June 2024

What Fuels Misbehavior?

Imagine an iceberg. On top floats a small amount of ice but below, a whole lot is going on that is unseen. In Positive Discipline classes, you will hear the phrases, “behavior has a purpose” and “behavior is a form of communication.”

That unseen ice below the surface is their interpretation of a situation that produces anger, jealousy, or disappointment in your child’s heart. You will be aware of the challenging behaviors, but not always aware of those submerged feelings and hurts you don’t see in your child that are fueling this behavior.
There is a purpose to all that children do; they are communicating, although usually in immature ways, but it is communication nonetheless.

What Does “Belief Behind the Behavior” Mean?

It’s helpful to think about how things work in the adult world and then apply that to a child’s world to see if it makes sense. In this modern era, most of us understand unhealthy, compulsive behavior such as hoarding, workaholism, or excessive drinking (visible tip of the iceberg) has an underlying root cause such as avoidance of facing something, or unresolved feelings of pain or trauma (submerged part of the iceberg). If the compulsive behavior stops, but that underlying cause is not addressed, we all know what most likely will happen – a relapse or a new compulsion develops.

Let’s apply this to children. A child constantly insists on getting and keeping her father’s attention. She keeps him busy with her demands and pushes other siblings or even the other parent away. This is the observable tip of the iceberg.

Underneath the surface, this child has an idea or belief which is, “If my parent is paying attention to me, then I am important and, if the attention stops, then I don’t think I’m important anymore.” This is the underlying root cause – the submerged iceberg below fueling the behavior.

If the father lectures, redirects, logically explains, or yells in frustration to change his daughter’s overly clingy behavior, it will not work long term. The behavior may stop momentarily, only to return or morph into a different irritating behavior to keep his attention. In our classes we promote that the whole iceberg, the seen and the unseen, the behavior and the belief behind the behavior, must all be included in the parenting strategy to change the behavior.

How to Uncover the Belief Behind the Behavior? And What to Do in Response?

It is important to note that not every behavior has a mistaken belief playing out underneath. Sometimes it’s about crossing a boundary to see what happens, or underdeveloped impulse control. Look for those times when a behavior repeats itself or when the reaction is huge compared to the situation. There may be a submerged issue being communicated.

Notice a repeating pattern. Do you have the same situation and the same feelings come up again and again: Annoyance? Anger? Frustration? Hurt? Helplessness? This pattern is a sign there may be an unaddressed issue.

What you feel can be an indication of what specific submerged issue is at hand. If you feel annoyed this could mean the child believes constant attention is love. “Don’t talk to them. Only talk to me!” If you’re feeling angry and challenged, the child may believe that the person in charge is important so he will seek to be in charge all the time.

“You’re not the boss of me!” If you’re feeling hurt the child may be deeply hurt, so much so that she will hurt you back to the level that she is hurting inside. “I don’t love you or the new baby!” If you’re feeling helpless the child may be overwhelmed by the task whether it’s cleaning up a big mess or doing a page of math. He thinks that he’s not capable. “I can’t do it!”

Get curious and make guesses. Curiosity is an underused and incredibly helpful tool. Rather than leap into action to snub out the behavior (that actually won’t go away and often gets worse), ask some questions and make some guesses. The behaviors children display and the words they say communicate clues for you to explore. You can say the questions like these out loud or you can simply think them in your head silently.

“Do you want my attention right now?”
“Do you want to have some choices in this situation?”
“Are you feeling hurt and missing our time together since your sister was born?”
“Are you worried about being able to do this well or even where to start?”

Address both the behavior and the belief behind the behavior. Addressing both of these things is the pathway to being kind and firm at the same time. You are also looking after the emotional needs of the child and, at the same time, holding boundaries, staying connected to your children, and guiding them through tough moments.

If your child wants your attention, give some attention in the midst of what you are doing or involve the child in your task or conversation. Don’t drop everything you’re doing, but don’t push the child away either. “Sweetie, I can’t play. I’m cooking dinner. But I would love you to be with me. Do you want to help me by getting out the lettuce?” Or delay attention but assure them it’s coming. “I want to hear your story. I’m going to finish what I’m saying to your mom and then I’ll be ready to hear what you want to tell me. Come sit next to me while you wait.”

If your child seeks to be the boss, give a bit of power within the situation. Don’t let go of the task at hand, but do share the power the child is seeking. “We’re headed home soon. We are going to leave in 3 or 5 minutes. You decide.” Or, “If you’d rather not vacuum, you can empty the dishwasher instead. You’re choice.”

If your child is hurting and vengeful, work at not take harmful words personally in angry moments. Step in firmly to stop any physical harm that is happening. Next, calm the hurting child with empathy or with a quiet presence. “Whoa, those are very angry words. You’re missing spending playtime with me. I understand. I miss our time, too.” Or, simply stay quietly present and listen.

If your child is overwhelmed and feeling incapable, refrain from pumping him full of empty praise such as “You can do it! You’re amazing!” This may backfire and create more overwhelm.

Address the discouragement and don’t give up on them. Break things down into small steps that feel doable.

“How about you start with gathering up just the dirty clothes on the floor? Dont worry yet about anything else on the floor.” Or, “I’ve seen you do hard things before so I have no doubt you’ll figure this out over time. Let’s cover up all these other problems and just look at this one problem. Let’s do it one step at a time.”

Understanding the belief behind the behavior, rather than the common narrow focus on ways to stop a behavior, was a big game-changer for me as a parent and a teacher. I felt much more equipped to thoroughly and skillfully address challenging behaviors. I hope it becomes a game-changer for you, too.

Colleen Murphy is a credentialed adult ed teacher, a Certified Positive Discipline Trainer at Positive Discipline Community Resources (www.pdcrcc.org), a preschool teacher at Soquel PENS (www.soquelpens.org), a parent coach (fromtheheadtotheheart.com), and in healthy relationships with her two grown kids.

By Colleen Murphy

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