Kids are not trying to misbehave — they simply need help

Instead of being patient, be helpful

Despite being 2 and almost 4, my kids still put nearly everything in their mouths. Chalk, TV remotes, sticks, dirt, puzzle pieces, trains, and even sand. They hardly discriminate; everything is fair game.

Thinking back to when they were babies, it made sense why they put everything in their mouth. It’s a typical part of development. Babies explore the world by mouthing everything they can get their hands on. And now some experts believe it also builds a healthier immune system – my kids might have the healthiest you can get!

An 8th month old doesn’t know that a stick isn’t supposed to go in their mouth. But Keener and Grace know. Despite knowing, this does not change their behavior.

This has me thinking about two things: 1. Facts don’t change behavior and 2. Kids do not approach what they do from a place of reason.

As adults, we all know that we should be sleeping 7-9 hours every night, getting at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, limiting screen time, eating mostly healthy foods, and not drinking too much alcohol. How many of us follow all of these recommendations each day? I know I struggle, and some areas are easier for me than others. Simply knowing doesn’t change my behavior either. And yet I expect my kids to know that licking a TV remote might make them sick (because I’ve told them 100 times) and therefore they should not do it. I am the pot calling the kettle black.

To make matters even more complex, kids, compared to adults, are seriously disadvantaged:

  • The part of the brain that is responsible for “reasonable thinking” is seriously underdeveloped in our kids.
  • Kids don’t make their decisions by thinking about the impact
  • Children are not often approaching things from a standpoint of reason
  • Kids can be incredibly impulsive

 I used to find myself saying all of the time, “What were you thinking?” expecting Keener to answer, “Well mom, I’m so glad you asked. In fact, I wasn’t thinking and was acting impulsively. Next time, I will make sure to think before I act. Thanks for the reminder.” Of course, he has yet to respond in that way. (see previous post)

I’ve been listening to Janet Lansbury’s podcast and reading her book, No Bad Kids (affiliate link). She has so much wisdom to share. Her podcasts are generally around 20 minutes and I always feel better, more relaxed, and better equipped to handle misbehavior after each episode. She has been influential in reminding me recently that children are not rational, and to stop expecting them to be.

Impulsivity

Similar to my kids impulsive behavior, I have had too much to drink on more than one Saturday night. Particularly in my pre kids life, I can remember waking up having had one too many glasses of wine and thinking, “Uh. What was I thinking? I’m never doing that again,” only to find myself tempted again the very next weekend.  Knowing the impact of our choices does not consistently impact our behavior. I actually had to throw away Jeni’s ice cream the other day because that was the only way I could stop myself from eating it. Talk about a lack of self control.

Lansbury suggests that we should be ready for our kids to do impulsive things. Instead of being annoyed when they do, try and plan for it. If they are quickly getting up from table with dirty hands, keep wipes at the table (I keep an entire container of baby wipes on the table for exactly this reason!). If they are climbing on furniture, stop them and provide something they can climb on. Be consistent and show your love by providing a safe alternative to their impulsive behavior.

mess free painting!

Perception is everything

I was losing it on my kids because I was approaching their misbehavior incorrectly. I forgot that they are not acting out of reason but as Lansbury says, out of “impulse, emotions, and stress.” When I would walk into my bedroom and see my kids had thrown all of our pillows onto the floor, I could feel my blood start to boil. What used to fly out of my mouth was, “How many times do I have to tell you? You aren’t listening!”

Clearly, this approach wasn’t working. If Keener and Grace were operating from a reasonable part of their brains, they wouldn’t do it in the first place. They would calmly walk past my bed and think “Mom told us not to throw the pillows. It looks like fun but we have self control, we are not exhausted even though it’s night time. Let’s comply with her directions.”

Lansbury reminds us that our kids are operating from a place of exhaustion and often a state of hyperarousal caused by stress. Especially now, they are having a hard time staying regulated (just like many of us are, even as adults). They are doing things we don’t want them to do and we should not be taking it personally.

Find all the places Magna-Tiles stick!

Prevention

An easy way to help our kids is by setting them up for success. This can look many different ways. It might mean putting certain objects away that they aren’t ready for or are just too tempting. It could also mean intentionally focusing their attention where you want it. Instead of giving them that wiggle room to trash my bed, I might turn a song on and challenge them to get upstairs, get their pajamas, and get their clothes off, and be in the shower by the time the song is over. Taking the time to anticipate the problem areas, and plan for them, is likely to pay off.

Our role is to help

The more I have been able to change my perspective on my kids’ misbehavior, the easier time I have had remaining calm. Lansbury recommends taking a calm stance and simply saying, “Oh, I can’t let you do that,” and guiding them gently away from whatever it is you don’t want them doing. She reminds us that in these moments of misbehavior, our kids are stuck. They may even appear as if they are acting from a place of reason but there is clearly underlying stress. The misbehavior is a call for help – Mom, please help me control my body. Please help me keep myself safe. Please help me comply.

Lansbury also reminds us that transitions, by nature, are difficult. And right now, we are living in one big transition which is stressful. Instead of getting angry, we want to send our kids the message: “I’m your safe person. I’m not going to add to your stress.” When we approach them from a place of help, then they might be able to follow direction. But they also might not. Some kids, in some moments, might need additional support. Try simply saying “That looks like that’s tough for you right now, I’m going to come help.”

Quick Take Aways?

  • See misbehavior and think: What does my child need from me in this moment? Affection? A calming environment? Consistent boundaries set?
  • Offering help will lower my child’s stress level
  • When kids misbehave, they are stuck
  • My role is to help my child when they are misbehaving/stuck
  • Say, “It looks like this is hard for you. Let me help you.”
  • Instead of trying to be patient, be helpful
  • See misbehavior as a cry for help
  • Don’t forget your children’s ages – they likely are not thinking reasonably

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