By Carol Surya, author, psychologist, game developer and workshop facilitator. Her practical parenting book, ParentMagic – Raising Kids stems from experience gained over the last 20 years working with children and their parents worldwide. You will find her company, Raising Kids Positively on Jozikids and Kznkids
Ever wish you could be inside your child’s head for a moment to figure out what’s making them do what they do? Tired of getting the shrug of shoulders when you ask them why they did something? By understanding that children live in a world of feelings (without easily expressing feelings in words), and are showing us their feelings through their actions, our whole attitude starts to change. Just like crying babies usually need food, sleep or a nappy change, there is a reason for everything that our kids do – even though they don’t consciously know this, there are always underlying needs and feelings at play. The best way to figure them is to ask yourself what they may need and feel.
When kids can’t find positive, useful ways to have their needs met or feelings expressed, they’ll inevitably turn to more unhealthy ways. If you understand what your child is needing (and feeling) in that moment, instead of reacting, your change in perspective will have you talking about their needs and feelings. This works like magic!
Bullying is a good example. A bully always needs power. They’re usually feeling powerless, can’t express these feelings, and haven’t found healthy ways to feel powerful or in control. By giving him important tasks (e.g. by being the class leader) and helping him express his feelings in words, he soon starts to get his need for power met positively and the bullying falls away.
Better ways to respond
- ask yourself – what are they wanting/needing (attention, power, revenge or to show me that they can’t?). Knowing their underlying need helps you as a parent to help your kids get their needs met more healthily.
- put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself –how you would be feeling in this situation
- avoid asking why – it often makes kids defensive and they usually can’t explain their inner world in feelings.
- rather name their feeling for them (e.g. “you’re sad because you weren’t invited to the party”)
- remember to encourage all feelings – it’s what kids do with their feelings that’s most important (e.g. they can hate homework, yet it’s still important to get it done)
- teach them how to express their feelings in words instead of through their actions alone – e.g. “I can see you’re mad , but brothers aren’t for hurting – use your words and tell him what you’re feeling and wanting”
- take some deep breaths before responding – when you react instinctively or lash out, their behaviour usually doesn’t change, it often worsens.
- check what you are wanting them to learn – punishing them without acknowledging their needs or feelings usually only brings about short term changes
- for kids to become more responsible – we need to give them choices, explain the consequences and follow through with what we’ve said.
Lastly it’s important to remember that what children find stressful, and how they cope, differs from adults. When something troubling happens, a buildup of unexpressed feelings and needs will show as a definite change in behaviour, which your child can’t easily understand or change without help. Without encouragement and learning healthy ways to let out their feelings, children don’t easily speak out about what’s really going on for them. Many “misbehaviours” are common after a major change or challenge. These are like warning lights asking us for more help.