Interpreting our children’s behaviors

“The art of good parenting revolves around the interpretation of behavior”

– Dr. James Dobson (The Strong Willed Child)

Being a parent is an amazing experience. It brings out the best in us as we love, adore, protect, pray for and lead our children. However, parenting also challenges us like no other relationship. We must maintain the balance between nurturing our children and enforcing order within our homes. That is a tricky balance for even the most seasoned parent. One of the many facets to parenting is learning to correctly interpret the negative behaviors of our children. I believe there are three basic stages from which all children’s negative behavior stems from and being able to assess the situation correctly will dictate how parents should approach their children for correction and discipline. I will give a brief overview of each stages and will follow up in future blogs with more details. If you have specific questions, please feel free to contact me at shannon@southlakecounseling.org

The next time your child misbehaves, try to interpret which one of these stages your child was engaged within.

1. Emotionally based behaviors

These are behaviors that stem from an emotional need; such as fear. For example, a child might lie after being caught misbehaving because he/she is fearful of the consequence. While lying is a serious problem, removing the fear of the consequence can help establish the pattern of telling the truth. I know, it is a challenge as a parent to think about not giving a consequence for misbehavior, but if lying is an ongoing issue, then allowing the child to tell the truth – without a consequence for the behavior – is the solution short term. For a season, consider telling a child who is lying a lot, “if you tell me the truth, the first time I ask you, there will be no consequences.” Guide your child into the habit of telling the truth and then add consequences again later down the road once the lying phase has improved. How long you will need to wait before adding the consequences back will depend on how much of an issue the lying has become. If it is significant, it might take a month or more of no consequences before returning to the truth and a consequence.

Book recommendation: Unfortunately I have yet to find a well balanced book for this stage of children’s behaviors. Most authors that deal with the topic of emotional-based behaviors have gone off the deep end of passive parenting and are at their core advocating child-rule within homes. Not my style of counseling at all. So, if you happen to find a great book that is balanced, please let me know!

2. Being a kid behaviors

This is the stage where most children hum on a typical day. For example, they are asked to turn off the television and go wash their hands for dinner. They continue fixated on the t.v. in zombie land and have lost all ability to hear you. You tell them again, they are now beginning to regain some of their hearing and grunt something at you that sounds sort of like a response. You tell them again – this time in a much louder voice – and they shuffle in snail pace down the hall to the bathroom. They return to the kitchen and have a slight attitude because you interrupted their “favorite show!” At this stage, it is not a true emotional need such as fear that has dictated their behavior. They are being surly but are not challenging your authority outright. I highly recommend that punishment for behaviors within this stage fit the crime so to speak.

Book recommendation: Love & Logic books by Jim Fay, Charles Fay & Foster Cline. They have books geared towards young children (and do please start early!) and for those with teens.

3. The battle for control behaviors

This is the stage that most children do not spend a lot of time in but when they do, the entire house is involved and the parents feel like packing junior’s bags and shipping him/her off to an undisclosed location. This is the stage where children are not in an emotional need, nor are they just “being a kid”. They have entered into a terrain of behaviors that requires parents to step up to the plate and lead.

An example of a battle for control would be a scenario where a parent tells the child to get off his/her bike because it’s time to do homework. The child either loudly or passive-aggressively refuses and continues to ride in the driveway. The parent tells the child again and the child rides farther away from the parent. The parent runs after the child to get him/her off the bike, the child rides faster and is headed to the street. The parent yells for the child to stop, the child laughs, circles around the parent and heads back to the house laughing. The child has had a blast frustrating the parent and the parent is red in the face and ready to explode. The parent again tells child to get off the bike and the child again refuses.

In this scenario, the child has a “bring it on” attitude with the parents and it would not be smart for the parent to allow this behavior to continue. Some passive parenting theorists suggest that ignoring such behavior will magically make it go away. WOW! Really? Letting unrepentant sin go unpunished will make that sin suddenly disappear? I do not think so. A willfully disobedient child must be lovingly corrected and as soon as possible. If we as parents will not lead, I am sure the police will have no trouble leading our off-spring down the road in their lives.

Book recommendation: The Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James Dobson.
I recommend this book for all parents even if your child is not a typical strong-willed child because all children go through phases where they test our ability to lead them and we must do it in a balanced way.

Again, the very next time you receive negative behaviors from your child, assess whether it was driven by an emotional need, just being a kid or a direct challenge to your leadership.