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Understanding your child’s behavior

Four things to remember when your kid falls apart

“But I KNOW he can do this! He just did it all by himself yesterday! My child’s behavior is too much right now.” An exasperated parent exclaimed as she explained to me how difficult it had been to get out the door that morning for school.

Another parent recently lamented, “She CAN manage her anger; she is just choosing not to! It is so frustrating!”

Parenting young children and teens alike often feels like one step forward, two steps back, (or, depending upon the day, three steps sideways and then lie down). On one hand, this makes sense! Children and teens are not robots. They have the same bad days, inconsistencies, and maddening variability that we grown ups do. Add to this that their brains are under construction and, of course, the skills that allow kids to do things like manage transitions or handle anger are growing and changing.

However, while this may make sense on paper, in practice handling this kind of back and forth can be exasperating. It’s not surprising that we can at times start to fall into a trap that sounds like this, “I know they can do this so therefore my child’s behavior is a manipulative choice on their part…directed at me.” In other words, we start to take it personally.

A child's behavior causing him to collapse on the grass.

Once we frame challenging behaviors as choices our kids are making to purposely drive us bonkers, it is tempting to resort to some counterproductive responses that we later regret.

Shame: “I can’t believe you are acting this way. Pull it together!”
Punishment: “Do it now or else!”
Surrender: “I don’t know what to do with you so I’m not going to do anything.”

Brain science can help explain ups and downs in your child’s behavior

Understanding brain development doesn’t necessarily change a child’s behavior, but it can help us understand their developmental context. It changes our understanding which then can shape our response.

Here’s a lesson from brain science that has been helpful to me as a parent: “Just because our kids can do things some of the time, doesn’t mean they can do those things all of the time.”

Feel free to write that one down and put it on your fridge. Now let’s take a look at why this is true – especially for growing brains:

1. Even seemingly simple tasks actually require a lot of brain power

Well, let’s remember that even the seemingly simple task of getting out the door in the morning can be a fairly high demand executive function task that includes impulse control (I’d rather stay home and read or play video games), task sequencing (jacket first, backpack second), working memory, focus and attention, time management, creative problem solving (I forgot my gloves at school yesterday, what should I do?), and on and on.

It’s a wonder any of us get out the door at all!  This is why we “scaffold” this task with pictures or other supportive cues for young children and for children and teens for whom these kinds of tasks are especially challenging.

2. This is especially true when tasks are new

When a task is new (whether that is riding a bike, making new friends, gaining independence, navigating conflict, learning how to take turns, etc…), it takes more focus, attention, and brain drain. We can’t rely as much on habit when we are learning new things so it takes more of our brain power to complete the task.

The good news is that the growing brain is a learning brain. As kids and teens try new things, practice, mess up, take two or three steps back, and try again, their brains are exquisitely designed to learn from all this messy experimentation.

3. Brain power is a limited resource

Unfortunately for us humans, the part of our brain that helps us manage our feelings, find creative solutions to problems, and focus our attention is a limited resource. What this means is that these skills become more difficult to access and use when we feel drained (either at the end of the day or because we’ve been using them a lot!).

This helps explain why evenings are so often when challenging behaviors are in full effect. For your child or teen’s brain, getting home after school or childcare is the finish line. For many parents, this is the starting line for quality time with them! There is often a mismatch between our vision of the evening with our kids vs. what they are capable of at the end of a long day.

4. Brain power is easily impact by stress and overwhelm

When we experience stress, our entire brains shut down from “the top down.” In other words, the feelings part of our brain can hijack the thinking parts of our brain. This makes emotional regulation, problem solving, and focus difficult at best. For example, a teen who is actively stressed about being made fun of in the hallways at school again may have more difficulty managing their anger than they did the week before when they were feeling relatively calm.

So what?

This doesn’t mean that kids have no agency or that this is an excuse for poor behavior. Indeed, one of the ways that children and teens learn to take responsibility for their choices is through limits and consequences and structure. But understanding the brain can help us build much-needed empathy for our kids and teens as they grow grow grow in all its messy and inconsistent glory. While it’s easy to take a child’s behavior and meltdowns personally, it can be helpful to stop, take a breath, and remember that “Just because our kids can do things some of the time, doesn’t mean they can do those things all of the time.”

Instead of meeting your child’s behavior with shame, punishment, or surrender – growing brains really need us to think about:

Context:

    • Sleep.  Is your kid just plain worn out? It’s obvious when a toddler needs a nap because they are they more likely to get cranky or throw a tantrum. As kids get older, they may not fall to the ground kicking and screaming, but they will struggle with emotional regulation as they get fatigued.
    • Exercise. Does your kid need to get moving? In addition to producing all kinds of good chemicals to buoy our mood, exercise releases a chemical called BDNF which is like “Miracle Gro” for the prefrontal cortex.
    • Recovery. Does your kid have time for recovery? Turns out when our attention is always being pulled outward (by tasks, technology, etc…) it is exhausting to the brain. Mindfulness and other forms of inward reflection help us recharge.

Coaching:

Kids tend to do well when they can and many of the skills we take for granted require lots of practice for growing brains.  A few helpful tools for your coaching toolkit:

    • Take a step back and approach big feelings with the WOOP method
    • Consider coaching. Be your child or teen’s emotion coach
    • Be gentle with yourself. Parenting takes a lot of brain power and requires a growth mindset!