The Real Reason Our Children Misbehave

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A few weeks ago my daughter had to go to the doctor to get a blood test. A receptionist came to hold her arm as the doctor took the blood. He kept telling my daughter how ‘good’ and ‘strong’ she was because she didn’t cry.

All the while I was looking at her face and seeing the fear, confusion and pain she was feeling. I knew that she wasn’t keeping quiet because she was ‘strong’ but because she was too scared to express herself. I also knew that those cries that we weren’t hearing in the doctor’s surgery were going to come out later.

A week or so passed and my daughter started randomly just coming up to me and pushing me. It happened a few times before I thought ”this is different.” She’s been through a few aggressive phases, which I’ve always been able to help her out of thanks to Hand in Hand Parenting. Where had this one come from?

Then one day we were playing doctor, and she started pinching me and telling me it wouldn’t hurt. Suddenly I realised where the pushing had come from. This was her way of telling me about the fear and upset she’d experienced in the doctor’s surgery.

In all the parenting information out there, we hear a lot about setting firm limits so our children learn right or wrong, about using time out, or teaching consequences. However as much as children need limits (set in a compassionate way) they also need us to look a little deeper at the real reasons behind their behaviour.

Thirty years ago Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand parenting made a revolutionary discovery. Guess what? Our children are born, naturally good, loving and co-operative, they don’t want to hurt each other, fight or have trouble sharing. It’s just that sometimes their hurt feelings get in the way.

When children experience hurt or upset, they need to process the fear and helplessness they feel. They have a natural healing process for doing so. When children cry stress hormones are released through the tears. Laughter, and connection, also play an important part.

Nowadays Patty Wipfler’s discovery is supported by the latest brain science. When children get upset, or disconnected their limbic system – the emotional part of the brain senses an ’emotional emergency.’ In those moments the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational behaviour, and reasoning, just can’t function well.  In these emotional moments they lack the ability to control their behaviour. When children are upset they literally forget that it’s wrong to hit, or to snatch toys from another child.

This is the real reason behind children’s ‘misbehaviour.’ The hurt feelings that get in the way of their thinking. It’s why time out and giving consequences are ineffective because they don’t get to the root cause.

Toddler aggression, or sharing struggles are often thought of as being normal developmental phases that we can simply wait for our children to grow out of. However this actually does our children a great disservice. My daughter pushing me wasn’t simply ‘normal.’ It was part of her way of telling me, ”hey, I got hurt, and I’m not thinking well now. I need to tell you a story about what happened through play, and I need to laugh and cry with you to get it out of my system”

Think of all the times are children get persuaded or distracted out of their tears by well-meaning adults before they’ve finished crying. Think of all the little, and big moments in their lives where they got scared, or confused. Stress in pregnancy, a difficult birth, or just the everyday experiences of being in this world. For a baby even a stranger picking them up, or coming close while they are lying in pram can be frightening. All these experiences can gather up and manifest as behavioural difficulties.

So when we set limits with our children on their behaviour, lets do so gently and compassionately. We can be firm about keeping everyone safe so siblings or friends don’t get hurt. We can also understand the brain science of why our children can’t control their behaviour, but that we can do something to help them out of it. We can tell our children, ”I’m sorry you feel so bad. I can listen to you if you need to cry.”

Need more help with aggression? Check out Hand in Hand parenting’s online self study course No More Hitting.

The Wrong Way

 

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I went to the supermarket with my daughter, and it was so frustrating! She was constantly picking up things from the shelves, and running away from me, which she found hilarious. I was not so amused, although I tried to let her have a good laugh about pulling some toilet rolls off the shelves, because I know that she needed to release some emotions. But my self-consciousness was getting the better of me, and I quickly rushed us away to pay.

We hadn’t been laughing much together recently, and I was wondering when my ‘laughter inspiration’ was going to strike. It seemed like I just couldn’t seem to think of anything to get her laughing, and it was showing in her behaviour. I felt like I was constantly being serious, and setting limits, which wasn’t making us feel very well connected. I was feeling stressed by her whining, and other off-track behaviour, such as shouting ‘bum bum’ and ‘poo poo’ very loudly when we were in public!

On the way to catch the train home, my daughter started complaining that I was going the wrong way, because I’d chosen to go a slightly shadier route to stay out of the sun. Suddenly I had an idea, I saw a flight of steps, and turned her buggy, so we suddenly stopped in front of them. ”Whoops! We went the wrong way.” I said, and she started giggling. We carried on walking for a bit, and I saw an alleyway, so I turned down there, ”oh no, the wrong way!” I said, and she was giggling again. We carried on the game for the whole journey, bumping into lampposts and fences, spinning the buggy round in a circle, or tipping it up as we made a sudden turning and went the wrong way. My daughter joined in pointing out ways, and saying ‘lets try this way,” and every time I exclaimed, ‘whoops, it’s the wrong way!” she laughed and laughed. When we got home, we were still going the wrong way, bumping into the wall in the basement, and stopping suddenly in front of a doorway instead of the elevator.  We felt much more happy and connected.

Laughter is such a vital connection tool, and I’ve seen time and time again, that after my daughter laughs a lot, tears will come later. Like the rain after the sunshine, it’s all part of our innate natural healing process, to get rid of all the yucky feelings we can get filled up with. I’m not always filled with laughter inspiration, and it can sometimes be emotionally exhausting listening to my daughter’s upsets. But it’s a million times more rewarding than having to deal with the kind of behaviours that drive me crazy, and leave me feeling stressed and exhausted anyway! Listening partnerships help a lot, we need to release stress, with laughter and tears too.

If you have a toddler, and want to brighten up your day a bit, why not try going the wrong way? I’d love to hear how it goes. A variation of this game is if you are walking on a shopping street, holding hands with your child, you could try going into the wrong shop, turning and then stopping outside different shops. It’s even more amusing and a bit naughty if the shop has automatic doors, and the benefit in a bit of ‘prescribed naughtiness,’ is that it improves our child’s co-operation the rest of the time. So maybe next time that trip to the supermarket won’t be so frustrating after all.

And if you’re stuck for laughter inspiration too, then check out this list of laughter games, which is fantastic for young children.

What’s behind the ‘I wants’

 

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Yesterday we went on a beautiful overnight trip to a lake here in Switzerland. As soon as we got there my two year old daughter was saying, ”I want be carried,” ”I want food,” ”I want a drink.” There seemed to be no end to her ‘wants,’, and they all seemed to come in a rush. How could she be hungry, I thought, we’d just had a big lunch. And as soon as she’d claimed she was hungry, she was onto the next want, her need for food seemingly forgotten. ”I want to go home” she demanded, which was impossible, as home was three train rides away, and it seemed a shame not to enjoy the beautiful sunny day.

Recently when we’ve been out and about she’s been asking to go home a lot. It started when we tried out a new playgroup, and although the experience was exciting for her. it seemed to leave her feeling overstimulated, and needing down time. I wondered if it was a feeling of disconnection that was causing this barrage of ‘wants,’ and that what she really needed was to process some of her emotions.

”I want to ride” my daughter said pointing at a carousel we passed by the lake side. I thought about it for a moment, remembering how much she loved the carousel at the autumn fair in Basel, and how she’d spent weeks in imaginative play afterwards at home, making rides for her dolls and teddys. I also knew that sometimes when we want to help our children with their feelings, especially at times of disconnection, that it’s good to say yes for a while. So I bought some tokens for the ride, and we had a great time together. After the first go she didn’t want to come off, and I knew that a tantrum was coming. But the ride was quite short, and I didn’t want to interrupt her fun so quickly so I let her stay on for another two rides. Then I realised that it was actually quite expensive, and it was really time to stop!

As I told her it was time to go, she was clinging tightly to the car she was sitting in. She started crying. I didn’t want to seem like I was angry, and dragging her away, and usually I would wait till she felt better before we moved, but I did need to prise her hands away in a hurry, as we had to jump off before the carousel started going again. She was crying, as I went to sit on a wall by the lake. She kept crying, as I gently explained why we had left. I gave her time to finish crying, to get all of her upset out. I knew that although she loved the ride and wanted to stay on, it was about more than that. She’s often very flexible, and can understand and accept when we need to go, or when we can’t do something. But this time it was also about the upset feelings she’d been carrying with her all week, that were making her feel like she desperately ‘wanted,’ and ‘needed’ something, when in actual fact what she really needed was some warmth and connection to release her feelings. After crying, her kind of desperate ‘I want’ attitude had completely disappeared. We spent a lovely time, paddling in a pool by the lakeside.

So if you find your patience being tried by constant demands, perhaps see if your child actually needs a bit of extra connection. Special time, or doing something our child loves together is a great way to rebuild our connection with our children when they’re upset, or have experienced a separation from us. And what often happens is that afterwards our children may start to cry. Patty Wipfler refers to this as the ‘spoiled outing’ phenomenon, that amidst all the love and connection, and togetherness our children might have a meltdown. It may seem like our children are ungrateful or greedy or just spoiling everything by letting their feelings spill out over a day that was meant to be fun. But we can look at in a different way, that they’re soaking up our love and attention, and they feel safe to tell us how they’re feeling. They may not tell us in words. They may tell us by crying when we say no to an ice cream or tell them it’s time to go home. But I hope you’ll remember the message of this blog, that crying is a healing process, that our children shed upsets, and stress from the not so special times through tears. If we can wait till the end of the tears, without distracting or interrupting our children, but instead giving them lots of closeness, and connection, then we may find that the day, far from being spoiled, is even brighter than before.

A Little Special Time in the Morning

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“She’s so clingy,” I found myself complaining about my one-year-old daughter. “I can’t get anything done!”

Almost all the mothers with babies of a similar age agree with me. We spend our days socializing in baby groups, or at other people’s houses, trying to avoid going back to our own homes. My baby seems fine when we are out and about, but turns into a koala whenever it’s just the two of us.

When I talk to parents of toddlers, and older children, I get worried that it’s not going to get any easier. Children of all ages need attention, and lots of it. It seems that no matter how much we give our children, they always want more. Their need for attention seems infinite!

From my Building Emotional Understanding Course, I learned that the clingy,
attention-seeking nature of our children is actually hard-wired into their brains. It makes biological sense that children evolved to make sure they were under an adults’ radar at all times, to protect them from wolves and other dangers in the wild. There may not be any wolves in our houses these days, but children’s brains are still the same.

According to Patty Wipfler, when children feel connected to their parents, they can be their naturally good selves, happy, relaxed, and eager to co-operate with us. However, their sense of connection is fragile, and is easily broken by something as simple as a parent giving attention to another sibling or getting distracted by a phone call. When children behave in “off track” ways, it’s a signal to us that they need some connection.

But giving children constant attention is impossible. Many of us work all day, and it’s not much easier for stay-at-home parents, who struggle to balance doing the cooking and housework with giving their children one-on-one attention.

Mornings were the worst time for me. I’d be struggling to get breakfast sorted, clean up the kitchen and get out of the house. As I rushed about, my daughter would start screaming for my attention, which stressed me out. As the screams escalated, I would feel more and more stressed, and she would get more and more frustrated. We were reacting to each other, so that by the time we left the house our sense of connection had been lost, and everything I tried to do just seemed to make her whine and complain.

After reading Julianne Idleman’s article ”Start School Days With Special Time” I decided to implement ten minutes of Special Time with my daughter every morning. I loved Julianne’s advice to, “Make sure everyone in the house knows they are loved and cared for, and welcomed into this new day, before any of the many mundane chores gobble up your attention.”

During Special Time I would get down the floor, and follow my daughter as she crawled about exploring. It seemed almost silly to be doing this, to just follow her, doing nothing but simply watching what she was doing. She barely looked at me, as if I wasn’t even there! But then I reminded myself that if I wasn’t with her, she’d be wanting to be picked up. She did feel my presence even if she wasn’t directly interacting with me. She enjoyed this time of exploration, safe in the knowledge that I was close by and giving her my complete attention.

What I noticed is that when Special Time was finished, she was often happy to continue playing even after I stopped to get on with other things. Because I’d invested time with her, she continued to feel a sense of connection, even when that time ended.

Now, whenever my daughter is in a particularly clingy mood, I give her some Special Time, and it often helps her to enjoy playing independently. Daniel Siegel, the co- author of Parenting From The Inside Out says that humans have oscillating needs for connection and solitude. When I have met my daughters need for connection she can confidently go off to explore her world, learning, in self-directed play. The practice of Special Time, together with the other Parenting by Connection listening tools, have helped me to help my daughter discover her independence. It is a joy to watch, and it’s great to get some time to clear up the house too!

Daniel Siegel says that our brains develop during interactions with others. We feel connected, and internalize a sense of the loved ones in our lives so that they are with us even when we separate from them. When we devote time to our children, it helps them to internalize a sense of having a loving safe base that makes them feel confident and secure even in our absence. This could be when we just need five minutes to go to the toilet, or so that children can cope with separations such as daycare or school. Ultimately, our children internalize the sense of feeling safe and connected to us, which means that when our children are grown and fly the nest, they will still feel us with them. I love this idea that when we connect and interact with our children, we are interweaving ourselves together so that we will never really be apart.

You can read more about how we can build secure attachments with our children in Parenting From The Inside Out 

Mine, Mine Mine! Fun Games to Encourage Sharing

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When my daughter Ruby was 22 months old, she learnt the word “mine” along with the concept that certain possessions belonged to different people. My husband and I found it quite amusing that she was suddenly exclaiming “mine!!” whenever we picked up something of hers. But then a friend with a daughter of a similar age came to visit. Previously Ruby had been happy to share her space and toys with others. But this visit was punctuated by her saying “mine mine!” whenever her little friend picked up one of her toys.

I’d always been so proud that Ruby had been able to share so well. What had changed? I wondered if it was my fault. I wasn’t sharing all my possessions with her. My mobile phone and computer were off limits. She had already broken my computer mouse, so I did need to set some limits to protect my possessions! But if I wasn’t being flexible with my ‘rules’ then how could I expect Ruby to share her most treasured possessions? I started to relax my rule about my mobile phone. I would let her play with it for a few short ‘special times.’ It turned out to be a lovely connected time, where I got to share her excitement, and surprise as she pressed the buttons and made things happen. We talked together about what the phone, smiling, and making lots of eye contact, so it wasn’t just about the phone, but about spending time together too. It’s not something I’d do every day, but I wanted to occasionally relax the rigid idea, that “this is mine, and that is yours.”

We also played a fun Playlistening game, where I would say in an inviting tone, “I’m just going to send a message on my phone,” and have the phone within grabbing reach of her. She would take it and I’d act all surprised, exclaiming “oh my phone!” She laughed a lot, really enjoying playing the powerful role of taking my possessions.

One evening I picked up one of Ruby’s teddy bears, and she immediately launched into “mine, mine!” “Whoops! Sorry,’’ I said, ‘’I thought it was mine.’’ She giggled as I handed the teddy bear back. We had started Playlistening again. I would take a teddy bear or doll, cradle it, and say ‘’oh my lovely baby.’’ She would exclaim ‘’mine!’’ I would apologise, as if I’d done it accidentally, and hand it back. She giggled and giggled and kept saying ‘da da’ which is her word for ‘again.’’ Once Playlistening gets initiated she often asks me to repeat the same things that make her laugh.

After dinner Ruby, her daddy and I would go to the local park to play on the grass. We love to do Playlistening outside, where we can freely avoid our household chores, and concentrate on having fun and connecting together! I would throw a cuddly toy in the air and we would all race off to get it. The finish was close, and Ruby would giggle a lot as she always managed to get the toy just in time.

All this laughter while playing the powerful role was helping her to release the tensions and fears that were coming up around sharing. She was having all this wonderful playtime, always getting the toys. I wondered if it would help her feel comfortable to share again.

The next day two of her little friends came round. Almost immediately one of the girls took Ruby’s buggy, Ruby erupted with “mine!’’ Oh no, I thought, the girl who loved to share is gone.

Of course the buggy was Ruby’s. I wanted to hear her feelings, but she hadn’t been playing with it at the time, so it seemed fair to let Julia continue playing with it. I gently told Ruby, ‘’Yes, it’s yours, but I think Julia would like to play with it for a bit.’’ Ruby seemed to understand that Julia was just borrowing it. And it turned out that Julia only wanted the buggy so Ruby took the baby out and played with it instead.

After that the three toddlers played happily all afternoon, sharing toys, and working things out for themselves so us mums were free to chat! Ruby was feeding the other girls cherries, and bringing them their water bottles. I was so happy to see her kind generous nature shining through again.

We often think it’s our job as parents to encourage sharing, to time turns, or give a toy to another child to stop a tantrum. This can be an exhausting task! There have been times when I’ve watched my daughter always want the toy that another child has, and if I constantly try to meet this need, it doesn’t seem to satisfy her. Often it’s not about the toy, it’s about the feelings that come up for a child when they see a kid having fun with a toy they don’t have. Maybe they think, ‘’if I had that toy I would feel better.’’

Our time and energy as parents is better spent listening. We can listen to the upset feelings, the tears and tantrums as another child plays with a toy. We can listen to the laughter, playing games to release the tension and fears that come up around sharing.

All our children love to share. When they are free of upset feelings they naturally want to get on well with others, and share the joy of their most treasured possessions. Taking the time to listen, connect, and play, helps to restore this natural state of co-operation and generosity.

It’ll all end in tears

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You know the old saying, ‘it’ll all end in tears,’ the warning our parents gave us when our play got giggly, wild and ‘out of control’? I gained a different perspective on this old saying when I discovered the Parenting by Connection approach from Hand In Hand Parenting.

Laughter is one of the ways that we release stress and tension from our bodies. For instance when we feel embarrassed it’s natural to giggle nervously, and we can probably all remember times as children when we tried to suppress are giggles when we got told off by a grown up.

Laughter also builds connection with our children, as they run, chase, and have fun with us, safety builds so they are able to tell us how they are feeling. After they release some ‘lighter’ tensions through giggling, this may mean that deep hurts rise to the surface. It might be that our child falls down, and has a big cry over what looks like a small hurt, because the are actually not just crying about the present moment, but releasing some feelings from past upsets that they didn’t cry about at the time.

I’ve sensed that my daughter has been feeling a bit ‘off-track’ recently. Three months ago, my grandmother died, and I felt devastated and exhausted. While I was grieving it was hard to give my daughter the deep sense of connection, that she craves. As we all know our children seem to need an almost infinite amount of attention! I took care of her basic needs, but there wasn’t much fun and laughter in our house for a while. I took every opportunity I could to let her dad take over so I could rest.

About a month ago, as I started to get more energy, my daughter’s behaviour started getting more challenging. It was as if she could sense that I was more emotionally available than I had been, and she started ‘telling’ me how she had felt when I didn’t have attention for her, by saying no to lots of things. Getting her dressed, or brushing her hair, were like invitations for her to run away. We didn’t always have time or I didn’t have the energy to chase her for half an hour, to get these things done! She also became really clingy, saying, ”I want my mummy’ all the time in a very screechy voice, that really pushed my buttons. And I noticed her showing fear of things that she had done confidentially before like going down a slide in the park. I had been trying to encourage her by waiting at the bottom of the slide, and telling her I would catch her.

Yesterday evening, I had some great listening time with my partners. I was able to talk about how disconnected my daughter and I were from each other and how I needed to reconnect but wasn’t sure how. I was able to vent all of my frustration about her constantly demanding my attention.

After that I felt full of energy, and all of the irritation I’d felt had vanished. I went to clean her teeth, and then she started running away from me, I chased her around the house, grabbing hold of her clothes, but always letting her get away, so she could feel powerful, and have fun. After laughing for a bit she happily cleaned her teeth, and then found more fun things to do, such as opening the bedroom door and run away giggling with delight, when she escaped me again. She laughed and laughed, and got to release all her excess energy from the day. We ended up ‘wrestling’ on our bed, with me pretending to sleep and her jumping on me saying ”ride ride donkey,” a game we play where I say that I am not a donkey but a mummy and I need to sleep. She laughed for a good hour before going to sleep.

Now I’ve practised Parenting by Connection long enough to learn that after so much laughter, tears will come. It might not be immediately, but in the next hour or day. It’s like a weather pattern, that after laughter, there will be tears.

This morning she woke up crying really suddenly, a bit earlier than usual. She sounded scared as if she’d had a bad dream. I went into the bedroom and held her. She cried for a few mins, and I was careful just to hold her, not say too much, and just be there. Then she said ”mummy dropped me.”

I realised that she was recounting something that happened a few days ago at the swimming pool. She had jumped into the pool and I was ready to catch her, but for a split second she had slipped through my hands, and went under the water, before I did catch her.  I recounted the story to her, saying I had dropped her for a second, but she was safe now, and I would always keep her safe. She cried even harder as I said I would keep her safe. When her crying died down again I sensed she was still upset so I told her the story again to reassure her, and each time I got to the part where I said I would always keep her safe she cried.

After crying for a while she was back to laughter again. We lay in bed, and did her favourite thing of the moment, where she makes up funny words like, ”poka and ”tanny” and then I repeat them exclaiming with surprise, and she laughs.

After that she was in a great mood. She happily got dressed and let me brush her hair with no need for any chasing! Then we went to the park. She played a game, where I pushed one of her babies down the slide, and she caught them. And then she left a baby at the bottom of the slide to catch her, and she went down herself!

With connection, laughter and tears, she could overcome the upset, that had happened when I couldn’t be completely there for her. If I had tried to distract or cheer her up, if I’d had said, you’re okay, said it’s just a bad dream and rushed to get on with the day, I might not have heard the story of why she was upset, or helped hwith her sense of disconnection and fears.

When our children get our connection, and can laugh with us, it might all end in tears, but that is natural. When our children can fully shed their sadness and fear, they get to that deeper happiness, that greater confidence beyond. And when that happens they don’t need to tell us anymore, through challenging behaviour just how bad they felt. All is well again. So don’t hold back on the laughter, because you’re getting nervous that tears might follow, just remember it’s all part of the natural cycle of human emotions. Just be sure to get some support for the challenging work we all do as parents, riding the storm of our children’s feelings!