in the moment? Teach a Skill or Lesson

 

During challenging moments, how do you choose when to empathize & connect, to set boundaries, or to teach a skill/lesson to the child?  What does your decision making framework look like? After reading this article, is there anything you’re going to shift?

 

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