All parents experience times when their children exhibit challenging behaviors. Understanding the causes behind those challenging behaviors can help. If we make the mistake of looking only at children’s behavior rather than their level of distress and needs, we miss an opportunity to really understand and connect with them and to ease their difficulty.

During the last few weeks, we have discussed some of the emotional, relationship, and physical needs that affect your child’s behaviors as well as why they affect those behaviors. This week, we will offer three more reasons for the root cause of out-of-balance behaviors.

Now and then your child will need help with big feelings. A painful experience may create so much tension in your child that it needs to be released. Painful experiences—such as the death of a relative, friend, friend’s parent, or pet; being bullied or left out at school; or having a new sibling at home—can create strong feelings that are stressful. This stressful experience activates the release of stress chemicals in the body and brain, and your child may relieve all of that tension through an outburst in behavior because he or she does not have the words to express such strong emotions. It is important that we help kids with these painful feelings rather than tease, criticize, or punish them. As adults, it is important that we comfort children and help them with big feelings of disappointment, jealousy, loss, and frustration. We can help them develop pathways from their higher brain to regulate the strong emotions experienced in the lower brain.

Children can also be the barometer for the stress and emotional pain a parent feels. Part of your child’s brain picks up on emotional cues within milliseconds. Children are attuned to and deeply affected by the emotional climate around them. If you are relaxed, your child will likely be calm. If your child is in an atmosphere of tension and stress, he or she will feel off balance and express that feeling through behaviors.

As a parent, another important aspect to consider when trying to understand your child’s behavior is how you are activating your child’s brain. Are you activating the primitive brain areas associated with rage and fear by shouting, yelling, and issuing commands? Or are you activating the play and care systems that trigger the release of opioids, which act to calm a child? Through play, laughter, and gentle touch you will most likely find a calm and contented child.

Remember, your child is not intending to be naughty. If you can understand what is beneath the behavior, you will be able to avoid or resolve distressful episodes.
Play and laughter promote balance.

More to consider:

A few ideas to help your child handle big feelings . . .First, help your child learn to notice and name his or her feelings. This develops self-awareness, and it helps the brain “think.” If your child can notice and name a feeling, it is much easier to deal with those feelings. If we can acknowledge and accept our children’s feelings, it makes it easier to help them learn to manage those feelings.

Teach your child ways to calm and manage big feelings. Tap into your child’s interests and strengths. How about dancing a mad dance, painting the feeling, drawing and then erasing the feeling with pencil and eraser, taking a warm bath, asking for a hug, or digging in the dirt? Your child can learn to manage his or her mood without hurting others.

Since children are learning many new things, help them work through frustrating experiences. Maybe there is a trick to putting on those shoes or pulling up those pants. Parents who remain optimistic and supportive while teaching their child new skills send the message that their child is capable—all leading to less frustration. Feelings of competence nurture confidence and emotional stability.

Listen to, laugh with, and hold your child close.