“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
When a child exhibits unwanted behavior, often the first course of action is to punish the child; however, I believe we should first seek to understand what’s driving the behavior. If we can determine why, we can then help the child get back to being his or her best self. There are two places one can begin to look to find the cause for the child’s behavior. The first is in the parent-child relationship, and the second is in the child’s environment.
The parent-child bond is extremely important to a child’s growth and well-being. A child must feel wholly loved and cared for in order to reach his potential. As Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, a child “must never work for our love; they must rest in it.” (Video) Yet, conventional parenting methods make the child work for our love, or at least the expression of our love (which to a child is one in the same). When we are displeased with children, it is common to push them away into a room, corner, or time-out chair or ignore them entirely until they come into line and do what we like. These may be effective ways to change behavior quickly, but they cause deeply unsettling feelings in children which often manifest in other “bad” behaviors. It’s like putting out one fire while setting two more. Such punishments chip away at the attachment bond, and without a strong bond, children become much more difficult to guide. This is why punishments must often increase in severity or length to continue being effective. For information on how to discipline without punishment, read the following articles.
Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie in disciplinary actions but in critical words spoken or lack of quality time spent. There are many things that could make a child feel less connected and close to us, and it’s our responsibility as parents to discern the state of the relationship and work to keep it close.
CHANGING THE ENVIRONMENT
If the parent-child attachment bond is intact, the next best place to look is in the child’s environment. Here again are many potential causes for frustration, and feelings of frustration or sadness are often at the root of behavioral problems. Here are a few specific things to look for.
A “No” Environment
Children are driven to explore and learn. When they are constantly being told “no” in their attempts to do so, it’s natural that frustration builds. Of course, parents are often just trying to keep the child safe, and climbing or throwing balls in the house, for example, may not be safe. Yet, rather than seeing these behaviors as “bad,” we can see them as a normal part of development and do our best to set up a “yes” environment where the child can explore freely. Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not against telling a child “no” when “no” needs to be said. I’m just suggesting that by setting up an area in the home which is safe for young children to explore in, we cut down both on the frustration of the child and the parents. Read Setting up a “Yes” Environment by Positive Parenting Connection for more on this.
Emotionally Tense Environments
If there is frequent discord between parents or between siblings, this stress and tension affects a child’s brain. The feelings of fear, sadness, helplessness, or frustration caused by conflicts may be the source of a child’s unwanted behaviors. For a better outcome, use and teach peaceful conflict resolutions skills in the home. It isn’t necessary to avoid conflicts altogether as that’s nearly an impossible task for families. Rather, it’s the way conflicts are handled and solved that matter. Being hostile or aggressive leads to stress, obviously, while constructive arguing that leads to a resolution has better outcomes.
School can be a stressful environment for children, both academically and socially. I recently wrote an article titled Back to School: How to Give Your Child Emotional Support at Home where I detailed some of the things parents can do to alleviate these emotional stresses. While we cannot be in control of what happens to our children at school (unless, of course, we homeschool them), we can make home a safe haven where their emotions can be felt and dealt with appropriately.
Learning to look beyond behavior is the first step to real and positive change. If we simply punish the behavior, we miss the pain that is causing it, but by uncovering and healing the pain, we help our children feel and be their very best.