Have you ever asked yourself that question? If you have, you’re certainly not alone. Parenting is hard. It takes a lot of energy to make sure the right child is out of bed at the right time, dressed in clothes that are the right size with the right socks and shoes, and on-time to the right school with the right backpack carrying the right things, displaying the right behavior. But, what if you’re in a place where it feels like your child’s behavior is wrong more than it’s right? If that’s you, then this post is just for you. I want you to know there is hope for your child’s behavior, even if it feels hopeless right now. So, here are some general insights I’ve learned as a child clinical psychologist and as a parent that will, hopefully, be helpful to you.
Children are not their behavior.
Who your child is as a person (i.e., their identity) is not the same as what they do (i.e., their behavior). In other words, identity and behavior are not welded together. Behavior tends to be dynamic, while identity is more static. Welding behavior and identity together (e.g., “You’re such a trouble-maker) can lead children to believe that who they are depends on what they do. Children need discipline, but it’s important to remind them of this separation in the midst of discipline. This may look like simply saying, “You made a bad choice, but you are not a bad kid.”
Children communicate through their behavior.
Children’s behavior can communicate what they believe about themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with a child or teenager in a therapy session and heard, “It doesn’t matter what I do because everybody already thinks I’m a bad kid.” If a kid believes they are a bad kid, then they will act like a bad kid.
Children’s behavior can communicate what they are feeling internally. This is especially true with younger kids who do not yet have the skills to understand and appropriately communicate their feelings. When a child is scared or sad or angry, they often act in ways that help them manage those feelings. When a child’s negative behavior is severe, chronic, and/or unresponsive to usual discipline, it is not uncommon for his or her (exhausted) parent to tell me that the child’s behavior is just “out of control.” Usually, the child feels out of control on the inside too. My job is to figure out why the child is feeling out of control and then to help change that.
*An important caveat here is that behavior problems can also be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue. For example, the negative behaviors often displayed by children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder are symptoms of the disorder and not necessarily communicating anything about the child’s self-concept or feelings.
Negative behavior is not the same as defiant behavior.
Negative behaviors are undesired or unwanted behaviors. Defiant behaviors fall under the umbrella of negative behaviors, but have to do with disobedience, opposition, or going against an authority figure. The distinction is intention. Negative behaviors can occur for many reasons and defiance is just one them.
Children will behave in ways that work for them.
In other words, the child’s behavior has a function. The specific function of a behavior varies depending on the specific child; however, the functions of behavior tend to fall into some general categories, which include gaining attention, escaping or avoiding something they don’t like, obtaining desired items, and/or increasing or decreasing sensory input. So, if a child is behaving in a certain way to get attention, and the behavior is getting them attention (either positive or negative), then it’s working for them. As long as that behavior is working for them, you’ll keep seeing it.
Maybe all of this is new to you, maybe none of it has been on your parental radar, maybe you blame yourself for your child’s behavior, maybe you feel like a failure as a parent. If that’s you, can I encourage you to do something? Give yourself a break, show yourself some grace. This parenting thing is hard.
So, have you ever asked yourself, “Why is My Child Behaving Like This?” If you have, then you’re further along than you may think because asking the question is the first step to finding the answer. Hang in there, brave and weary parent…your identity is not welded to your child’s behavior.