Parents and teachers need to take a moment to collect themselves because kids have a way of borrowing our nervous systems. 

Quote from The Virtues Project

Children mirror our responses, attitudes, and behavior and are learning lessons from us–especially in times of stress. The problem is, when we feel frustration mounting, it can be really hard to stay cool.

It is worth noting that many share that they feel terrible when they lose their temper and resort to yelling, punishment, or threats. They also notice that this response never really solves the problem. The unwanted behavior might go quiet for a bit and then resurface in a different flavor.

When We “Lose It,” We’re Playing a Losing Game

The idea that we “lose” our temper is actually a misnomer. In truth, we “use” our temper to gain control or the upper-hand in a situation. It is really a power grab and invites the other person to either up the power in return or become submissive to our anger – either way, we are playing a losers game.

How can we change the game?

Let Love Lead

One way to collect oneself before responding to an unwanted behavior is to quietly get in touch with one quality you love in this child. This is letting love lead.  Once you can do this, your thoughts will be expressed through your actions. The child is always dear, even though their behavior might not be. (Adlerian parent educators call it:  ‘Separating the deed from the doer.’)

Step 1: Pause and silently identify one thing about this child you find dear and lovable. You might decide to share it aloud or hold it quietly. (NOTE: This doesn’t mean that you find the behavior in the moment lovable.)

Step 2: Identify the needs of the situation and encourage the child to make a different choice to meet the needs. You might do one or two of the following:

  • Kindly hold a boundary by inviting the child to have a do-over. This is a fun way to hold a limit. It communicates the message that this behavior doesn’t work, and you can try again!
  • Give a choice. Provide two options that are both workable in the situation and let the child have some positive power.
  • Get curious and ask genuinely, “____ isn’t working well for you here, will you tell me more about what you wish/need or how you think we could meet the need of the situation here?”  As you do this, you’re holding onto the love that you see in this child. 
  • Invite them to share a hug. You might say, “I’m here, loving you, and would love a hug when you’re ready to give me one.”

Step 3: Notice strengths that you see in this child and share these strengths with them at various points throughout each day. Remembering that all behavior is goal directed, it is essential to consider how this child (and how I am too!) finding the Four Crucial Cs: connect, capable, count, courage.

Planning for Success

Recently, an adult reached out. She was heading on a trip with one of the children in her life. She shared how excited she was for the trip and valuable one-on-one connection time. Then, more quietly, she shared that she was also a little worried, anticipating that the child’s behavior might cause her to lose her patience. I shared some of the ideas above with her and the following example which had come up in one of our Parenting Circle meetings.

The Scenario:
(Story details have been changed to protect privacy.)

There are 30 minutes to go before it is time to leave the hotel room and the child is lounging watching TV, not ready nor making any moves to go.  

  1. Get in touch with one quality you love in this child. 
  2. You might decide to sit down next to him, put your hand gently on his, hold onto what you see as lovable, smile at him and wait until he turns to look at you. 
  3. Once he gives you his eyes, speak kindly that the time has come to clean up and get dressed, and the TV needs to turn off. “Should I turn it off or do you want to?” Say it once and then act, with a neutral attitude (no shame or judgment!). If he starts complaining, you might say, “Looks like I’m the one to turn it off,” as you pick up the remote and turn it off. You could notice, “You were really laughing at that show – it sounded like a fun one.” 
  4. Then, give a choice: maybe something as simple as “Do you want to have the room quiet as we get ready or should we play some music?”  

Another Option: “Previewing” is your friend! It is powerful for a child to know what to anticipate. Talk through all of the elements of the upcoming activity. There are so many fun parts of a vacation activity to consider. You might wonder together what kind of vibe the next activity will have – is it adventurous, thoughtful, educational? Is there food involved? You could plan together what you might eat (which is also a great way of laying out meal options before the moment comes). What might the expectations be of us in this next activity? How will we manage if something goes wrong or we’re unsure? 

Leading with Love: A Continual Practice

Always, let the message of love lead. Even when we mess up, we are still loved and lovable. This is encouragement: letting a child know that they are not defined by their mistakes (and we adults aren’t either).

More on Previewing

Kids of all ages appreciate knowing what to expect. As adults, we can sometimes forget what an advantage all of our life experience is for us when we are approaching occasions both large and small. We can know what to expect, how to act, what’s socially appropriate for the moment, while often a child might not.

From graduations to backyard barbecues – a little previewing can go a really long way. Children appreciate knowing what choices they have (and where they might not have choice). They’ll begin to understand the needs of the situation and expectations of the moment, and can have agency in identifying creative ways to meet the needs. Together, come to agreements about appropriate behavior ahead of time, rather than hope they are implicitly understood.

Getting Some A.I.R.

Here’s an exercise for previewing called Getting Some A.I.R. *

Choose a question from the list below to start, giving everyone in the family a chance to share their thoughts – kids first! You don’t have to answer every question, just taking a moment to think can help your family prepare for the activity to come. 

A: Anticipate

  • What do you think the event will be like?
  • What do we know, what do we not know about what to expect?

I: Involve

  • How can we each be helpful and contribute to making it a positive experience for everyone? 
  • If we anticipate something might go wrong, what’s our plan?

R: Responsibility

  • What expectations should we set as a family?
  • Are there responsibilities each family member has? If so, what are they?

* This exercise was adapted from the book “Parenting with Wisdom and UNcommon Sense” by Jessup and Luce Baldwin. Available through most booksellers.

Sources:

  • Four Essential Needs: Alfred Adler identified the four core needs: to belong, to improve, to feel significant, and encouragement.
  • Crucial Cs: Amy Lew and Betty Lou Bettner translated Adler’s core needs into the Crucial Cs: Connect, Capable, Count, Courage.
  • Unwanted behavior typically shows up when someone perceives they are missing one of the core needs. Rudolf Dreikurs identified the four Goals of Misbehavior.