When you see or experience a child or teen acting out, what is often your first thought? For most, that first reactionary thought is not one of empathy nor is it thinking about the deeper meaning behind the behavior. You may tend to mentally scold or blame the child – a natural reaction that leads you to feeling frustrated, hurt, embarrassed, and exhausted. However, if you take a step back and search to understand why a child may be having a certain “undesirable” attitude or outburst, it can solve the problem in a faster, friendlier, and less stressful way.
Frequently, the function of any behavior is much deeper than what you see at the surface. Seeing a behavior as “attention seeking,” “manipulative,” “defiant,” and “avoidant” are shallow analyses that lead to using rewards and punishments to gain a child’s compliance. While this reward/punishment cycle can be successful in the short-term (certainly not always), they do little for long-term internal growth. It is not uncommon for these practices to actually make matters worse for both the adult and the youth. If we want to improve the behavior and solve the problem, we as adults need a necessary paradigm shift.
Research over the last two decades specifically in the study of neuroscience, human development, and traumatic life experiences has and is challenging the notion of “kids do well if they want to” but rather suggests “kids do well if they can.”
Similar to youth who have learning and skill deficits in the domains of reading, writing, and mathematics, youth struggling with behavioral challenges are thought to have learning disabilities in the areas of flexibility (trouble with transitions), frustration tolerance (getting angry about something seemingly small, and quickly), and problem solving. These skill deficits affect the child’s capacity to handle social, emotional, and behavioral challenges – and these challenging behaviors frequently have roots in childhood trauma.
Now, you might think this approach of digging deeper is overwhelming and too big to handle. But, as adults and caregivers, when we start from a position of curiosity – “What happened to you?” – and empathy, we have already done the hardest part of helping to solve the problem behavior. By checking your own reactions to your child’s behaviors, asking questions, listening, and looking past the surface behavior, you can find a solution that helps address what’s happening deeper, and hopefully create longer-term success for your child. Not to mention that almost all adults and caregivers who have adapted this paradigm shift of leading with curiosity and empathy report a dramatic decrease in their overall frustration and burnout and see an improved relationship with their youth.
Problem Solve Together
So, next time your child is struggling, take a second to question your reaction, ask them why they’re upset, show understanding, and try to problem solve together. Work through this process as much as you can – it will take some time and effort, but rest assured, it is effort in the direction of a calmer and more enjoyable experience between you and your child.
Resources such as Collaborative Problem Solving, Restorative Approaches and Practices, Attachment Regulation and Competency, and Motivational Interviewing all offer practical strategies and techniques to adults and caregivers in addressing challenging behaviors.
This blog article was contributed by Elizabeth Williams, MA, LMFT, Director of Clinical Services for Nexus Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 45 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org