Recently our youngest son Andrew (7) acted out with some behavior issues. These were times when I knew he understood what was asked of him. He heard what I said yet he proceeded to do the opposite of what I asked of him. Normally my son is congenial and good at following directions – or at least verbalizing if he would prefer to do something else. So, for him to completely ignore what I asked of him then do the exact opposite of what I asked (knowingly disobey) is very unlike him.
Behavior tells a story. In addition to recognizing I needed to put some thought and prayer into figuring out the root of this recent behavioral change, I also knew he needed to experience consequences for his disobedience. After I handed out his consequence, he became very distressed to lose a privilege he was looking forward to. I told him I was sad he was missing out on something he really wanted, and I didn’t want to see him miss out on the fun thing either. He cried and said, “Mommy, why can’t you just let me do this!” I told him I loved him too much to let him get away with doing what he wanted rather than what I asked of him. This statement confused him even more, so I began to clarify.
While he is a young man he has the opportunity to learn how to do hard things. (1) This means he must do things he does not feel like doing, such as respecting authority, be responsible, be kind, recover when he is upset and doesn’t get his way, etc. The best time to do this is while he is young in his child maturity years, and the consequences are still small compared to later in life. When people grow up and still haven’t learned the value of this important maturity task, the consequences of disrespecting authority, irresponsibility, cruelty, and throwing a fit when they don’t get their way are much bigger. These are the kind of behaviors that cause people to lose friendships, jobs, marriages and even financial consequences like losing their home. One of the best gifts I can give my sons is learning these important tasks in our home while the stakes are small so he doesn’t have to experience the painful fall-out from these kinds of behaviors in the “real world” as an adult.
Andrew still wasn’t sure he fully understood my point, so I gave him examples from movies he had seen where someone did not get what they wanted so they threw a big temper tantrum or they were cruel and people didn’t want to be around them. I helped him understand that the people in those movies have not yet learned these lessons he was learning, and it became very costly.
I could see he was beginning to understand. I explained I wanted to help him learn to do these hard things and I was sad with him when he had a consequence for his actions. He said, “Mommy, I don’t know why I’m doing these things!” and we talked for a while about how I could help him. We were able to figure out some of the roots of his recent behaviors and we strategized a plan about how to address the root issue.
Behavior tells a story. When a child has a big change in behavior there is usually something driving it. Rather than be a prison warden with our children and stay focused on behavior modification, we can become detectives who engage in some prayerful investigation. Is someone picking on the child at school? Have you the parent been busier than usual and unavailable so they are missing you? Are there significant changes going on in life? A new baby? A move? Do you or your spouse have a new job and are you working different hours? All of these things create a profound unsettledness in our children who are acute observers in the home. Children require connection with us to better navigate these waters. In addition to a loving consequence, validation, attunement and comfort will help provide the security and facilitate the repair they need to get back on track and manage their big feelings that are likely driving the behavior.
As parents, we want to be friends with our kids and have them to like us, but it is more important for us to be the “bad guy” at times and hand out consequences they don’t like. The goal is not to avoid big emotions, rather learn to return to joy from these emotions together. In the moments of upset, we can synchronize within their upset (even though we are the cause of it) and help our children quiet themselves and offer connection in the midst of their distress. This is hard and requires that we keep staying in relational mode. Our children need us as parents to guide, correct and love them.
How can you connect with your children this week in the midst of their upset? Can you stay in relational mode when big feelings arise? If you notice yourself slipping into non-relational mode try practicing appreciation or one of these relational circuit restoration steps.
- According to the Life Model, learning to do hard things is a child maturity task. The work of Dr. Jim Wilder expands this teaching.