What’s Beneath Children’s Behavior?

You’ve been enjoying a gorgeous spring day on the playground. You announce, “It’s time to go,” and expect Sydney to head into the school building or hop into the car.

Instead you:

Hear a defiant, “No!”

Hear whining complaints and pleas for “just five more minutes.”

Or Sydney melts down and runs off to hide in the playground tunnel.

If this is your child, your student or you’re hearing this story from your client’s parent in your office, what do you do or suggest?

The typical “solution” to this scenario is:

    1. Physically moving them from the playground, even if the child is crying like it’s the end of the world.
    1. Reminding them of the trouble they’ll get into if they don’t do what you told them to do. (And maybe even threatening a consequence of “If you ever want to go to the park again, you have to listen!”)
    1. Explaining all of the reasons why they need to listen to you and leave the playground now.
  1. Giving in and delaying the inevitable tantrum by five minutes, while wondering why this always has to be so difficult.

Or some other response?

Here’s where things get a bit tricky.  

There isn’t one single right answer to how to respond to a child when they won’t leave the playground. There isn’t one approach, one strategy, or one tool that will work every time a child doesn’t listen. You already know this.

This is why we can feel so helpless when dealing with our kids’ emotions and behavior. I hear from so many of the adults I work with that they just want to confidently know what to say and do to guide children through challenging moments without losing their own mind in the process.

It’s not about having the right answers or even having a menu of consistently used consequences.

The behavior is children’s communication.  

Addressing the behavior is one way to do it. But I’m proposing a more effective way: Addressing the emotion behind the behavior through curiosity.

When we approach challenging moments with curiosity we can explore what’s beneath the behavior and know how to best respond.

In this instance, Sydney may be having trouble leaving the playground because:

  • She’s feeling anxious. She doesn’t know what’s next or she thinks what’s next is hard work and she might fail.
  • She’s overwhelmed with disappointment she has to leave the playground and doesn’t yet have the skills to tolerate the intensity of this emotion in her body.
  • Sydney’s hungry or tired and it’s harder to listen when your body is hungry or tired.
  • She’s mad that you are ending her fun playtime. She doesn’t yet have the skills to tend to this emotion so she lashes out at you or melts down.
  • She feels controlled by your request. Her mind sends her the message to resist. She hasn’t developed mental flexibility yet so she becomes rigid and stuck in her behavior.

Each one of these possibilities leads to a different approach you could take to support Sydney. Being curious and exploring what’s underneath behavior illuminates gaps in children’s emotional development so you can confidently choose how to help.

Being curious can sound and look like this:

If your child’s not calm yet…

Go for the emotions.
Using a curious tone of voice, reflect back to the child what it looks like they’re feeling. Naming our feelings begins the calm down process in the brain. “It looks like you’re mad right now?”

Avoid Restating the Limit.
Reminding the child of the limit, direction or boundary they’re struggling with only hinders the calm down process and inflames the situation.

If your child is calm…

Get Three Yes’s.
Explore their experience to integrate facts and emotions and to build insight and self-awareness.

Here’s how a conversation could’ve gone with Sidney:

“Can you tell me what was going on when you didn’t want to leave the playground?” No

“It looked like you were mad. Were you mad that I asked you to leave the playground?” Yes (1)

“Were you thinking about all the math you have to do next and feeling worried?” No

“You were on the swings with two other girls when I asked you to leave. Were you mad that you had to stop swinging?” Yes (2), they never want to play with me and today they did and then you said we had to go and I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep playing with them.

“Oh, I see. You were mad because it was time to stop playing with the girls.  You like them so much and you like swinging with them. Are you worried they won’t play with you next time?” Yes (3)

Now, you know what was driving Sydney’s behavior. She lacks a sense of continuity in her connection to the girls she wants to befriend. This gives you information so you can choose how best to support Sydney moving forward.

What would change if you and your child/student/client understood the factors beneath their behavior? What would be possible if you engaged with your children from a place of curiosity instead of control?

In the Growing Up Confident Collective, our first value is curiosity. It is one of the ways we guide children through their big emotions.

Next up, I’ll be sharing the second value of the Growing Up Confident Collective: Collaboration.

Thank you for your work with helping kids. It really does take a village and I’m glad to be in the village with you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, or questions. You can post them below.

We’ll also be connecting and having deeper discussions on this topic in our community, the Growing Up Confident Collective.