Ask Dr. Bronwyn
Ask Dr. Bronwyn: Why Kids Misbehave
Our resident child psychologist, Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup, breaks down challenging behaviors from the inside out so we can address kids' emotional needs and move beyond ineffective parenting patterns.
- Written By
- Bronwyn Charlton
- Loris Lora
Your child is trying to see how dizzy they can get in the other room, despite repeated requests for them to stop. You think, "Why can't they ever just do what they're told?" and start to feel even angrier, so you yell that they need to "calm down before they knock something over!" Instead, they ignore you and keep spinning, and you start to wonder if maybe your parents are right about them "needing more discipline."
We've all had moments where something makes us flip out and fall back on our automatic parenting go-to's that make us say and do things we regret, despite our best intentions to stay calm. Of course, no one likes to admit going so low with their parenting, but at the same time, lots of parents, even afterward, don't see how they had any other options. Philosophically, they like the idea of parenting with more intention, but find it hard to muster at the moment when their kids' behaving at their worst, or silence the voice in their head, that feels like kids these days "think the world revolves around them."
None of us want to raise a spoiled child. And so, it's no wonder that when our child throws a or is rude to their babysitter, we start to worry about the human they're becoming. With any behavior, we see the problem as the way our child's acting, but really, what makes the situation feel so dire and urgent, is what their actions are making us feel. Embarrassed that our child could be so ill-mannered or ashamed for letting things get to this point, automatic and unconscious thoughts and feelings release a flood of hormones in our brain and flip it into a reactive state. Now, we only see things through a negative, glass-half-empty, worst-case scenario lens. Instead of being in the moment and parenting with intention, as we'd planned, we're worrying about crazy possibilities and believing the negative assumptions in our heads. Feeling like we've got to make the behavior stop, we yell, make threats, bribe and shame.
These "What kids need is more discipline" beliefs came out of Behaviorism and Pavlov's dogs in the 1960s, which led the world to believe that the way to get kids to behave was with external forces like time-outs and punishments or stickers and reward charts.
Building Your Child's Brain
Neuroscience though, is bringing about a real paradigm shift in parenting. Contrary to past generations, which believed the majority of a baby’s brain was done developing at birth, thanks to cutting-edge brain scanning technology we know now that not only are brains malleable and changeable throughout our life (aka Neuroplasticity), but that during the first few years of a child's life, their brain goes through an incredible growth spurt, producing more than a million neural connections every second and that these connections, which will inform future social and emotional health, are experience-dependent. What this means is that on top of their gene structure and inborn temperament, who our children become as adults, and whether they thrive in the future is influenced by relationships, particularly during the early years of their life and then again in adolescence. Children's brains grow at unparalleled rates during these developmental periods, as their experiences "fire off" neurons in their brain, which “wire together,” as they "fire together." So, what this means is that the way we speak, listen, cuddle, play, take care of, and respond to our child when they misbehave, act impulsively, or freak out and lose it, matters a lot.
Everyday moments offer opportunities to influence the wiring of our child's brain by intentionally providing the kind of experiences that will change its physical architecture and lay the foundation for improved learning and behavior as well as physical and mental health throughout life. Basically, as parents, we have the chance to build our child's resilient, growth-mindset, well-integrated brain.
First, though, it’s helpful to understand a little bit about how our child's brain changes in response to our parenting, for better or for worse.
The epic journey of the brain's development to full brain maturity occurs via a gradual and ongoing process called integration, which begins at birth and stretches until our mid-twenties. Integration means that while the various parts of our brain have distinct jobs, they also link together to make a well-functioning whole. Every experience we have causes neurons to fire together and grow new connections between them, which eventually become the wiring of our brain, after repeated experiences cause them to connect over and over again.
Their Upstairs & Downstairs Brains
The famous neuroscientist, Dr. Dan Siegel, suggests we picture the brain like a two-story house, with an upstairs and downstairs. The downstairs includes lower regions of the brain responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking) and impulses and emotions (like anger and fear). The upstairs is responsible for more intricate mental processes and many of the characteristics we hope our children will grow up having, like sound decision-making skills, self-awareness, resilience, grit, empathy, and a moral compass. When a child's “upstairs brain” functions well, they're more likely to think before they act, regulate their emotions, and consider other peoples' feelings and perspectives — all essential aspects of healthy human functioning.
In the “downstairs brain” lives the Amygdala, whose job it is to constantly be on the lookout for threats, in order to be able to quickly process emotions and “hijack” our upstairs brain (if necessary) to increase our chances of survival. When this happens, we lose access to our "upstairs brain,” and we act without thinking; hence the phrase, “Run, no time to think!” Helpful, when we've got to make a split-second life-or-death decision, but generally not wise in most situations. Unfortunately though, much like a fire alarm, which can't distinguish between smoke from a fire and smoke from the toaster, sometimes our Amygdala sends off a stress response and flips our brain into a reactive state and our body into "fight or flight” mode when it's not actually a life-or-death situation.
It's a healthy evolutionary reaction but an especially sensitive one in all young children, and some even more so, depending on their temperament, since while their "downstairs brain" with strong emotions is fully developed and functioning, their "upstairs brain” is under construction until their mid-twenties. Over time, they'll grow their ability to regulate big feelings, but the sensitivity of their alarm system in the meantime means lots of tantrums, meltdowns, impulsivity and out-of-control behavior without any regard for the consequences. It's the same reason why sometimes, despite our best intentions, it doesn't feel humanly possible to stay calm when all our buttons are being pushed, it's way past bedtime, and we want to be done for the night. It can happen to anyone.
How to Help Kids Regulate
When bad behavior happens, it usually means our child is having a hard time dealing with things around them or inside of them. They might be overtaxed-emotionally, hungry, tired, overstimulated, you name it, but before it’s a good idea to begin lecturing about why they can’t “bite the birthday boy for getting the first piece of cake,” we’ve got to help get their brain back from “dysregulated” to “integrated,” and in order to do so, we’ve got to “soothe” their Amygdala, by connecting, validating whatever it is their feeling and using our own “calm,” to co-regulate our child.
I know that's a hard ask. Sometimes showing our child compassion when they're behaving at their worst is the last thing we want to do. But, when they're acting out of control, illogical, aggressive, or insane, it almost always means that their brain's dysregulated and their Amygdala's taken over, and those are the situations when they need our calm and understanding the most. Until anyone’s brain is back from reactive to receptive, they can't learn, consider the consequences of their actions, reason, or rationalize.
Rather than seeing these frustrating moments as obstacles to be endured or annoyances to put an end to, they’re actually some of the biggest opportunities we have to strengthen the neural connections our child's lacking since they can't re-integrate their brains on their own yet. If we want to wire their brains in ways that will benefit them, we've got to help them grow the connections between the different parts of their brains, so they'll be healthy humans in the future.
Each time our child's brain is dysregulated, and we soothe the threat by being emotionally responsive and calm we invite their "upstairs brain" to become active again and create a connection between the dysregulated state and the part of their brain that brings them back to being integrated. Soothing fibers grow down from their prefrontal cortex so that eventually the connection will be strong enough that they’ll be able to self-regulate on their own. When this happens, it will become easier for them to manage their big emotions and balance their own brain. Eventually, they'll be able to make good decisions, care about other people, and consider the consequences of their actions even when we're not around. Every time we are emotionally responsive and attuned to our upset children, we build their brains' ability to self-regulate and self-soothe, leading them to have more independence and resilience.
Does this mean that we're letting them get away with bad behavior? Making them spoiled? Absolutely not. Responding and soothing our child's distress means they can count on us when they need emotional help. We're prioritizing connection with our child, even in the most challenging times, to help their reactive brain become receptive, so we can discipline with intention by helping them reflect, problem-solve, learn, or take responsibility for their choices. What makes a child feel a sense of entitlement is being led to believe that life should be easy for them–being protected from obstacles and rescued from distress that they don't get opportunities to practice and develop resilience or coping skills.
Aspiring to parent with intention and keep our cool is no easy task. And in particularly stressful moments, when low on resources and tapped-out on tolerance, it doesn't mean we'll never lose control. No doubt, there will be many of those limit-testing meltdown moments, where despite our good intentions, we flip into a similarly reactive state as our child, and instead of sharing calm, we'll hurl insults, throw out threats, and have a full-blown tantrum of our own. It happens to everyone.
It's actually a good thing that there's no such thing as a perfect parent because we'd be doing a disservice to our child if there was. Even pretending that perfect is possible puts a lot of pressure on them – and that's based on research! We've got to give ourselves some grace and use our less-than-stellar parenting moments as opportunities to model taking personal responsibility and "repair the rupture" we caused with our child. Honestly, it's the times we mess up or “rupture" the connection with our child that have the potential to be valuable if paired with a repair to reconnect. No relationship is conflict-free, so when we take responsibility, apologize, and make amends, we send the message that secure relationships can withstand life's inevitable trials and tribulations. Everyone makes mistakes, and repairing them can make a relationship even stronger.
Still, given that we have an incredible responsibility, as the first architects of our child's brain, let's address the things that can get in our way and what we can do instead.
When we set unrealistic expectations or rules given our child's actual ability, developmental stage, and temperament, we're bound to frequently feel frustrated, resentful, and annoyed since it's inevitable that they'll disappoint. Most misbehavior has to do with their big feelings, a drive for autonomy, weak self-regulation skills, and a highly sensitive stress response that shuts off the connection to their upstairs brain. So, it's critical to find out what's normal behavior to expect at each age and stage of development and then factor in our own child's temperament and unique needs so whatever happens, we'll expect it as par for the course and see it as an opportunity to grow their brain.
What our kids need most from us when they're at their worst is our comfort and calm, which can be a hard pill to swallow, but it gets easier when we reframe the behavior. Your six-year-old who keeps demanding (in a crazy way) that you sing their bedtime song again and again because "you're not doing it right!" isn't manipulating you to stay longer but trapped by their rigid, reactive brain. Or your five-year-old, who held a chair above their head, threatening to "kill you with it," probably isn't going to be a sociopath but is just out-of-their-mind and lost in the chaos of their reactive brain. If we don't want to miss these opportunities to grow their brains, we've got to reframe misbehavior as a signal that it's just not strong enough to balance itself and that they need our help. So, instead of laying down the law and escalating the threat in their brains, we soothe it by showing them compassion and bringing their brains back from rigid or chaotic to adaptable and balanced.
There's no reason for us to react with attempts for control that sacrifice our long-term goals. Doing so escalates the threat their brain is already feeling, and while we might scare them enough into doing what we want, their brain's closed for learning, so why would we want to hurt our connection for nothing?
Managing our own emotions in the most challenging moments begins with self-awareness of what behaviors are most likely to set us off. Our bodies respond when our children get upset. Sometimes we feel personally attacked (e.g., "My child's trying to manipulate me."), or triggered by our guilt ("e.g., "How could I let them act so disrespectful?"). Maybe their behavior brings up something from our childhood (e.g., "My parents never would have let me talk like that."), or we become embarrassed by what others must think (e.g., "They think my child's out of control.").
So, to have more patience and strength for controlling our own emotions, we have to do some due diligence and become more aware of the situations and behaviors that set us off.
We've got to focus on our response, so it's essential to know how to stay calm and be aware when we're not. Learn and practice ways to regulate your feelings and stay grounded, even in the most trying of moments. Use practiced mantras. Talk to yourself in your head about the fact that thanks to automatic feelings your child can't control, they're temporarily unreachable. Create a picture in your mind of your child as their most adorable self, and remember that the tiny human in front of you screaming about how much they hate you is that same cutie-pie who needs your help. But if all else fails, try to make it a rule that you'll do the least harm possible if you're feeling helpless, annoyed, frustrated, or emotional. Perhaps, don't do anything at all–there's no urgency to parenting.
Without one-size-fits-all control tactics to get kids to cooperate, it's a tall order to be able to hold the limit while we also try to stay regulated ourselves. Staying calm in the face of insanity can take a toll and becomes much harder to manage if we're tired and stressed. So, prioritize whatever you can do to take care of yourself since this kind of discipline takes a full tank of resources.
Discipline is about teaching – not about punishment – and finding ways to teach our child appropriate behavior is essential for healthy development. The first step of building our child's brain begins with sharing our adult-size capacity to self-regulate so that they can regulate themselves in time. This is parenting for the long term. We're developing their brains with wiring for growth-mindset, resilient circuitry that views challenges as opportunities to learn, not something to avoid or freak out over. And that conflict with someone you care about is a chance to repair, reconnect, and grow closer, instead of something to sweep under the rug or throw insults and attack.
Taking steps to keep ourselves calm in the most trying of situations is just the first step. In the following article of this series, I'll share eight things you can do when your child misbehaves.